Lip-Syncing The Presidency

In Washington last week, Bill Clinton was said to be doing "better." The New York Times reported that White House aides were "elated" over the "unity in Strategy and purpose" of an administration where cacophony has passed for sanity, and chaos the norm. The president's poll numbers were up. There were foreign-policy successes to crow about. The Republicans in Congress were unsteady, anxious and defensive. The Republicans in New Hampshire were a snooze. And love was in the air: the First Lady had suggested--in her newspaper column-- a "romantic" 20th-anniversary surprise for the big guy. Dot, dot, dot.

There was cause to celebrate, but maybe not so much as the president might like. His polls weren't really up. They were, in fact, just creeping back to where he was last spring, after Oklahoma City--a mushy 47 percent approval rating, or thereabouts. Clinton merely seemed stronger because all his rivals were weaker, especially Bob Dole. His strength, moreover, was to a curious kind--an inertial strength, the power of politics as usual. The "elated" White House aides were fight: the president had finally located a comfortable and coherent strategy for governing, a strategy with a long tradition and supreme credibility in the nation's capital. You might call it creative cynicism.

The sloppy, hyperactive wonkiness that defined Clinton's first two years in office has been supplanted by a sleek, tactical cunning. He has traded activism for passivism. He gives the appearance of taking stands--for some sort of tax cut, some sort of welfare reform, some sort of balanced budget--but these are ploys, mirages; they exist only to undermine positions taken by Republicans. He doesn't fight for anything substantive--except, of course, re-election. He may have been led down this path by his famously predatory new handler, Dick Morris. More likely, he stumbled upon it himself in a post-election fit of pique: Gingrich wants to change things? Fine. Let him see how much fun it is to challenge the status quo.

The president has played his hand elegantly. He has been supple in his cynicism. He began the year with the assumption that Newt would never have the guts to actually balance the budget- and so he mailed in a fabulously flabby proposal, $200 billion deficits past the millennium, thereby transferring the burden of heavy lifting to the Republicans. But, surprise: they did the lifting. By spring, it was clear that Gingrich and Company were actually going to give budget-balancing a whirl--and so the president recalibrated his position. He said he wanted to balance the budget, too. But more reasonably; in 10 years, not seven.

Two roads diverged in the woods at that point: the president might actually have attempted to do what he proposed. He could have engaged the Republicans. He could have offered substantive plans for curtailing entitlements, slashing corporate welfare and the rest; more responsible plans than the hardhearted Republicans were likely to devise. Or he could hang back, take potshots, enjoy himself as farmers, senior citizens and other nonimpoverished welfare recipients frothed at the mouth and GOP knees grew gelatinous. He chose the latter.

He has undercut any serious criticism he might have of the (deeply flawed) Republican budget by joining the witless congressional Democrats in opposition to all meaningful reform. He has done this with a certain bipartisan elan, combining reflexive Democratic freak-the-geezers rhetoric with classic GOP-style tax demagoguery. Last week, for example, he called the mod-est--and eminently responsible-- GOP effort to control Medicare costs by increasing co-payments a "back door" tax increase. In the end, of course, the president will probably sign a modified version of that increase. But no matter: "Medicare is really a values debate," George Stephanopoulos offered. "It says volumes about who we are, who we're fighting for. . ." Indeed.

Plausible arguments can be made for the course Clinton has taken. One is that Republicans have always done the exact same thing (they opposed Clinton's effort to increase taxes on wealthy social-security recipients; they scream "tax increase" every time Democrats try to close a corporate loophole). Another is, there isn't much percentage in acting responsibly. "When the president was out there last year, trying to lead on health care, he got rammed for it," said an aide, who adds the clincher: "You can say what he's doing now is cynical, but it's been pretty effective."

Has it? In the short term, yes. There is no question the Republicans are getting hurt. But is Bill Clinton being helped? I wonder. He is posturing, rather than truly speaking his mind, at a moment when the public seems hypersensitive to posturing. He has fallen into the dangerous habit of lip-syncing the presidency: he gives the appearance of leadership, but not the substance. He sends emissaries off to negotiate a Bosnian peace, but lacks the daring to close the deal himself-- Camp David is, pointedly, out for the next phase of negotiations. He refuses to confront the nation's racial chasm, choosing instead to offer disingenuous and misleading platitudes about affirmative action (though he was considering a post-O.J., post-Farrakhan "things we have in common" palliative). He will sign just about anything that is called "welfare reform," even flit is heartless and useless (as both the Democrat and Republican proposals have been). He "supports" a balanced budget but won't actually propose one.

The public may not follow all the details, but it senses the body language. It may even sense that Bill Clinton's greatest assets--his enthusiasm, his informed altruism, his essential seriousness of purpose--are waning. He has reached a classic midlife fulcrum, the point where ambition yields to self-preservation. He is more disciplined now, but less compelling. He has traded passions for tactics; he succeeds, but retreats.