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An Opportunity Missed

By David S. Broder
Thursday, January 26, 1995; Page A25


If self-discipline is the requisite of leadership – and it is -- then President Clinton's State of the Union address dramatized his failure. It was a speech about everything, and therefore about nothing. It was a huge missed opportunity – and one he will regret.

Coming into Tuesday night, the president had three tasks: to acknowledge the 1994 election results and offer a credible pledge of bipartisan cooperation with the new Republican Congress; to define, for the doubt-wracked Democrats, the ground he would defend against Republican assault; and to reassert his own command of the office he holds and give a direction to the last half of his term.

He did the first passably well; the second, badly; and the third, not at all. It was the third challenge – communicating the sense of focused, disciplined leadership – that was most important of all. And he blew it.

Admittedly, that was a tough setting the president faced, with Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) looking over his shoulder and several would-be 1996 opponents measuring him for defeat from their seats in the chamber.

But the president got past the awkwardness in the opening moments and made a persuasive case for bipartisanship. He skirted an embarrassing acknowledgment of political repudiation and sensibly delineated what we all know: The eras of the New Deal and the Cold War are over, and new times demand new policies.

The language he used to describe those policies was Republican-flavored. But the promise to "cut yesterday's government to solve tomorrow's problems" is what people want to hear – and what is needed.

The second task, which was the subtext of the speech's long second section, was to assure Democratic constituencies that he would fight for their causes. This is vitally important. Clinton's main political goal for 1995 is not to defeat an unknown Republican opponent but to discourage any well-known Democratic primary opponent from undercutting him, as liberal challengers did to Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter.

Clinton might easily withstand – and perhaps even profit from – a challenge from Jesse Jackson or Jerry Brown. But he does not want Dick Gephardt or anyone else of that stature running in the Democratic primaries. If he can keep other Democrats from even getting that idea in their heads throughout 1995, then he will have all of 1996 to position himself against the Republican nominee.

Moving far enough left to discourage a primary challenge without losing the vital middle ground is tricky. The way to have done it, rhetorically, would have been to make clear the principles important to the Democratic Party – fairness and social justice, especially – for which he will fight.

But Clinton chose to talk programs, not principles, and so it became a lengthy catalogue of constituency-defined entitlements, the essence of old politics: Social Security and Medicare for seniors; Head Start, school lunches and infant-feeding programs for the young; pensions for veterans; cleanups for environmentalists; job-training for the unemployed; income protection for the deserving poor; tax cuts for middle-class families; government loans for college students; expanded health care for the uninsured; a higher minimum wage for workers; a continuation of the ban on assault weapons – and probably several other things my mind was too numbed to note.

The list was so long that you knew that no one other than the late Hubert Humphrey could have had his heart in all these fights. Vice President Gore led the ritual bob-up-and-down for each item on the Democratic interest groups' checklist, and the whole performance took on the aspect of kowtowing.

That left little time – and less plausibility – for the evening's most important work, communicating a sense of conviction and a clear agenda. By this stage, the message was a jumble. Nothing linked the Mexican loan guarantee mentioned at 10:20 p.m. with the challenge to Congress to end lobbyist gifts that he was talking about an hour earlier.

Before the speech, I had interviewed a couple dozen Democratic officials. What they wanted desperately from Clinton was what one former White House aide said in a three-word Yiddish phrase that translates: Be a man.

Instead, Clinton was again – at just the wrong moment – the loquacious, self-centered youth who somehow slipped into the Oval Office, all charm and "aw shucks" humility one moment, full of braggadocio the next, seeking approval rather than setting a course.

It reminded me of the description a lobbyist friend once gave of a prominent and notably long-winded liberal senator. You learned, the lobbyist said, that "the meeting began whenever the senator came through the door, and the subject was whatever was on his mind and the meeting ended when he ran out of breath."

It was disquieting to watch a president behave that way. And it is mind-boggling to see him squander a unique opportunity in such a self-indulgent fashion.

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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