Clinton Gives GOP Tricky Election-Year Challenge

If Republicans fight popular President's State of the Union proposals, they risk pushing voters toward Al Gore.

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Lame duck be damned — President Clinton wants to canter, if not gallop, through his last year in office. His swan song State of the Union address Thursday outlined a wide-ranging laundry list of new initiatives, from a modest tax break to big spending initiatives in health care and education, and pressed his Republican opponents on gun control and on a patients' bill of rights. "This is an ambitious agenda for a lame-duck presidency," says TIME White House correspondent Jay Branegan. "But then his popularity is very high compared with, say, Ronald Reagan's at the end of his term. Most of these things, though, are simply extensions of programs Clinton has proposed for years, and it remains to be seen whether there's that much left to spend when the calculation of the budget surplus is less optimistic." While GOP leaders balked at the President's big spending plans, the party's overall response was cautious — where Clinton worked a traditional Republican theme on tax cuts, the GOP's designated respondents, Senators Susan Collins and Bill Frist, emphasized their party's activist commitment on the Democratic staples of education and health care.

"Clinton goes deep into enemy territory to claim such popular ideas as ending the marriage tax penalty," says Branegan, "and that leaves the Republicans with the choice of either kvetching that he stole their ideas and looking churlish, or broadly supporting him. You can also be sure that whatever big-spending programs he's proposed poll-tested well with voters." That leaves the GOP facing a challenge of picking their battles against his legislative spending agenda in a way that differentiates them from the Democrats while appealing to moderate voters. The biggest beneficiary of Clinton's glowing account of the administration's achievements is Vice President Gore, who received plenty of plaudits from a president with whom he had appeared estranged only months ago. "Rarely has a sitting president campaigned so openly and so vigorously for his vice president," says Branegan. "But Gore and Clinton share the same New Democrat agenda, and a Gore victory would vindicate Clinton's legacy." So the President's "personal mistake," as Gore so delicately put it earlier this week, is a lot less important to the vice president than claiming bragging rights for the unprecedented prosperity that has coincided with Bill Clinton's tenure.