The Clinton Experiment

It was hard to tell who was more uneasy, the press or Bill Clinton. At a Washington breakfast last week, it took 30 minutes before a reporter finally asked The Question: as a potential presidential candidate, did he still defend his right to a "zone of privacy"? It was the kind of moment that could unhinge a candidacy, but the Arkansas governor was ready. "I thought you'd never ask," he grinned. Then, his voice dropping to almost a whisper, he confronted the rumors that had been dogging him about extramarital affairs. "Can't hear!" a reporter shouted from a side table. Seizing the moment to relieve the tension, Clinton joked, "This is the sort of thing they were interested in when Rome was in decline too." With his wife, Hillary, at his side, he went on to admit that their 16-year marriage "has not been perfect" but said that the couple intended to be together "for the next 30 or 40 years, whether I run for president or not ... And I think that ought to be enough." Clinton's statement put to rest, at least for now, further questions about his private life. And his quick wit and obvious zest for political combat disarmed his inquisitors-reminding them of what a formidable candidate he could be.

Clinton's expected entry into the race next week gives Democrats a chance to break the liberal lock on the party. His charisma and moderate positions make him the man some Democrats have dreamed of since the Dukakis debacle. Clinton, 45, entered politics as an antiwar McGovernite and can point to a progressive record in his five terms as governor. Until last summer, he chaired the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. It's far from clear, however, if the eclectic Clinton can survive a primary process dominated by liberal activists.

Clinton's moderate image stems from his willingness to put limits on government and to link rights with responsibilities. Traditional liberals accused him of masquerading as a Republican when he declared at a DLC convention last spring, "Governments don't raise children; people do." Yet he believes in an activist government. He is credited with significantly lowering Arkansas's dropout rate by requiring kids to stay in school to get a driver's license. And to boost parental responsibility, the social-security numbers of unwed fathers are included on birth certificates.

As a candidate, Clinton's strengths are in his contradictions. He was educated at Yale and Oxford, but his humble background has Washington image makers swooning. His father died before he was born. His grandfather, who owned a general store in Hope, Ark., helped raise him. The family even had an outhouse, the latest status symbol in bootstrap politics. He plays a mean jazz saxophone and turned down a music scholarship to get a degree in international relations from Georgetown University. A fellow student recalls how Clinton would skip lunch to save money. Now he has some big-money Hollywood connections, including liberal activist Norman Lear, who has raised money for him before, and TV producers Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason.

Clinton's record will give opponents something to pick on, There is no Arkansas miracle. The state ranks 50th in teacher salaries and 48th in environmental quality. Clinton will be hard put to attack Bush's environmental record when his own state's Pollution Control and Ecology Commission is stacked with representatives of the chemical, poultry, paper and metals industries. Clinton can't count on organized labor in the primaries; some teachers haven't forgiven him for pushing through legislation requiring competency testing. Clinton says it's been tough "on the other side of the Reagan experiment," with federal revenues shrinking and state responsibilities expanding. Yet by most measures, Clinton has been a good governor. Robert Savage, a political-science professor at the University of Arkansas, rates him "a 7 maybe an 8" on a scale of 1 to 10.

Clinton's formative experience in politics came in '80, when he was swept out of office after one term. His chief sins: an arrogant attitude combined with an increase in the fee for car tags. "I made a young man's mistake," he declared in a televised apology. Clinton won reelection two years later even though his opponent appeared on television with a leopard to remind voters that Clinton wouldn't change his spots. And indeed, he has championed a number of tax increases, defending them as acts of necessity. Clinton has traded in much of that early brashness for the politician's disease: a desire to please everyone. Home-state cartoonists routinely picture Clinton with a puffy, clownlike nose, the result of persistent and debilitating allergies to everything from refined sugar to the yeast in beer. When he's having an attack, his voice goes raspy or disappears, and he looks like somebody who's been on a two-week bender. In reality he's a health-conscious jogger.

No Democrat can match President Bush on foreign policy. But Clinton is plowing through briefing papers on the Soviet Union from Washington think tanks. He supported Bush's use of force against Iraq but says, "I'm not running to rehash the gulf war, but talk about the future." He defines national security in broader terms than defense, preferring to talk about American competitiveness and post-coldwar challenges. He has warned Democrats against "an orgy of Bush bashing," declaring, "Our first responsibility is to define a new agenda. People don't know what we would do if we got the ball."

Clinton is young enough to treat the '92 race like the Olympic trials. A top adviser concedes that a five-year plan is "a reasonable scenario." If Clinton can neutralize the commander-in-chief question and offer practical solutions for domestic ills, he might not beat Bush or even win the nomination. But he could help usher in a new era of Democratic politics, one that finally closes the chapter on the New Deal and the Great Society. Or his candidacy could be like so many other five-year plans-a failed experiment.