[AllPolitics - Inaugural]

Will The Center Hold For Clinton?

By Stuart Rothenberg

WASHINGTON (Jan. 13) -- During the first two years of his presidency, Bill Clinton governed more or less like a liberal. He proposed allowing gays in the military, backed a "stimulus package" that was really an old-fashioned public works plan, introduced and lobbied for a budget that included a substantial tax hike, and tried to sell a health care reform package that required more government involvement.

In the following two years, the president moved dramatically to the center, a strategically important position left vacant when the Republicans moved right after their 1994 House and Senate victories. The new Bill Clinton proclaimed that the era of big government was dead, backed a balanced budget in seven years, signed welfare reform and talked glowingly about school uniforms. Suddenly, Dick Morris had more say in the president's positioning than Mrs. Clinton.

Now, as he begins his second term and no longer faces another presidential election, Bill Clinton must decide what he wants to be and how he hopes to remembered. The early indication is that he is happy occupying the political center and hopes to emphasize consensus and national unity rather than partisanship or ideology. Given the different results of 1994 and 1996, that seems like a pretty reasonable strategy.

Can the president retain his hold on the "vital center" -- which includes everything from moderate conservatives to pragmatists -- or will forces on his party's left pull him away from that position that has given him an approval rating approaching 60 percent?

The president has sketched out an agenda for the next year that is modest, far more modest than his first year. Tax credits for college, some changes in welfare reform and a balanced budget (more realistic because of good economic numbers) don't seem a lot, especially when compared with the GOP's "first 100 days" in 1995. But Clinton has learned that being too ambitious, and too liberal, carries great risks, and being successful in keeping the economy growing without inflation and rising interest rates is a formula for good poll numbers. Moreover, if the public is content, a modest agenda may be just what's called for.

So far, the president has been able to hold the center by adopting broad Republican themes advocating fiscal responsibility, individual responsibility and a smaller government. At the same time, however, he has maintained his hold over liberals and Democrats by emphasizing the importance of education, the environment and entitlements like Medicare and Social Security.

For Bill Clinton, smaller government doesn't equal no government, and government and the private sector can be allies, not just enemies.

What are the keys to the president being able to hold various -- and sometimes incompatible -- constituencies together? First, Clinton needs a continued strong economy. Nothing succeeds like success, and the president's success with the economy insulates him from criticism within his own party and from the GOP.

An economic downturn would be disastrous, and the vital center would likely melt away quickly, opening him to attack from both the left and the right. A recession would cause the deficit to balloon, and a spike in unemployment would undercut optimism and generally weaken the president's standing.

Without a strong, ideologically-committed core of supporters, and without an ideology to call on, the president would suffer quickly. Ronald Reagan held on to the "vital center" because they trusted him, they liked him, and they believed that he represented their values. But the "vital center" doesn't feel that way about Bill Clinton, and this president needs to prove his worth to them daily.

Second, the president needs dangerous enemies. Bill Clinton turned around his presidency in 1995 and 1996 by taking advantage of perceived Republican excesses, and he can hold Democratic support, as well as the "vital center," by portraying himself as a bulwark against Republican extremism and harshness. If the GOP Congress sounds less threatening, liberal Democrats will ask more of their president and moderates will consider returning to the GOP.

Third, the president needs to continue to offer something to everyone. He is particularly adept as using symbols, and he must employ enough to assure a variety of groups and interests that he understands their concerns and needs, whether he is speaking to black America, small business, the environmental community or homemakers.

Finally, he must avoid a major scandal. Continued Republican control of Congress guarantees committee hearings about Democratic party fund-raising and anything else that might involve the White House. And Paula Jones won't go away either. So far, most voters have decided ethics don't matter. But further revelations -- or other problems that could generally undercut public confidence in the president -- could re-ignite public interest in Bill Clinton's character and integrity.

It's important to realize that while the "vital center" doesn't live in one part of the country or one size of community, it may well be most important in the politically-marginal Midwest and border states. The "vital center," then, is both Mid-America and Middle America.

The president will never be embraced in the South -- he simply is not conservative enough and his party has lost its hold on his home region -- and he ought not play to his choir; Democratic loyalists in New York, Massachusetts and Oregon will back him simply because of his party.

If Bill Clinton can succeed in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky and Tennessee, it will show that he has remained at the country's political center. If his popularity falls in those areas, his national popularity will also sink, and that will happen only if he moves left, encounters further personal (ethics) problems, or fails to keep the economy in order.

The "vital center" resurrected Bill Clinton in the polls and at the ballot box. The only question is whether he will, sometime over the next four years, forget the lessons of 1993-94 and give that center back to the Republicans.

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