Bubba's Boy?

If Bill dances with them that brung him, not them that gave him big money, we will have a real populist on our hands.

Austin, Texas--The media--those friends, those archvillains, those ceaseless twisters of truth--have already mischristened the embryonic Clinton administration. They're calling it "Camelot with a southern accent."

Wrong.

John F. Kennedy may have been Bill Clinton's first political hero. Still, the oddity of his being Catholic notwithstanding, Kennedy's world was one of private schools, summers in Europe, sailboats, formal dances in white tie and tails. By making the best grades in the history of Hot Springs High, Bill Clinton made it to Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale Law. But he chose to go back. Arkansas, the state Bill Clinton loves and that loves him back, is a place with just no pretension at all. Even for southerners, Arkansans are amazingly friendly and extend hospitality to all strangers with astonishing openness. You couldn't find a pretension in that state if you hunted from Jonesboro to El Dorado.

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True, Arkansas has its wiggy side. When I was there over Election Day, the radio preachers were involved in an arcane theological dispute over whether talking in tongues is really inspired by the Holy Ghost, and one local candidate has gotten himself in deep doo-doo by telling the Rotary Club that incest is a family matter (in its way, an unimpeachable observation).

Now just because a body has lived all his life among horny-handed sons of the soil (and a couple of refreshingly unaffected chicken magnates) is no reason to assume we have a populist on our hands.

But do you remember that crazy senior citizen during the New Hampshire primary who kept screaming at Clinton, "What about drugs?" When he finally went over to find out what her problem was (most pols avoid screamers), it turned out the poor thing literally could not afford both her medication and food. When she broke down crying, Clinton went down on his knees, took her in his arms, and kept saying, "I'm so sorry," while they both wept. Kennedy? Not in a million years.

The most unusual thing about Clinton as a pol is that he listens. Listens and remembers. If he does dance with them that brung him, not them that gave him big money, we will have a populist on our hands.

And what would a real populist president do? First, change the banking system in order to democratize capital. The trouble with capitalism as a system is that only those who have or can get capital can make it work for them, and that leaves out damn near all of us. We need a new banking system. We could use the government protections of banks - FDIC, etc. - for a new system of community-based, community- development banks. We know Clinton took a busman's holiday to spend time studying the South Shore Bank in Chicago to find out how it worked.

The Federal Reserve system obviously doesn't work anymore - they keep lowering the federal discount rate, and all that happens is that the banks are making a fortune and the old folks' CDs are getting chewed up. We need a real investment program in small businesses and co-ops and worker-owned plants, and that will have to include not just the capital, but also market development and training assistance, especially management training.

Even without doing a single new thing in banking, Clinton could help enormously if he'd just stop some of the old stuff that goes on. According to the Financial Democracy Campaign, the S&L bailout program continues to function as a bottomless welfare program for politically well-connected corporate and commercial interests. Some of the biggest purchasers of bargain-basement real estate from the Resolution Trust Corporation are members of the Republican "Team 100" and big Wall Street players.

On top of that, the Bush administration has been deferring what is by now a tidal wave of trouble in big banks - a thousand banks with combined assets of $500 billion are on the FDIC's "problem list." A decade's worth of risky leveraged buyouts, commercial real estate, home equity, and credit-card lending has left the taxpayers guaranteeing a system so shaky that when new bank regulations went into effect in December, a "December surprise" seemed almost certain. In a piece of incredible folly, the FDIC voted in September to reverse a modest increase in the premiums banks pay to the FDIC's Bank Insurance Fund.

Another useful exercise would be to go back and look at the tax loopholes the famous investigative team of Barlett and Steele found in the 1980 "tax reforms." just reverse every one of those special- interest, lobbyist-inspired exemptions, let all the corporations pay at the same rate, and right there you'll pick up enough revenue to start closing the deficit. Of course the Rs will scream, "New taxes, new taxes," but a loophole is a loophole, and those corporations that missed out before will be happy to lobby for a level playing field.

Clinton comes in with a promise to see to the economy before anything else, but the practical reality is that he needs to push through campaign finance reform first, just to free the political system from the special interests. Tim Wirth, whose title as of this writing is "Al Gore's best friend," understands that perfectly - that's why he quit the Senate.

Now what does all this policy wonk stuff have to do with what Bubba wants? Bubba thinks we can fix the special interests simply by putting in term limits. Look, Bubba may be wrong, but he's not dumb. All the president needs to do is lay out the bigger scheme for him; hell, Clinton can even borrow the charts and pointer from Perot.