A bumpy takeoff

Robert Kuttner

May 10, 1993|By Robert Kuttner

IS America all but ungovernable? Or is Bill Clinton bunglin his attempt to govern it? Or are we judging him too harshly too soon?

Yes, yes and yes.

The Constitution, let's recall, created political deadlock by design. Our political institutions, with their separation of powers and protection of minority views, make presidential activism difficult and hence rare.

In living memory, only two presidents have effectively harnessed government for activist economic purposes -- Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Unlike Mr. Clinton, both enjoyed substantial legislative majorities. Both governed at moments of perceived national crisis. And both had been elected by wide popular margins.

FDR took office with 313 Democrats in the House and 59 in the Senate. In his second term, he enjoyed a record 75-17 margin in the Senate and 333-89 in the House. Lyndon Johnson's was 68-32 in the Senate and 295-140 in the House after his election.

Mr. Clinton's partisan strength in Congress is more reminiscent of such Democratic presidents as Jimmy Carter, John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman. Though the latter two have been lionized in recent years, they had great difficulty getting their programs enacted.

Kennedy, profoundly frustrated during his first two years, actually had a more strongly Democratic Congress than Bill Clinton. He came in with a margin of 263-174 in the House (slightly better than Mr. Clinton's 256-176) and a robust 64-36 in the Senate, compared to Mr. Clinton's 57-33.

Yet until 1963, little of Kennedy's program passed. The most influential political book of the era, James MacGregor Burns' "The Deadlock of Democracy," lamented that the Founders had done their work all too well, bequeathing an institutional incapacity to address pressing problems.

If this were a parliamentary democracy, Mr. Clinton would simply offer an economic program -- public infrastructure spending, economic stimulus, universal health insurance, tax-the-rich, increased worker training, national service -- and his party in the legislature would enact it. The voters would judge his government on the results, in the next election.

But this is America, where coherent economic activism requires big legislative majorities. As under Kennedy, a united Republican Party can block Mr. Clinton's program in the Senate. The House allows no filibuster, but has enough conservative Democrats to insist that the program be watered down.

In promoting his program, Mr. Clinton's tactical missteps have been ample, but they must be seen in the context of partisan and institutional deadlock. Were he conducting his first 100 days again, he would undoubtedly focus on a few big things, rather than dissipating his strength with a message of the day.

Even so, as long as Bob Dole commands 43 votes in the Senate, and several of the 256 Democrats in the House don't share his views, there are limits to what the president can accomplish. What, then, should the president do?

The most important thing is to remember that he is president and not squander his authority on petty issues or even petty victories. A presidential mandate is not bestowed by an election so much as cultivated in office.

Ronald Reagan, for example, won just 51 percent of the popular vote in a three-way race. Mr. Reagan nonetheless treated his victory as a blowout and a total repudiation of liberalism. And he behaved accordingly.

Mr. Reagan enacted much of his program in his first term despite a narrower majority than Mr. Clinton's in the Senate and a Democratic majority in the House. But he got the country behind him, and left the opposition party browbeaten and intimidated.

To be sure, it is somewhat easier to dismantle public endeavors than to revive them (it is certainly easier to sell the voters a tax cut than a tax increase). Nonetheless, there are lessons here:

A president claims a mandate by offering a big, bold vision, not by tinkering. Mr. Clinton's "stimulus" program fizzled not because it was too big but because it was too feeble. It evoked no urgency, inspired no popular allegiance. Republicans could block it with impunity.

More recently, Mr. Clinton settled for half a loaf on his childhood vaccine program and on national service. And there is every sign that he will do the same on health reform.

Less than a week after Senator Dole humiliated Mr. Clinton on the stimulus package, the president graciously invited the Republican leader to the White House to discuss a bipartisan approach to health care. Instead, he should be blasting Mr. Dole as an obstructionist and defining a clear axis of partisan difference. Effective leaders compromise -- when necessary -- in the end game, not as the opening gambit.

Now Mr. Clinton may need to wait for the next Congress. It will be a more Democratic Congress only if Mr. Clinton wins voter support for his program. Americans are suffering from real economic problems, and their distress demands real remediation, not symbolism or tokenism. If Mr. Clinton expects to win popular support as a crusader for their interests, he must offer a program bold enough to yield results.

This has been a bumpy presidential takeoff. But it is early, and this president is evidently a learner. At this point in his term 30 years ago, the beloved John Kennedy was still reeling from the Bay of Pigs.

Robert Kuttner writes a syndicated column on economic matters.

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