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United States: Washington Journal--Creating A Vital Center

Washington, 15 November 1996 (RFE/RL) - A new phrase -- "the vital center" -- has appeared in Washington's political vocabulary since last week's national elections.

President Bill Clinton spoke about creating "a vital center" in his victory speech on the night of the November 5 election. And a couple of days later he conspicuously used the phrase again at his first post-election press conference.

Speaking about the new cabinet members he will appoint for his second four-year term, Clinton said he will be looking at a broad span of Americans "to try to get the best people to create that vital center."

He says the words describe the common ground he is trying to establish with the Republican party which in the 1996 elections again won control of both chambers of the U.S. Congress, reinforcing its election win of 1994.

Actually, Clinton has borrowed the phrase from American historian Arthur Schlesinger, who wrote a book called "The Vital Center" in the late 1940s.

Schlesinger invented the phrase to describe the position of liberal democracies between fascism on the right and communism on the left.

He says he doesn't mind Clinton's new application of his words but hopes they haven't been invoked to mean "middle-of-the-road," instead of what Schlesinger says should be "we have vital problems and we have to attack them together."

Americans have had divided government for most of the post-World War II period but it's usually been a Republican president sharing power with a Democratic congress.

What is new in Washington in the 1990s is having a Democratic president see his power constrained by a Republican congress at a time of a historical shift in the balance between America's three branches of government.

Analysts say that with the end of the Cold War, and the diminishing need for the federal government's central functions of defense and security, the power of the presidency is also diminishing, and shifting toward the legislature.

That makes it all the more imperative for Clinton to reach out to congressonal Republicans and thus be able to effectively govern.

Getting a new U.S. Secretary of State to replace Warren Christopher, who is retiring in January, will be one of the first hurdles Clinton must overcome and the congressional factor is expected to loom large in his decision.

Under America's constitution, the president's cabinet appointments, as well as other senior government posts, must be approved by the U.S. Senate.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, the long-serving, respected elder Republican statesman from North Carolina, has often irritated and bedevilled Democratic opponents by delaying approval of U.S. ambassadorial appointments to make a political point.

He has already let it be known that he won't hesitate to stall certain nominations, namely Strobe Talbott, currently U.S. Deputy Secretary of State.

Washington insiders say Talbott is expected to move on to better things in the new Administration. But his critics, including Helms, charge that he is too liberal.

Asked for his views on Christopher's replacement, Helms told reporters recently in his usual crusty manner: "Well, I suggest that the President not send the name of Strobe Talbott up for Secretary of State because it would take a long time to have sufficient hearings on that nomination."

Liberal in this case means that Talbott is not as tough as Helms has said he would like on Russia and that this alleged pro-Moscow bias is to the detriment of other countries in the region.

Or maybe it's simply that Talbott is a personal friend of Clinton, who early on in his presidency was denounced as a "liberal" by "conservative" Republicans.

These political labels often mean different things to different people. Sometimes they are used synonymously with "leftwing" and "rightwing."

Public opinion polls suggest that most Americans view either side of the political spectrum -- the left or the right -- negatively as extremism.

During the election campaign, many political candidates spent more time attacking their opponents as leftist or rightist extremists than explaining their positions on issues of public interest.

Analysts say the desirable place to be in American politics is squarely in the middle. And that's where it appears Clinton wants to be.