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The Speech the People Heard

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, January 31, 1995; Page A15

The Clinton White House is having fun with Washington's very favorite political cliche: that while the commentators "inside the Beltway" had little good to say about the president's State of the Union address, those outside the boundaries of that roadway – the "real people" -- liked the speech just fine.

It's certainly true that the reviews of the speech from the cognoscenti were so harsh that if Clinton were a play, he would have been shut down in 24 hours. But most of the polling – today's Post-ABC News Poll, for example – suggested that Clinton got a bump upward after he finished reciting those thousands upon thousands of words. However you cut it, the voters were a lot less rough on the president than the analysts were. In this disjunction between "Washington" and "the country" lie clues about how the next six months might unfold.

Most listeners out in the country appeared to have done their own editing and heard the decent 45-minute speech that was encased inside the flawed 82-minute version. Washington heard the whole thing, and the personal characteristic that mattered most as a result was the president's utter failure of personal discipline. Most other listeners seem to have heard a different personal message: Clinton's admission that he had made mistakes. Humility is a virtue voters would like more of from politicians and the federal government.

Washington listeners tended to dismiss as "Reaganesque" Clinton's argument that social problems would ultimately be solved not by government but by the work of citizens, families and communities. But even before the poll results were in, Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Democrat who is hardly a Clinton booster, predicted that the sermon part of the speech would go over far better in the country than in the capital. Kerrey's point was that the country senses a coarsening of the culture (as William Bennett puts it) and a fraying of the social bond. The country thinks that's important and was glad Clinton does, too.

Finally, Washington was attuned to all those places where Clinton failed to draw lines – for example, in not saying how much he wanted to raise the minimum wage – and seemed to be plagiarizing Republicans.

Listeners in their living rooms heard a general, implicit message that they apparently liked: Yes, the Republicans are right that government needs to be constrained, that some programs should be junked, others reshaped, still others devolved onto the states and cities. But Republicans are wrong if they think we can just wipe out huge chunks of government. Government is still needed to keep the air and water clean, help poor kids who ought not be blamed for their parents' mistakes, and assist retired people who now count on Medicare and Social Security.

Yes, the Republicans are right that there's a lot of legitimate discontent out there. But that discontent is not just with government. It's also with the uncertainties created by enormous economic changes. Government can't solve all the problems created by economic change, but it surely can do better than it does now at helping people make the transition.

There is nothing astonishing or innovative about these arguments. They represent a moderate, commonsensical view of government. But that is why they led so many in those living rooms to nod their heads – the country also has a moderate, commonsensical view of government. That didn't change last November. The elections did not transform America into a land of right-wing ideologues. Few voters cast their ballots with "radical devolution" on their minds. They've always hoped that Clinton would offer them some moderation and common sense – and they liked the speech to the extent that he seemed to be offering just that.

Does that mean that Clinton can write off his critics? He'd better not. For a lot of their criticism pointed to what remains Clinton's largest problem with the country. Reporting on the latest Los Angeles Times Poll, taken after the speech, the paper's David Lauter noted that voters who opposed Clinton did so for the most part not because of policy differences, but from "more general concerns – that Clinton breaks his promises, is too weak or lacks honesty."

The Washington commentariat reacted badly to Clinton's speech precisely because its members listened to it with these worries in mind. When Clinton slid by tough issues such as the balanced budget amendment, they saw evasion. When he aped Republican themes, they saw opportunism. When he couched his defense of government in less than direct language -- by not saying, "Look, a lot of what government does is good" – they saw spinelessness. When he wouldn't say exactly what his bottom line on welfare would be, they smelled capitulation.

Clinton is infuriated by this view, and points to his battles on the budget and gun control as evidence that he is neither spineless nor evasive nor a capitulating opportunist. What he needs to accept is that his careful parsing of his own past statements – that he never really promised a health plan in the first 100 days – and his shifts on matters as diverse as Bosnia, Lani Guinier and grazing fees have led seasoned listeners to doubt anything that he does not put into straightforward declarative sentences, and even then to wonder.

Clinton has an argument that many voters are clearly prepared to listen to. There is a reasonable chance that in the end they will like this argument better than the hard-edged conservatism coming out of so many in the new Congress. But the Washington crowd sent the president a useful warning: that he still has to prove he's willing to stand with this argument to the end, to fight for it and even lose with it. The country would like to believe that of him. When it does, the commentators will follow.

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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