A Suspension of Disbelief and Despair

RICHARD REEVES

January 05, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

New York. -- It is exciting at the beginning of this new year to see the hope that America has in the man from Hope, Arkansas. The nation seems to have decided to suspend disbelief and the hand-wringing despair over national decline that has characterized the last few years of mourning in America.

This little era of good feeling seems to be more than the usual honeymoon in the first few weeks of any presidency. Rather, Americans are acting like proud middle-aged parents of a new baby, surprised at what they have done but enormously pleased, celebrating a triumph of hope over experience. And Mr. Clinton is certainly politician enough to declare a triumph when he takes office in three weeks.

But America itself is a triumph of hope, celebrating the ability of the middle classes to seize on the idea of liberty and create a political process and an economic system that have endured so long and so well. There have been great wrongs -- slavery the worst of them -- but, in all, we have even greater reasons to be proud and hopeful.

President Clinton has one overriding thing to do, but it is a difficult and delicate thing: bring out the best in the American people. The energy and power in the future of the American experiment is in the individual decisions of 256 million people.

That is as it has always been. If we have confidence in the future, we have the power to make it work. The only thing we have to fear is ourselves; if we are faint-hearted, the dream will pale.

The new president has a great deal going for him, beginning with his relative youth -- old for parenting, young in inspiration -- which in itself has energized millions of Americans. For the first time in more than a decade, America looking into the mirror called television does not see old men.

Mr. Clinton is also lucky to be a Democrat, though that has not been self-evident to him and the rest of us these past few years. In bad times and good, Democrats are the Great American Party, of the people, by the people, for the people -- in all their confounded and cantankerous and hopeful ignorance.

Whatever one thinks of the Clinton Cabinet, his party does look like America, and part of the American ignorance (of history and a great deal more) is that we are inclined to think everything is new if it says it is. That means that we are willing to try ideas that have failed before, thinking they are sure to work this time -- and sometimes they do. Sometimes they do.

The Republican Party and its men and women offer much to be admired, but in the end they represent only one part of America. The Grand Old Party, well-named, is the protector of the old Yankee and Protestant values essential to making this a great country. One of those values, which works for most of the people most of the time, is the idea that government is best that governs least.

Now, we need more government, or at least more government input into dealing with problems such as health care and international trade. In the last 12 years we have seen that the private sector is at least as dangerous to the American way of life as big government ever was. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1936, he made America safe for big business. Ronald Reagan and his heir, George Bush, have now made America safe for big government.

And as a Democrat, Clinton is a man of government -- he believes in it -- and he's willing and able to jettison many of the treasured and worn-out modern totems of the Great American Party -- beginning with the unquestioned (among most Democrats) virtues of an unquestioning welfare system. His administration, then, begins with both great freedom and the hopeful commitment to use government as a tool of all the people all the time.

Mr. Clinton made 205 separate promises during the campaign, according to a tabulation by Knight-Ridder Newspapers. They ranged from A to W, from ''end the gag order that restricts abortion counseling in federally funded clinics'' to ''require welfare recipients to take private or public jobs after two years on the rolls.''

He will not keep all of them. Some of the promises were stupid -- ''oppose federal gasoline tax increases,'' for instance -- and some will be made meaningless as times change rapidly during the next four years. But looking over that list, I would guess (and certainly hope) that he will be a successful president if he can keep the ''welfare-to-work'' promise and these others:

L * Reduce the budget deficit by more than half in four years.

* Create a child-care network as complete as the public school network.

* Put 100,000 new police officers on the streets through a national service plan.

* Reduce U.S. troop levels in Europe to between 75,000 and 100,000 troops.

* Increase investment in civilian high-tech research and development with every dollar cut from defense R&D.

* Give every American the opportunity to borrow money for college.

* Establish national standards and a national examination system in core subjects.

* Restore U.S. funding for the United Nations population-stabilization efforts.

* Guarantee a basic health-benefits package that includes ambulatory physician care, in-patient hospital care, prescription drugs and basic mental-health services.

* Require recipients with incomes above $125,000 to pay more for Medicare Part B premiums.

* Develop a national apprenticeship-style system to provide teen-agers who don't want to go to college with skills to find high-wage jobs.

If he can do most of that, a poll in four years might show that 75 percent of us will be absolutely positive that we voted for him in '92.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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