Like George Bush's fateful "read my lips" promising no new taxes, Bill Clinton's memorable gesture of taking his pen out of his pocket and waving it before the Congress - threatening to veto health legislation that fell short of his goals - must have seemed like a great idea at the time.
Abandonment of the tax pledge led television news editors and political spotmakers to replay the Bush clip time and again, driving home the point of his terminal fuzziness.Now Bill Clinton faces similar trial by film clip. TV producers are cueing up that moment of Clinton and his waving pen, in his irretrievable, inescapably visual promise to stand on principle.
Hold that thought in mind as we review alternative Clinton strategies between now and Election Day '94.
Infuriated by the Revolt of the Democratic Satraps against his crime bill, Clinton at first reacted with jejune jitters. He fulminated against Republicans for joining the gun-controlled dissenters within Democratic ranks to block the pork-laden legislation.
But after communing with reality, a chastened president came before a press corps drawn up in vast, cumbrous array to record his acquiescence.
Out went much of the social spending, in went some criminal-bashing provisions, and on the record went some kind Clinton words for the Republican minority in the House who would pass a much-improved, bipartisan bill.
We draw from that a Clinton willingness to compromise when defeat looms. Most of us expected his sensible crime-bill backdown. But what does that crime deal tell us about health legislation?
When the Hillary Plan sank like a gallstone, liberals floated out the Mitchell Temporary Fallback. Thus far back and no further, said the president. Sen. George Mitchell's ploy was to induce Republican John Chafee, plus a couple of GOP lame ducks and one or two softies and a spy, to submit a less liberal "mainstream" proposal.
Invited belatedly by the rump group to hear the Chafee fallback, Bob Dole responded caustically: "Before I make any decision, I've got to talk to the real Republicans."
When he did, some noted that aside from unacceptably adding $81 billion in taxes in 10 years, the Chafee fallback is not far from Dole-Packwood insurance reform, which forbids "pre-existing condition" cherry-picking and provides insurance subsidies to the poor and pension portability.
For Clinton to compromise on health, the soul of his agenda, would be the thunderclap that starts the avalanche of joint-session film clips.
Clinton's alternative: to denounce the Chafee fallback now, to stand on principle and to stump the nation.
Keep your most famous promise, Mr. President. Do something ostentatiously unslick. Listen to Hillary: refuse to be nibbled to death by minnows. Take it to the people.
I think the majority will reject your vision of centralized health care. But better to lose while daring greatly than to be remembered as the president who kept getting rolled.