Clinton's best speech was also his most dangerous one

Anna Quindlen

February 23, 1993|By Anna Quindlen

BILL CLINTON'S speeches have often sounded like the kind of careful, correct, rather stiff compositions an A student produces when he wants to protect his grade point average. But his address on the economy was about as good a speech as I have ever heard him deliver.

It was also dangerous.

It was dangerous for the Republicans, who responded to Mr. Clinton's rhetorical magnanimity with the same old same old. "There is plenty of blame to go around," the president said, "in both branches of the government and both parties. The time has come for the blame to end." And he invited Republicans who didn't like his specifics to come up with specifics of their own, as though they were all in this together.

But as soon as he was finished speaking, House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel launched into a Republican response that owed more to cliched partisan buckshot than to deficit reduction, incorporating, among other things, the deftly wrought phrases "failed big government schemes of a generation ago" and "biggest propaganda campaign in recent political history."

Mr. Clinton came to the Congress having learned the deficit-reduction lesson of Ross Perot. But the Republicans seem in danger of forgetting the other part of the Perot phenomenon: that people are sick and tired of the constant bickering that passes for government in Washington. Listening to Bob Dole carp about the Democrats is deja vu all over again, neither illuminating nor pretty.

But Mr. Clinton's speech was dangerous for him, too, because it did that most dangerous of things -- it raised expectations, not only for new programs but for hard choices. To meet them, he must make far greater cuts in spending than the ones we have heard about so far.

The superconducting supercollider and the space station should shelved to save billions. These two high-tech projects are the equivalent of luxury cars; we just can't afford them right now. And the fact that both benefit the Treasury secretary's home state of Texas makes their survival in lean times look too much like pork.

The military budget must finally address the ridiculous redundancies in the way the four branches operate. The Air Force has fighter wings. The Navy has fighter wings. The Marines have fighter wings. And so on, through overlapping light divisions, legal and medical corps, and other missions, programs and services.

The taxpayers should not have to finance inter-service rivalries as though the military were the Big Ten Conference.

But the most important thing the president needs to do is to make government make sense. When the issue of the elevator operators who run the automatic elevators for members of Congress comes up, as it has before, it should finally be settled in the only way that makes sense.

And that is to assume that members of Congress are competent to push elevator buttons themselves.

Not because this is a big boondoggle -- it's not -- or because it will save lots of money. It won't.

But because it is emblematic of how fat and disdainful government has become. Each time a taxpayer is handed from person to person to person in a bloated and befuddled bureaucracy, she apprehends anew a system that treats her money as though it were nothing.

Deputy directors. Assistant deputy directors. Assistants to the deputy directors. Public relations officers, the rabbits of government, multiplying uncontrollably. Cut 'em all back. Make the managers manage.

Mr. Clinton asked for sacrifice, and the most remarkable part of these budget discussions is how reasonable the American people have been about chipping in. A scant two years ago, deficit reduction was largely the purview of the econowonk, Paul Tsongas' little hobby. Today most Americans assume it is the key to economic survival.

When Mr. Clinton talked about sharing the sacrifice, he had to know that shoving the six-figure folks into a higher bracket would not be enough. There are small fish, and there are big fish. And then there is the whale, and the whale is government.

For support to continue for the president, and for Congress too, the bickering must stop and the blubber must go. Remembering, of course, that the taxpayers know fat when they see it because they've been living lean.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.