Clinton's blueprint is sensible, but will anyone notice?

ROBERT KUTTNER

June 29, 1992|By Robert Kuttner

BILL CLINTON'S new economic blueprint is surprisingly sensible. What remains to be seen is whether sound economics will be translated into sound politics.

Governor Clinton deserves credit on several counts. First, the blueprint reflects a coherent diagnosis of what ails the economy. Mr. Clinton proceeds from the belief that America has not invested enough in its people, its industry, its technology, its public infrastructure.

Second, he does not flinch from specifics. He calls for a series of cuts in a variety of programs, including a faster reduction in military outlays, as well as a tax on the richest 2 percent of Americans to finance the new investment he advocates.

Third, he hasn't fallen prey to deficit-obsession. Governor Clinton's blueprint advocates a gradual reduction of the deficit to a sustainable $150 billion, not an abrupt and irrational crusade for total budget balance.

Although this rings some traditionally liberal "tax and spend" bells, he is not proposing across-the-board tax hikes, as did Walter Mondale. Mr. Clinton's proposed tax increases are targeted at those who made out like tax-bandits during the Roaring '80s.

The selected tax increases are coupled with modest -- token, really -- tax relief for the working middle class. In a revision of an early proposal, the middle-class tax relief is pared back some, and now emphasizes greater tax cuts for families with children. For the most part, he is raising taxes in order to invest in jobs, technology, and infrastructure, and not to demonstrate fiscal prudence.

Mr. Clinton also manages to include some conservative themes of the sort that resonate with most Americans: toughness on crime and welfare reform, as well as a national service program whose subtext is that those who get from government should give something back.

To be sure, there are things in the program to challenge. His national health proposal is still distressingly vague. His budget numbers reflect an assumption of 2.5 percent annual economic growth -- a modest enough number, but one that may be slightly in excess of what this depleted economy can achieve in the short term.

But this is the proposal of a serious man, and it mocks anything proposed by either Ross Perot or George Bush.

The irony, of course, is that Governor Clinton's very respect for the issues and for the electorate may prove his undoing.

Eight years of Ronald Reagan did damage to our political system in ways we are only beginning to comprehend. Reaganomics left in its wake not only a paralyzing budget deficit. President Reagan led Americans through a political Oz, in which a smile and a hearty one-liner diverted us from our real economic problems and politics itself became a contest to manipulate symbols rather than a vehicle to make national choices.

Now we are living in Morning-after in America. The gridlock between a Republican administration unwilling to address deferred problems and a Democratic Congress lacking the unity, the imagination, or the votes to press a coherent opposition program, has left the voters utterly cynical about the capacity of government to accomplish anything.

In an era when voters consider public policy suspect or irrelevant, Mr. Clinton's very willingness to take policy challenges seriously is almost a liability. It defines him as just another policy-nerd, just another politician, of the sort that voters find tiresome and unconvincing.

And in this setting, Ross Perot's very lack of specificity is, for the moment, an asset. Mr. Perot, at least for the time being, is basking in what might be called the Roseanne Arnold effect. He is ornery and nasty -- and that nastiness, rather than raising doubts about his suitability for the White House, precisely articulates the mood of an electorate that feels damned ornery, too.

Mr. Clinton's problems in breaking the cynicism have been compounded by controversy over his personal life, and by such diversions as his recent tiff with Jesse Jackson. It remains to be seen whether the voters will be willing to give his proposals a serious hearing, or whether they will continue to prefer Mr. Perot's vague toughness to Mr. Clinton's clarity.

The next several weeks should offer the governor his best shot to date at getting his message across. As media attention shifts toward the Democratic National Convention, it will be Mr. Clinton's turn for the limelight.

After hesitating, his campaign has grasped the fact that Mr. Clinton does rather well on the TV talk shows, and it is now taking advantage of the free exposure and booking him to the hilt. On a 10-second sound bite, Mr. Clinton can indeed look like just another slick politician. But on a more relaxed, hour-long conversation, his basic seriousness and grasp of the issues come across.

Even his saxophone riff on "The Arsenio Hall Show" was probably helpful. Some commentators compared it to Michael Dukakis' disastrous ride in the tank. But in a year when all politicians are deemed phonies, playing a musical instrument well is one of the few stunts that can't be faked. The subtext was: He actually knows how to play the thing; maybe this guy isn't another phony.

It is a long way, certainly, from getting the voters to listen to a few saxophone licks to getting them to evaluate the candidates based on the issues. The very aversion to issues is another of America's several deferred problems. But Clinton's economic plan makes a good start. If the voters fail to pay attention, it's their loss as well as his.

Robert Kuttner writes a weekly column on economic matters.

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