Old Stuff from 'New' Democrats


February 11, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- In his first radio address from the Oval Office, President Clinton said that ''for the last 12 years our leaders haven't completely leveled with us.'' Make that 13.

Mr. Clinton and his team, who used the transition to repudiate or blur campaign promises, have used their first weeks in power to slide away from the most important pledge made during the transition.

In his confirmation hearing as director of the Office of Management and Budget, Leon Panetta endorsed a deficit reduction ratio of two-thirds spending cuts to one-third tax increases. ''Unrealistic'' is now the word from Mr. Panetta's former Democratic colleagues in Congress. A realistic guess may be that the ratio of tax dollars raised by tax increases to dollars cut from spending will be at least 10 to one.

A pitched battle, we are told, rages between one administration faction wanting tax increases to cut the deficit, and one wanting spending to stimulate the economy. The predictable compromise: Taxes up, spending up, the deficit up.

The economy is growing; unemployment, which never got as high in the recent recession as in many others, is falling; productivity growth in 1992 was at a 20-year high; and there is the stimulus of a $320 billion deficit. Yet the administration wants another $31 billion stimulus for the $6 trillion economy.

Why? That is what ''New Democrats,'' like old ones, do: They try to micromanage an economy moved by billions of private decisions daily.

The promise of a middle-class tax cut has been supplanted by a search for slightly disguised ways of raising taxes on the middle class, as with an energy tax. President Clinton says: ''Before I ask working Americans to work harder and pay more, I will ask the economic elite. . . .'' The operative word is ''before.'' The campaign promise of a middle-class tax cut has become a

promise that the tax increase on the middle class will come after the increase on the wealthy.

News reports say Mr. Clinton has ''discovered'' that there are not enough wealthy people to pay the government's expenses. Time out.

Is he or is he not the intellectual ''policy wonk,'' the voracious reader of data, the unsleeping student of American society that hyperventilating journalists have described? If he is just discovering that the middle class has most of the money in America, a reassessment of him is called for.

Another reputation that has risen high without much ballast of evidence may have to be revised. Mrs. Clinton may be as prodigiously intelligent and competent as numerous news reports say. But so far she has been conspicuously -- and unreassuringly -- involved in two matters.

One was -- is -- the personnel selection process that has been so ludicrously skewed by ethnic, racial and sexual quotas. (This produced the several train wrecks involving the office of attorney general.) The other is health-care reform, the substance of which is a long way off but the merchandising of it is already a substantial mistake.

The administration -- meaning, we must in this case assume, Mrs. Clinton -- has decided that the Democratic National Committee will raise money for a staff to coordinate a campaign for the plan, when there is a plan. So the plan, which is certain to be complex and hotly controversial, will be a party document from the start. Not smart.

The loudly trumpeted first fruit of Democratic hegemony over both political branches of the government is the Family and Medical Leave Act. This is an example of what can be called ''mandate liberalism:'' If the government is strapped for funds, make the private sector spend. It must have a depressing effect on job creation (especially the hiring of young women). Firms covered by the act must pay the full health-insurance costs of on-leave workers, as well as the costs of any temporary replacement workers hired until the regular workers return from leave.

And this act probably is just the thin edge of an enormous wedge. Congress may next mandate that family and medical leaves be paid. Already there are ''fairness'' complaints: This year's act is ''unfair'' to those who can't afford to take unpaid leaves. When Mr. Clinton was asked about mandating paid leave, he said, ominously, ''Let's take this one step at a time.'' Translation: Unpaid leave is just the first step.

Critics say the administration's early actions show that it lacks sufficient adult supervision. Actually, it is off to a flying start at fulfilling the traditional destinies of old-fashioned Democrats. Those who promised ''new Democrats'' didn't completely level with us.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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