MotherJones JA93: Thumbs Down

The punditocracy has all but declared Clinton a failure, a victim of his wife's liberal friends. As usual, the insider consensus is exactly wrong.

The pundits have made up their minds.

Liberal economics writer Bob Kuttner, taking stock of the first three months of Clinton's presidency, announced that "despite the down-home accent, the DLC baggage, and the anti-Washington rhetoric, he was a progressive fellow all along." Conservative Wall Street Journal writer Paul Gigot endorsed Kuttner's view, adding, "It's impossible to find a Democratic interest group that isn't thrilled with Bill." Of course, both neglected to posit any evidence. In Washington, a Kuttner/Gigot axis on anything is a line of conventional wisdom strong enough to reel in even the most unconventional reality.

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In fact, Clinton's progressive instincts seem to have vanished just seconds after he mounted the podium in Little Rock that magical November night and announced that, as our president, his first priorities would be the fight against AIDS, the struggle for the environment, and the conversion of our economy from a Cold War colossus to a lean, mean civilian machine. Since then, Clinton has radically scaled back the size of his public investment program, only to see his meager twelve billion dollar "stimulus" package defeated. He has retreated on environmental goals, waffled over his promise to integrate gays into the military, and adopted virtually the same heartless, ineffective strategy in combating drug abuse that so shamed the Bush administration. Even more insulting, with the Cold War a memory and Red army soldiers hawking their artillery shells for bread crumbs, the administration has asked for increased funding for the CIA and is contemplating the resumption of one-kiloton nuclear tests. If these measures are the mark of a "progressive" administration, then David Koresh was the Dalai Lama.

Nonetheless, the Clinton administration is on the verge of being written off in Washington as Carter II: a well-intentioned bunch of naive do-gooders without the discipline or the balls to impose a new agenda on a recalcitrant Congress and an immobile establishment. The word is that Bill has lost control of his agenda and handed the presidency over to his wife's liberal friends.

Specifically, the president is being called a sap for raising the issue of gays in the military before getting his economic program through, for letting himself be rolled by Bob Dole on that silly stimulus package, and for hiding behind Janet Reno's skirts during the Moment of Truth in Waco.

The facts (which have little effect on political perception in Washington) bear out none of these interpretations. Regarding gays in the military, Clinton was ambushed. His administration had no plans to try to roll over their opposition, but was victimized by a leak to the New York Times (which probably came from Sam Nunn or a deviously homophobic member of the Joint Chiefs) designed to torpedo the idea. The administration may have fumbled the ball at that point, but it is inaccurate to insist--as virtually all of Washington did--that it was Clinton who brought up the subject.

On the failed stimulus package, credit for the disaster can be shared in two corners. In the first place, the White House lost its nerve, vastly scaling back the Robert Reich/Derek Shearer/Ira Magaziner campaign investment package that was truly required to modernize America's transportation, communications, and manufacturing bases. But this is hardly the indictment one hears among the powers that still be in Washington. Between lunch at Maison Blanche and dinner at Red Sage, Clinton is scored over and over for failing to massage the right egos and play ball with the right pooh-bahs. Examined carefully, this charge--unfortunately--turns out to be a mirage as well.

The reason the Republicans managed to maintain their disruptive filibuster was the anger and frustration caused by Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, whom the administration had charged with shepherding the bill through Congress. Instead of allowing members to propose amendments to the bill in committee as usual, Byrd insisted that all amendments be postponed until the bill reached the Senate floor, and made clear his plan to offer a final amendment wiping out all the others and restoring the package to its original form. This pissed off virtually everyone involved, and doomed Clinton's attempts to peel off the four Republicans he needed to shut down the Bobby Dole talk show.

But perhaps more than any of his substantive defeats, Clinton's silence after the Waco catastrophe has defined him as a loser within the Beltway. The punditocracy seem to have chosen this moment as the beginning of the end of his presidency. There before the cameras was Janet Reno, accepting all responsibility for her disastrous decision. Where, for God's sake, was Bill? Since when does the "buck" stop with the attorney general?

In fact, Clinton knew full well he belonged out there with Reno, and wanted to join her to accept responsibility himself. The problem was not that he was a wimp, but that the White House had been given information--incorrect, it later turned out--that there were still children at risk in the compound after the siege. Clinton could hardly show up at a press conference while crucial decisions might still need to be made, and so he appeared to be ducking when actually he was just doing his job.

Be all this as it may, the punditocracy smells blood. The "First Hundred Days" retrospectives were almost all negative, hitting on the president for being too liberal, too wishy-washy, too easy on his staff, and too attached to the judgment of his second-in-command. (Fill in the obligatory Hillary/Al Gore joke here.)

As always, the insider consensus is exactly wrong. There are two ways to make changes in Washington. One is to cozy up to the city's permanent power structure, flatter its considerable ego, and gently stroke it in a direction more conducive to one's reelection. That has been the Clinton game plan so far, and it seems to be buying him little more than contempt. The second way, to paraphrase the late Arthur Vandenberg, is to scare the hell out of the sons-of-bitches.

Clinton's problem is not that he is paying too much attention to gays, feminists, abortionists, and Hillary. It's that he's forgotten the populist anger at Washington negligence that sawed the legs off Bush and fueled both the Clinton victory and Perotista revolt. This anger, properly funneled into Washington politics, could be a powerful tool for Clinton in the fight to restructure our crooked political system and begin rebuilding our dilapidated economy. A bit more old-fashioned Democratic demagoguery would have the added benefit of making Ross Perot redundant.

But instead of taking his case to the people and addressing (as he did so effectively during the campaign) America's deep uneasiness about its future, Clinton has been trying to sweet-talk the lobbyists and their congressional mouthpieces into voting themselves out of business, the pundits into admitting their ignorance, and the insurance companies into killing their cash cows. He might as well ask the Serbs and Bosnians to please keep down the noise.

When Clinton took office he had one of those pregnant political moments that take place only once every few decades. He had a brain trust of brilliant, progressive advisers and, perhaps most astonishingly, the willingness of the American people to be patient in their demand for positive results. Months later, he has virtually nothing in the way of investment in the country's work force, education system, or manufacturing infrastructure to show for it. The moment is clearly passing. We are back to gridlock politics-as-usual, with the punditocracy setting the agenda and the lobbyists filling in the fine print.

The punditocracy's permanent franchise on insider debate has wholly hidden this dynamic from public view, however. Clinton, insists William Safire, has chosen to "go home with the partner what brung him . . . the feminist leaders . . . and homosexual activists." In fact, it was Safire and company who greased the way for Clinton's nomination, and, more important, got him off with a promise of good behavior following the philandering, pot-smoking, and draft-dodging raps. It is these same conservative establishmentarians--not some phantom Left--with whom Clinton has chosen to dance so far. What's worse, Safire's leading.