An American Gorbachev

January 10, 1993|By JAMES P. PINKERTON

The new leader was a reformer, keenly aware of his mandate to overcome domestic stagnation. A hero at first, he was soon stymied by special interests. Conservatives in his party said he had sold them out, while the opposition, its appetite for change whetted, demanded he move faster.

Amid the acrimony, the national standard of living declined. Many concluded that the problem was the system itself. But the leader shrank from profound change and was replaced by more radical reformers.

A career summary of Mikhail Sergeivich Gorbachev? Yes, and also perhaps the future career of William Jefferson Clinton.

Mr. Clinton comes to Washington with a great understanding of the challenges America faces. Like Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Clinton knows that "new thinking" is necessary to solve the chronic problems he inherited. Just as Mr. Gorbachev spoke of perestroika, so Mr. Clinton talks about "reinventing government."

Like Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Clinton's core constituencies -- the iron triangle of the bureaucracy, special interest groups and the Democratic-controlled Congress -- are the essence of the governmental system that he will soon preside over. The big question is whether he will lead them or they will lead him.

Education, one immediate priority, could also could be seen as a test. During his campaign, Mr. Clinton promised that he would be "the real education president." The need for genuine improvement is clear: Spending per K-12 public school student doubled in the '80s, even as test scores declined. Although the United States spends more for education than any other country in the world, our kids rank sixth in math and science.

Mr. Clinton's rhetoric shows an understanding of the input-outcome paradox: Greater quantities of money are not resulting in better quality education. The problem is not Republican or Democratic: The problem is bureaucracy itself. As the Soviet Union and General Motors both learned, top-down, hierarchical systems are obsolete in the Information Age. If Mr. Clinton lacks the vision to challenge the design of the command-and-control system, whatever "reforms" he implements are doomed to fail.

Mr. Clinton's record in Arkansas suggests that, as president, he will shy away from the profound restructuring of education needed to save millions of American kids from drudge careers. Mr. Clinton enacted many "reforms" in Arkansas, but after his dozen years in office, students there still rank at the bottom in nationwide standardized tests.

As with Mr. Gorbachev, expect a flurry of activity from the new president. But Mr. Clinton's rhetoric won't matter if he simply appeases the 2-million-member National Education Association.

The NEA and its bureaucratic allies have already scored a victory: Mr. Clinton's selection of Richard Riley as education secretary. Mr. Riley apparently agrees with the NEA that the biggest problem facing education is inadequate spending. (Coincidentally, the NEA is also the largest source of campaign financing and convention delegates for the Democratic Party.)

The danger for Mr. Clinton is that, having raised hopes for change, he will not be able to keep up with the demand for change. The school choice movement, popular in inner cities but loathed by the bureaucracy, will eventually spread. Mr. Clinton's choice of an elite private school for his daughter will accelerate the movement.

When Mr. Gorbachev saw that his own Communist Party was the obstacle to glasnost, he backed away from reform, only to be swept away by the tide of history.

Mr. Clinton's dilemma is similar. If he seeks real change, he jeopardizes his governing coalition. But if he merely papers over the cracks in the old system with more money, he risks a Gorbachevian fate at the hands of an American Boris Yeltsin.

James Pinkerton, a former deputy assistant to President Bush for policy planning, is the senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation. He wrote this commentary for Newsday.

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