The hope of the liberals . . .

Irving Howe

January 21, 1993|By Irving Howe

WHEN Bill Clinton was elected, most of us on the democratic left were pleased. (Some were just relieved.) We form a tendency that includes liberals, left-liberals, socialists and people from the labor, feminist, African-American and other communities, all bound by a belief in democracy and deep social change.

Some people hint that Mr. Clinton would like to institute a very liberal policy but believes it is unrealizable in the present political climate. More often he presents himself as a shrewd centrist.

Like Franklin D. Roosevelt in his early years, Mr. Clinton follows a tactic of political "balance" -- conservative with liberal. This can yield small-scale benefits for his administration but it will not solve America's problems.

Will Mr. Clinton make his way to the kind of social reforms Roosevelt put forward in 1936, the reforms for which he is best remembered? A lot depends on popular pressures. Mr. Clinton has an opportunity to assume the New Deal's legacy.

The most important thing the new administration can do is clear the air -- change the political-moral atmosphere that is the legacy of Reaganism. It's a shabby, mean-spirited legacy: Irangate, junk bonds, union-busting, savings and loan scandals, bloated military costs, neglect of minorities, a vast deficit.

The dominant ethic of these 12 years has been a heartless social Darwinism, reinforced by the weary myth that the sum of individual selfishness would be collective beneficence.

Mindless chanting for "the free market" filled the air, though in every modern society government and the economy are intertwined. The welfare state became anathema, as people forgot that through it Roosevelt saved U.S. capitalism and improved the lives of millions.

The ideological right kept declaring that nothing good could come from government, and did its best to prove it. The rich got richer, the poor poorer.

A time of sobering up, perhaps of renewal, is at hand.

If the Clinton administration merely spoke with candor about the gravity of our social problems, that would be refreshing. It would help restore faith in the democratic process. It would help us turn to reinforcing public education, without which there cannot be a healthy democratic community.

And it would remind us that in a $6 trillion economy there are resources for major socio-economic reforms.

A few simple things can be done right away:

* Revoke the malicious edict prohibiting doctors from speaking to patients about abortion if they work in agencies financed by the government.

* Appoint fair-minded people to the federal courts and the National Labor Relations Board so that our unions can get a fair shake.

* Introduce more child-care measures.

* Start programs to help black youth in the inner cities.

* Name a few Supreme Court justices whose minds connect with the 20th century.

For the next few years, the two great problems will be jobs and It is a great scandal of America that we allow our cities to rot and, along with them, the lives of millions of people. A comprehensive plan including jobs, housing, education and social services would be of special benefit.

health care. Here the Clinton people have gone part of the way, but not far enough.

The candidate Clinton was right to say that even if we have a recovery of sorts, we still need social investment to rebuild the infrastructure and provide jobs. The fiscal stimulus created by such a program could prompt a stronger recovery and make possible a gradual reduction of the deficit.

The Clinton camp has spoken of a $20 billion program, but that is surely too timid; far more likely to do the trick is the $60 billion proposal of the economist James Tobin.

Building and repairing facilities, training workers -- these measures are needed because there is a real possibility America's recovery will be plagued by a continued shortage of jobs. They are also needed to help raise productivity and provide long-overdue schools, roads, trains and libraries.

This kind of program ought to be seen as a prelude to a sustained effort to cope with the social decay of our cities and the rise of a depressed "underclass."

It is a great scandal of America that we allow our cities to rot and, along with them, the lives of millions of people. A comprehensive plan including jobs, housing, education and social services would be of special benefit to the many black citizens leading hopeless lives in inner cities, but it would also help the whole country.

Would it cost money? Of course. But in time it would save money, reducing the costs of prisons and police officers and widening the tax base. More important, it would halt our terrible slide into two nations: the haves and have-nots.

The Clinton campaign fudged about health insurance. Whatever Clinton proposes is likely to be better than the current mess but not good enough.

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