With a couple of swift strokes this week, President Clinton has laid to rest any doubts about his continued ability to dominate the political debate in Washington.
Clinton's announcement Monday of his plans to devote an ever-expanding surplus to Social Security and the one yesterday on his plans for overhauling Medicare made plain his desire to finish his presidency with a grand flourish.
And the cautious but mildly encouraging reactions from Republicans yesterday made equally plain their fear of this president's ability -- even after impeachment, even as public attention turns to the campaign to succeed him -- to frame issues on terms favorable to him.
But the critical question, raised but hardly answered as Washington suddenly awakened from a season of domestic dormancy, is whether Clinton can use his talent for political positioning to actually implement policy. His checkered record, especially over the last two years, in pushing major legislative initiatives to passage does not bode particularly well.
White House officials, in not-for-attribution conversations in recent days, acknowledged the political hurdles but envisioned a strategy in which GOP lawmakers will conclude several months from now that they are best served by finding a way to shake hands with a president they disdain.
Under this scenario, the critical movement toward passing Medicare reform will come in the fall, during the chaotic days as Congress rushes to complete passing the 13 annual appropriations bills that fund the government. Confronted with the prospect of facing voters in 2000 with few achievements in hand, so the logic goes, they would be ready for a deal -- giving Clinton the spending he wants, most likely in exchange for concessions on the tax cuts demanded by the GOP.
Something like what some have called a "chaos theory" of legislating occurred last year, as Republicans gave Democrats much of the increased education spending they sought during an October appropriations showdown.
Clinton, in his comments in recent days, has not been so unvarnished in his analysis of how he hopes to pass legislation -- but he has insisted repeatedly that passing legislation is his genuine goal. He draped his proposals to secure the future of the nation's two largest entitlement programs, Medicare and Social Security, in the language of centrism. He said he wants to work cooperatively with Republicans. And he said he disagrees with lawmakers in his own party who think they are better off politically with confrontation rather than compromise.
At least one critical Republican, House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.), said there was reason to be impressed. He noted Clinton had moved toward GOP ideas in creating a "lockbox" under which no money raised by Social Security taxes would be spent for any other purpose. And he said he was encouraged by Clinton's comments signaling flexibility, albeit without specifics, on GOP tax-cut proposals. "I think we have got a lot of reasons to be optimistic about a good legislative session," said Armey, traditionally one of Clinton's sharpest critics in the GOP caucus.
Many other lawmakers in both parties, as well as independent political analysts, said there are two big questions about Clinton's pledge to work for bipartisan agreements. One is whether he means it; the other is whether he has the influence to do anything about it even if he is sincere.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) yesterday voiced the Republicans' frustration and ambivalence over Clinton, noting, for example, that on Monday Clinton "came into town, threw some ideas up on the wall and then high-tailed it to a fund-raiser in New York."
"He's not working really in behalf of this stuff," Lott said. "He's just throwing a lot of politically attractive things up in the air and hoping that will generate something. What we need from him are deeds, not words, and the deeds have been noticeably lacking."
This view was echoed by Steven Schier, a Carleton College political scientist who has written extensively on the politics of entitlement reform. He said Clinton's proposals this week offer no sign that he is serious about wanting to compromise with Republicans. "This is a Democratic plan," he said of Clinton's Medicare proposal, which places little emphasis on curbing long-term costs even as it offers an expensive new prescription drug program that can be afforded only if sunny long-term economic forecasts come true. "He would like policy change entirely on his terms, and if he can't get it he'll get an election issue."
Even if Clinton can convince Republicans that he is ready to bargain in good faith, that is no guarantee of action. Clinton has had some major bipartisan legislative achievements during his presidency, including an overhaul of welfare in 1996 and a balanced-budget agreement in 1997. But the bipartisan model has not yielded significant triumphs in two years. Democrats deserted Clinton in 1997 on free trade legislation; likewise, the failure of Democrats to join him in supporting liability limits for tobacco companies sank an anti-smoking bill last year.
Over the years, in fact, Clinton has dabbled with an array of different legislative strategies. In 1993 and 1994, he avoided compromise with Republicans and relied on the Democrats' then-majority to try to get his proposals passed. In 1995 and 1996, after control of Congress switched, he employed the "triangulation" strategy that required separating himself from both parties in Congress.
In 1997, he moved to a closed-door strategy, dispatching senior aides such as then-Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles to Capitol Hill to quietly negotiate a budget agreement with the GOP leadership. And in 1998, partly as a matter of survival during the impeachment controversy, he moved back in line with Democrats.
This year, the strategy is to preach bipartisanship while pushing plans that will keep Democrats united. As a practical matter, administration officials said, there is no point in trying to negotiate with Republicans behind the scenes because the GOP leadership is weak and fractured. So Clinton, aides say, plans to use the public platform to essentially intimidate Republicans into working with him.
Even as Clinton aides acknowledge they cannot yet foresee the legislative endgame, they say he is in good position. "This is a program that ought to have broad appeal across both parties," said White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta. "With some good faith on the Hill we can get something done."
The unexpected money that keeps pouring into the Treasury will be an essential lubricant. The Congressional Budget Office will issue its revised estimates this week showing cumulative surpluses over the coming decade of $3 trillion, or about $400 billion more than it forecast in February. That is slightly more than the revised forecasts the administration released Monday.
One obstacle, many lawmakers acknowledge, will be the ill will that continues to color relations in Washington in the wake of impeachment. "There's little question that the well has been poisoned," said Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa). But Nussle says that "it works both ways" and that "I'm sure Clinton distrusts and feels bitterness towards the Republicans as much as Republicans feel towards him."
Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.), a prominent conservative, said that residual bitterness between Republicans and Clinton is unlikely to be a factor in any year-end negotiations. "It's a reality we're faced with," he said. "We impeached him, he didn't get convicted. So be it. That's yesterday's news. We've got major battles ahead on taxes, Medicare, prescription drugs. These are all going to be significant issues."
And, for now, Clinton has demonstrated anew his relevance. "I know people are sort of writing him off around here but it seemed to me it was premature and really not based on the facts," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). "He's going to be -- always was going to be -- a major player in these decisions."
CAPTION: President Clinton greets senators in the East Room audience after his announcement of proposals for Medicare.