MotherJones SO93: Dead meat

Bill wants to be liked. But his new friends–Gergen, Christopher, Bentsen–are having him for lunch.


OK, we were taken. Bill Clinton is not our guy. This is not going to be a progressive presidency, nor will it make serious inroads toward reversing the long-term decline in our economy, environment, and social fabric. Bill Clinton is a decent fellow who, given his druthers, would like to make this country a nicer place in which to live.

But more than that, Bill Clinton wants to be liked by the people around him. Today, those people are Lloyd Bentsen, Warren Christopher, Vernon Jordan, and David Gergen. To even begin the massive task of rebuilding and redirecting this nation, Clinton will have to do battle with exactly these members of the Washington establishment. Moreover, he will have to arm himself with a vision of the country he wants us to become. But today Clinton has little vision and even less inclination to fight with his new friends. Without an ideological anchor or even a compass, the good ship Clinton is adrift in an ocean of compromise and political expediency.

On the questions that divided liberals and conservatives during the Reagan-Bush era, Clinton has, with the significant exception of women’s and minority rights, gone home with the Reaganites more often than not. His decision to turn back Haitian refugees was a tip-off. His awful drug policy was another. His proposal to increase funding to the CIA, his avoidance of substantial military cuts, and his plan (later reversed by congressional pressure) to resume nuclear testing should have ended the argument. The appointment of David Gergen–the man who spent the first part of the 1980s pressuring CBS to rein in Bill Moyers, whose reports on Reagan’s war against the poor were becoming too revealing–put a nice symbolic cap on the brief era when we could believe that the president meant what he’d said on the campaign trail.

At the heart of the Clinton administration’s conservatism, however, is its economic package. This is particularly painful to admit, because, while expectations for Clinton’s foreign policy were tempered by his past support of the contras and Bush’s Persian Gulf war, he really did convince us of the sincerity of his populist economics. What’s more, he had a sensible plan, drawn up by guys we trusted.

The Clinton-Reich-Magaziner-Shearer blueprint was simple. After decades of neglecting our productive capabilities, manufacturing base, education system, telecommunications network, and renewable resources, we were going to see some investment again. We would stop hamstringing ourselves against the more efficient global competition and combat the Reagan-Bush vision of America as the world’s hamburger-flippers. This was going to take patience and sacrifice on everybody’s part: rich people would pay more taxes, workers would increase their productivity, children would spend more time in school, and investors would take a longer-term view of profitability. In selling shared sacrifice to the American people over the heads of the Washington establishment, Clinton had set himself a task that dwarfed the mere winning of the presidency. Like schmucks, we believed him.

Exactly when Clinton decided to throw in the towel is open to argument. One junior-level White House source puts the beginning of the end a day or so after the election, when Clinton chose the consummate passionless insider, Warren Christopher, to head his transition team. Others say it was the day when Clinton, on Christopher’s advice, chose Lloyd Bentsen to head his economic team. At least one Clintonian puts the shift as late as February, on the chilly morning when pollster Stan Greenberg came to the White House to explain that, popularity-wise, the Perot monster was growing bigger and fatter. Shortly thereafter, the president junked his primary justification for seeking the presidency and began what looks to be an endlessly quixotic quest to satisfy the tin-pot tribune of the mad- as-hell middle class.

Press coverage of the Clinton presidency during this period focused on its incompetence. (Gennifer, Zoe, Kimba, Lani–when Clinton meets a woman with an unconventional name, he should probably run in the other direction.) Mostly, the press was upset because Communications Director George Stephanopoulos was insufficiently servile to their idea of themselves. The Gergen appointment will help in this department, for Gergen is a master schmoozer. Just nanoseconds after he moved in, the media began to portray the Clinton administration as a well-oiled machine, winning battle after battle on issues ranging from the overall budget package to campaign-finance reform to national service.

What most of the flowery coverage neglected to mention, however, is that Clinton gutted each of these programs in order to portray himself as a winner. The national service program will be available to a whopping twenty-five thousand people–barely enough to fill a White House Easter-egg hunt. The campaign-finance reform bill the Senate passed, though an improvement on the old system, precludes public financing. (This, despite the president’s earlier contention that “there is no way we will ever limit spending in national races unless we can tie it to a broad-based stream of financing accountable to all the people.”)

To get the Senate to pass his $500 billion budget package, Clinton gave up not only his already self-mutilated public-investment package, but virtually all of the measures intended to stimulate growth and begin rebuilding our dilapidated infrastructure. Just about every compromise, from cuts in Head Start and the Job Corps to reductions in proposed corporate income taxes, was designed to lift the burden off the rich and place it on the backs of the poor, the sick, and the elderly. Add to this a dramatically stage-managed Tomahawk missile attack on Iraq, and all of a sudden Clinton is a winner again.

The really frightening aspect of all of this is that it’s being done right in front of us, brazenly and without apology. Clinton beats Bush but adopts his foreign policy almost to the letter. Clinton beats Perot but borrows his economic program. All of the social, economic, and environmental catastrophes that were going to plague our children unless we changed our ways–well, “never mind them,” the administration seems to be saying. Hillary is going to see that McDonald’s offers its employees health insurance, and Al Gore will make them recycle those Big Mac cartons. The Justice Department will ensure that they hire equal numbers of blacks, Latinos, lesbians, and Jews.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of Clinton’s rebirth as a fiscal conservative is how unnecessary it is. The president’s postelection deficit obsession is a product of two mutually reinforcing beliefs, one economic, one political. The first is that private-sector investment depends on low interest rates; the second, that Perot voters view the deficit as top priority. The first assumption is theoretically correct, but, as with so much economic theory, it may not be true in real life: a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington demonstrated that investors invest when they think consumers are buying, irrespective of interest rates. (This would help explain the new phenomenon of a jobless recovery.) On the political front, the president’s own pollster recently surveyed the Perot bloc and discovered that they view the deficit as more a symbol of a government out of control than an issue in and of itself. What these voters are most concerned with, according to the survey, is that Clinton demonstrate leadership on economic matters and not allow himself to be captured by the entrenched Washington interests.

But in pursuit of exactly these voters, Clinton has sold out his progressive economic platform and embraced the no-growth deficit strategy being pushed by the very people against whom he should declare war. There are no Democrats in Washington any more, nor really any Republicans. There are only the Insiders and the rest of us. Clinton campaigned as one of us, but he has quickly become one of them. If you have questions, you can put them in writing to David Gergen, care of the White House . . . again.