"Bill Clinton will be a disaster as president," I heard a man say the other day. He seemed so adamant about the point that I found it almost bewildering, even coming from a Republican.
Elected governor of Arkansas five times, ranked by fellow governors as the most effective governor in the land, praised by leading welfare reform advocates as a leader in that arena, credited with forging conservative attitudes with the traditional liberal values of the Democratic Party, a man who has made a lot of smart political moves and taken a few punches along the way. . . and this guy says he would be a disaster as president?
The answer I got was simple: Clinton is a classic liberal Democrat anxious to create new government programs and increase taxes. This translates into "disaster." (As if, by contrast, the last 12 years of trickle-down economics have been a smashing success.)
That Clinton will be unmasked as another tax-and-spend liberal is the wishful thinking of status quo Republicans who rely on the "L word" to stir fears among the electorate.
But as has been noted, Clinton is not Michael Dukakis; he's not Walter Mondale. If Bill Clinton is a disaster in the making, then George Bush is a disaster that already happened.
And neither statement is true.
What I hear in the president's defense -- from those willing to voice a defense of George Bush -- is this: I'm OK. You're OK. What are you complaining about? Things aren't that bad.
So why elect a Democrat who will spend more tax dollars on social programs?
"I'd rather see my tax money going to build a tank than to help some useless person on welfare," I heard a stockbroker say in a restaurant in Federal Hill.
"My friends all have jobs, all have custom-built homes," I heard a Republican woman, wife of a successful real estate broker, say over breakfast. "Anyone who doesn't have a job isn't looking."
This is a narrow view of American life enjoyed by relatively affluent people who think everyone lives as they do -- or should.
They thrived in the 1980s and into the 1990s. They supported Republicans, as did many middle-class and blue-collar voters traditionally aligned with the Democratic Party, who were so excited about Reagan -- or so turned-off by Carter -- it seemed they'd never return to the party of Truman and Roosevelt.
Where are we now?
Well, the rich are richer, and most everyone else is either standing still or losing ground.
The Federal Reserve and the Internal Revenue Service reported earlier this year that, between 1983 and 1989, the richest 1 percent of Americans, all of them millionaires at the minimum, enjoyed the biggest growth in personal wealth.
By 1989, the top 1 percent was worth more than the bottom 90 percent of Americans combined. Such a concentration of wealth the nation has not seen since the pre-Depression days of the 1920s.
Add to that yesterday's new figures from the Census Bureau -- 35.7 million Americans are now classified as poor, the highest number since 1964. (The government defines "poor" as a family of four with an annual income of just under $14,000.)
The new poverty figures, along with the concentration of wealth, the disappearance of good, blue-collar jobs, the division of our society into haves and have-nots -- all of that adds up to potential disaster.
How is George Bush responding? With election-year F-16s. With the advocacy of more trickle-down remedies. His domestic TTC proposals are like that foamy Inflate-A-Tire stuff that comes in aerosol cans -- aimed at fixing a flat until he can get to the repair shop. There's little reason to believe the results will be anything but temporary, and good reason to believe that any long-term benefits would go to the wealthy.
How is Clinton any different?
For one thing -- I guess this is what makes him a liberal -- he seems willing to face up to big domestic problems. He still believes that government, under responsible and principled leadership, could be harnessed to better peoples' lives in a lasting way.
This is what Clinton said in a Baptist church in Cleveland two weeks ago tonight:
"No serious person can look at the condition of our nation today and say that we are going in the proper direction. Most people are working harder for lower wages than they were making eight years ago. Unemployment is at an eight-year high. We are be
coming a more unequal country as more and more working people fall into poverty. We had a 50 percent increase in the last 10 years in the number of people who get up every day and go to work and spend 40 hours a week at work and still live in poverty.
"And so I say to you tonight, my fellow Americans, we have to open our eyes and stretch out our arms one to another and have the courage to change -- not arrogantly, not in a hard way, but in a caring way.. . .I don't see how we can make it unless we do what we have to do to give our people a chance to live up to their God-given abilities. That is the character test of politics. Will we use the power we have in common? The power that comes up from the people all the way to the White House, to let that power flow back down to the people to advance their ability to become what God meant for them to be?
"The American people have to have the courage to change and the conviction to change and the belief that we're going up or down together and that we are all one community."
That doesn't sound like a disaster in the making to me.