Which Clinton will emerge Centrist or liberal

WASHINGTON — Many Jews — especially the 80 percent who voted this week to return Bill Clinton to the White House — are wondering just how he will govern.

Will he return as the centrist Clinton who signed welfare reform that ended the federal guarantee of benefits for poor Americans or will he come back as the liberal Clinton who fought to a near-political death for health-care reform?

No matter which Clinton emerges, he and the Republican Congress will have to deal with issues that strike the very core of American Jewish life.

The White House and Congress have promised to save Medicare and Medicaid from going broke; Jewish social service agencies depend heavily on those entitlement funds, taking in more than $2 billion last year alone.

Clinton and GOP leaders have pledged to enact campaign finance reform; Jews gave more than $25 million to fund this year's election, sparking concerns of diminished influence under a changed system.

The president and Democratic leaders have vowed to revisit welfare reform. Jewish charities fear that the recently enacted welfare legislation will force them to step in to fill the void for the needy who have been kicked off the rolls.

How will Clinton approach these issues? Most Jewish political pundits think the centrist Clinton is here to stay.

"He is going to have to govern from the center," said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. "He, like all other presidents, is going to want to make history. That means governing to get things done."

The larger questions loom over the direction of Congress, where on some issues, such as welfare and immigration reform, the Jewish community appears ready to cooperate.

On other issues, however, such as school prayer, a balanced budget amendment and the foreign aid program, Jews are preparing to dig in their heels.

Clinton moved to the political center after the 1994 Democratic election debacle that gave the Republicans control of Congress, a position they cemented in Tuesday's election.

But in so doing, the president drew the wrath of many of his loudest supporters in the Jewish community and faced off against many Jewish activists who remain bitter that he signed welfare reform legislation.

"The compromises that he's made on the economic and social justice issues are going to result in real hardships and an increased burden on the Jewish community to fill the tears in the safety net," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

However, evidence of Jewish community anger toward Clinton's move to the right was not apparent in early exit polls.

Television networks that share nationwide exit polling from the Voter News Service reported that Clinton received 80 percent of the Jewish vote. His Republican opponent, Bob Dole, received 16 percent and Ross Perot received about 3 percent.

The American Jewish Congress, which conducted its own exit polls, found that 83 percent of the Jewish vote went to Clinton, compared with 13 percent for Dole and 2 percent each to Perot and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.

The level of support for Clinton roughly matches his showing in the 1992 election, reaffirming a long-standing pattern that American Jews vote overwhelmingly — and disproportionately — Democratic.

When voters swept Republican majorities into the House and Senate two years ago, the political upheaval turned Jewish Washington on its head.

Jewish groups, which tend to have a more liberal bent, largely went from proposing initiatives to playing defense against legislation they opposed, such as welfare and immigration reform.

This time, little will change when Congress opens its doors in January and Clinton takes the oath of office for the second time.

But many of the activists who have failed to stop legislation they opposed say they have learned their lessons and are ready to work with former foes in shaping legislation they once sought to scuttle.

"After 1994 we fought to try to take items off the table," said Diana Aviv, director of the Washington Action Office of the Council of Jewish Federations, citing immigration reform and aspects of the welfare overhaul.

"We know there is an interest in bipartisan and not revolutionary change. We'll be a part of that," she said.

"If the president sticks to his commitment to balance the budget by 2003, he has got to touch entitlement programs. Medicare and Medicaid are on the table," Aviv said.

"This is a battle we'll have to face when we come to it."

Most Jewish groups oppose a balanced -budget amendment, believing that it would lead to immediate cuts in programs that serve the poor and disadvantaged.

"A balanced budget amendment would complicate the president's promise to revisit the portions of the welfare bill that deal with legal immigrants," said Aviv, referring to the provisions that cut legal immigrants from the welfare rolls after a certain period.

"It's going to be hard enough to get the new Congress to give the savings back," she said, citing the billions a balanced-budget plan could cut from spending.

Republicans, meanwhile, predict the Jewish community will have a tough time advocating its positions.

"Republicans emerged with strong vindication and validation for the core foundations of the Republican agenda," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican group.

"What I have concluded about our ability as a community to advance our causes is hampered by the perception that the Jewish community is against the Republican Congress," he said.

Meanwhile, some activists argue that campaign finance reform is the biggest threat.

"The campaign process has given the Jewish community the access to make a case that we otherwise would not have the chance to present," said Chuck Brooks, executive director of the National PAC, the largest of dozens of pro-Israel political action committees that make political contributions.

"Reform being considered that would eliminate PACs and out-of-state contributions to candidates would have a terrible effect on our community."

Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby which does not give political contributions, believes, however, that it has established a solid relationship with most of Congress. As part of its outreach, AIPAC officials have met with more than 600 candidates for federal office this year, including the entire freshman class of the 105th Congress.

As a result, Israel remains on solid footing — both because of a solidly pro-Israel president and Congress, Kohr said.

Jewish activists also are increasingly concerned about a GOP push for school prayer.

Said Saperstein: "The religious right clearly had an impact on the makeup of Congress. This is where the battle will be fought."

But while Jews prepare for some political battles, they say their buzzwords this election week are compromise and bipartisanship.