Can Clinton Make Government Work?


November 07, 1992|By DANIEL BERGER

What Americans demand now from their government is that it work. They are moderate about the goals but radical about wanting them met. That is what drove the election.

The turnout was large. The vote for the centrist third candidate was huge and, defying convention, grew in the last days. People came out to vote their alienation who normally show it by staying home.

The main appeal of Bill Clinton was the appearance of vigor. For that, voters forgave his youth.

The recession created this priority. The need for change is an old slogan whose time had come.

President Bush's non-interventionism in the economy, his age and possibly his health created the picture of a laid-back man who was right for other times.

The appeal of Ross Perot was the same as Bill Clinton's. He swore he would get things done, never much mind what they are.

Mr. Perot gave voters a vehicle for rejecting Mr. Bush without actually embracing Mr. Clinton. Mr. Perot insists it was his issues -- deficit reduction and industrial competitiveness -- that won votes. By either interpretation, the Perot-plus-Clinton vote was a demand for effectiveness in government.

So was the aggregate decision to give a Democratic president a Democratic Congress. During the Reagan years, people willfully voted for gridlock. They loved Ron but trusted him only so far.

Now they want a president and Congress of the same party to agree on a program and see it through. Whether Congress is up to that remains to be seen.

President Bush, while unsuccessful in diverting blame for the deficit from himself, did convince people to blame congressional incumbents as well. This election will be remembered for passage of congressional term limits in 14 states, raising the total to 15.

If this spreads and sticks, it will be a fundamental change in thunwritten constitution of the United States. It is sending one-third of congressmen as a battering ram against seniority and sloth in Congress.

Speaker Tom Foley thinks that such state-legislatequalifications for Congress will be found unconstitutional by the courts. This would force its proponents to amend the written Constitution, which is virtually impossible to do if legislators and congressmen, a class with a special interest, remain opposed to the change.

Yet people adamant for term limits proved sentimentally attached to their own congressmen. Only six incumbents lost in the 14 states enacting term limits. In this supposedly anti-incumbent year, three-fourths of all members of Congress are returning.

The most telling statistic is that of 24 newly elected congresswomen, 22 won open seats and only two beat incumbents. The way to get more women into Congress is to get more men out first.

The electorate so adamant for change was moderate about what that change should be.

Governor Clinton won his party's nomination on the proposition that Democrats had been too liberal for 20 years and should become more conservative to recapture the middle class. He is governor of a right-to-work state without a civil rights law. His health care program is tinkering with the present system, not national health insurance.

Although everyone who favors traditional Democratic commitments in the social field supported him, Mr. Clinton is not one of them. His most radical domestic proposal is for reform of welfare in a direction that conservatives favor.

The radicalism of the term limits referendums was unmatched in referendums on social values. For the most part, these reaffirmed the status quo.

The abortion referendum in Maryland, like the abortion referendum in Arizona, was a vote to preserve things as they are in the event that Roe vs. Wade is overturned.

Referendums in several places nullified any possibility that adding sexual preference to civil rights legislation could lead to affirmative action. But the referendum in Oregon to crusade against homosexuality failed. These outcomes, whether seemingly pro- or anti-homosexual, reaffirmed the legal status quo.

The election of Mr. Clinton will bring change in many policy areas from foreign affairs to medical research. But these issues did not get Mr. Clinton elected.

The economy did. He was elected to stimulate economic growth. If he does that, the electorate will not much mind what else he accomplishes.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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