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There’s A Price For Being Too Slick

The chickens are coming home to roost. Not on the Monica Lewinsky story but on something much more important: the credibility of the Clinton administration to conduct foreign and domestic policy.

The dramatic evidence of the doubts sown by five years of clever but evasive leadership came in the outright skepticism of many in the crowd at Ohio State University questioning President Clinton’s top national security officials about his policy in Iraq. A less-publicized but pointed and highly personal rebuke occurred in Congress just before its recent holiday break.

What happened to Secretary of State Albright, Secretary of Defense Cohen and national security adviser Berger when they faced students and townspeople in Columbus sent a dangerous signal of national disunity to the whole world.

Just 24 hours after Clinton belatedly had made his first serious effort to explain his Iraq policy to the American people, his top lieutenants ran into a buzz saw of skeptics who clearly had not been swayed by presidential rhetoric.

It was the culmination of too many years of Clinton’s acting as if public opinion and congressional support were unimportant in the conduct of foreign policy. He got no resolution from Congress backing his judgment when he sent troops to Haiti and Bosnia, no permission from Capitol Hill for his bailout of Mexico, no grant of trade negotiating authority that previous presidents had enjoyed and, just this month, no resolution of support on Iraq.

Now, on the brink of a showdown, he is scrambling to demonstrate to Saddam Hussein that the dissension in Columbus that Saddam undoubtedly saw on CNN does not mean the United States is divided and irresolute.

For weeks, Clinton aides have been brandishing his approval ratings as if they were an answer to every personal and policy doubt. Polls soar when times are good and a president is asking nothing of the people. But when a test comes, credibility turns out to be damned important.

It is always important in moving an agenda on Capitol Hill. In a little-noted action earlier this month, House Republicans showed how little credibility he has with them.

The issue was Clinton’s plan, announced with great fanfare last year, to introduce national standards and tests to measure every pupil’s progress. In last month’s State of the Union address, he told the public, “Thanks to the action of this Congress last year, we will soon have, for the first time, a voluntary national test based on national standards in fourth grade reading and eighth grade math.”

That statement, like many others Clinton has made, was thoroughly misleading without being literally false. Last year, the Senate endorsed the proposal with some modifications, but the House overwhelmingly said no. After lengthy negotiations, Clinton accepted a compromise that allowed work on the test to continue this year but barred any trial runs at least through next Sept. 30.

As the nonpartisan Congressional Quarterly reported last November, the deal “would essentially postpone White House plans to fully administer the tests in the spring of 1999” and require the administration to come back to Congress before it could do so later.

That did not keep Clinton from announcing unilaterally when he signed the compromise legislation in November that “the tests will be … piloted in schools next October,” a claim repeated on the Education Department Web site.

None of this sat well with Chairman Bill Goodling of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

As he told me the other day, “They still were acting like they were going full speed ahead when they do not have the legal authority to do so.” To make his point, the chairman on Feb. 5 got the House to pass a simple piece of legislation saying no funds may be spent on field testing or administering national exams without specific permission from Congress.

The measure is not likely to pass the Senate. But instead of the issue being considered quietly over the next few months, with the prospect of another compromise, Clinton’s exaggerations prompted Goodling and the Republicans to draw a line in the sand. “Until he made those statements,” Goodling said, “I had no idea this would be necessary.”

The White House response is to accuse the Republicans of partisanship - and, yes, to invoke the ever-popular “right-wing conspiracy.” Two senior presidential advisers told me - off the record, of course - that because Goodling has a conservative challenger in his upcoming primary, he is “trying to appease the right wing.”

Is it any wonder this president’s credibility is crumbling?