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President Clinton's Centrist Clothing

Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut, known as a moderate congressman and often referred to as a "rising star" in the Republican Party, recently described President Clinton as a "moderate," too. That wasn't surprising.

Mr. Shays wasn't implying that his own GOP philosophy could be equated with what the Democratic president thinks politically and where he positions himself on issues.

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But Shays was providing an insight into why so many Republican rank-and-file voters, who simply can't go along with those on the far right of their party, are feeling quite comfortable with Mr. Clinton of late.

Clinton the "moderate" or Clinton the "centrist" - that's the president who has been emerging for some time now, particularly since the 1994 congressional election, when voters seemed to be telling him that both he and the Democratic Party were too liberal for their liking.

Since then, Clinton has been staking out more conservative positions. He implemented Republican-initiated welfare reform and, almost overnight, became an outspoken advocate of balancing the budget and cutting taxes - positions that the Republicans had long been pushing.

So the reporters at a recent Monitor breakfast probably weren't surprised at Shays's description of Clinton's emerging political philosophy. They've watched the president slip into centrist political clothing since 1994 and have concluded that this change has simply been dictated by political realities.

Clinton had to move to the middle, first, to win last November's election and, second, to get anything at all done with the Republicans who are in charge of Congress.

I agree that Clinton moved toward the center simply because he had to in order to survive. But I also have no doubts about Clinton's basic compassion. He has been poor himself, or nearly so, and he therefore can readily relate to those in need.

I don't think Clinton went kicking and screaming into his current centrist or moderate mode. At his base, he is a politician, the best I've seen since Franklin D. Roosevelt. I think he's better than Truman, Johnson, and even Reagan at coping with shifts in public thinking on the issues of the day.

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He demonstrated that fact when he was governor of Arkansas: After a loss, he came back to the voters with a far different philosophy and agenda. And he won and kept on winning in his new political attire.

So when the liberalism that he and particularly Hillary Rodham Clinton had been espousing didn't work, and when observers predicted he would end up as a one-term, "failed" president, Clinton again put on some new clothes - perhaps not eagerly but certainly without evidence of much pain.

AND a funny thing has happened. In making his transformation, Clinton also is transforming his party. Democratic candidates at every level now are adopting the Clinton "centrism." Perhaps it is only temporary, but I think the Democratic Party may have taken an irreversible turn to the right.

If this transformation holds, the Democrats have seriously undercut the Republicans. Vice President Al Gore, pushing this brand of centrism with some tinges of liberalism, will be most difficult to beat out for the presidential nomination and the White House.

Further, this may mark the end of the authentic liberals' ability to gain the presidency and the control of their party. Authentic liberal voters may be left with the option of voting less-than-enthusiastically for a Democratic centrist or not at all.

What kind of a Republican will be able to run most effectively against this new centrist Democrat? Certainly not a hard-line conservative. A GOP presidential candidate must be able to win back those moderate Republicans who are finding Clinton and his centrism very much to their liking.

Chris Shays is that kind of a Republican, whether or not he has presidential aspirations. That's why he is attracting a sizable group of journalists to hear what he has to say whenever he comes to breakfast.

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