Facebook Twitter



In 1992, the first time Bill Clinton ran for president, Sierra Club activist Bill Arthur rallied 800 volunteers to deliver leaflets in Seattle urging environmentalist-minded voters to the polls.

Los Angeles gay activist David Mixner helped raise millions of dollars and energized thousands of homosexual voters to support the Democratic ticket.Steelworkers' Union organizer Sam Dawson proselytized blue-collar workers in Ohio, Illinois and Indiana, wooing them back to the Democratic fold.

But as the 1996 presidential campaign approaches, none of these activists shows much enthusiasm for going to work again to give Clinton another four years in the White House.

"There's a bitter taste in my mouth," Arthur said. "There have been too many broken promises . . . I can't, and won't, do what I did in 1992 again."

"There's a real lack of passion out there," said Mixner, who helped organize what was believed to be the biggest turnout of openly gay and lesbian voters in history. "We are vastly better off under Bill Clinton - but we are also vastly disappointed."

Presidents can seldom deliver everything their most zealous constituents want, but what represented routine fence-mending for other incumbents may be the difference between re-election and defeat for Clinton. He won the White House with only 43 percent of the vote and has labored ever since to define a "New Democrat" position melding old-line liberals and centrists into a solid majority.

The trouble is, a strong liberal-centrist coalition doesn't exist. Instead, the two wings of the Democratic Party remain at odds, quarreling over who was at fault for the party's disastrous showing in the congressional election of 1994. As a result, with every policy decision Clinton makes, he upsets someone he is counting on for help next year.

And as political consultant Stuart Rothenberg noted, to win in 1996, "Clinton needs everything he can get. He needs turnout, he needs money, he needs foot soldiers to go door to door. He needs both the base and the center . . . He needs to draw an inside straight."

As even the president's supporters concede, such a hand is not yet in sight.

Environmentalists, labor unions, gay activists, abortion-rights groups - all complain that Clinton has failed to deliver much of what they wanted. They are still likely to favor the president over any GOP challenger, but they seem unlikely to turn out - as donors, volunteers or voters - in the numbers or with the enthusiasm that marked the 1992 campaign.

"This is not just about voting; it's about organization and fund raising," said veteran liberal organizer Ann Lewis, who has tried to mediate between the White House and the Democratic Party's problem children. "This is about people who organize, build networks and eventually make a difference on Election Day. It's a real problem that has to be addressed."

White House officials acknowledge that they are worried about corrosion in the traditional Democratic base. "They're going to support the president; the question is, with how much enthusiasm?" a senior Clinton aide said. "We used to be pretty good at working with our constituency groups. We've lost some of that."

In his attempt to bring liberals and centrists together in a New Democratic coalition, Clinton has traced a zigzag course of late - first embracing the traditionally Republican goal of a balanced federal budget, then defending the traditionally Democratic program of affirmative action for racial minorities.

"He has to walk a tightrope, and nobody knows where the line is," Rothenberg said. "You're going to see the president targeting messages to groups in his base - affirmative action, liberal women, environmentalists - while his overall message is more centrist."

Some advisers have counseled the president to stick to the center and stop worrying about the special interest groups. "Where else have they got to go?" several activists quoted Clinton political guru James Carville as saying. ("I don't remember saying that, but I can't swear I never did," Carville said. "Most of these folks will be with us in 1996. The president has gone against them on some things, but he has been good for them on a lot of things.")

And on the fund-raising front, Clinton has little to fear. As an incumbent with no primary challengers in sight, he can raise the maximum amount for a general election campaign from a combination of small donors and big givers.

Democratic activists warn that disaffected liberals have several options on Election Day. For one, they can stay home and fail to vote. "Turnout is the big problem," Mixner predicted.

They can also cast protest votes if a strong independent candidate emerges from the left of the political spectrum. Or they can simply ignore the top of the ticket and concentrate their energy on a different liberal crusade: winning back a majority in the House.

The president's stalwarts say they are concerned about the grumbling in the party ranks - but still confident that it will end as soon as the GOP nominates a candidate who makes Clinton look more palatable.

"You know, liberals used to say the same things about F.D.R.," Lewis said. "This kind of dissatisfaction is almost inevitable when you have a president . . . who doesn't fit into traditional boxes."

She added: "This is how people feel in 1995, but how will they feel in 1996? Just wait until they have a Republican candidate to compare with Clinton. . . . Elections have the effect of concentrating the mind."