It's a whale of a lot more than the economy, stupid!

Jonathan Schell

May 12, 1993|By Jonathan Schell

ACCORDING to the conventional wisdom of the moment, the Clinton administration has temporarily lost its way and the reason is that it has attempted to do too many things at once.

Mr. Clinton, after hearing this reproach on all sides for some weeks, has ratified the consensus by confessing the error. "One of the things that you risk when you try to get a lot of things going," he said, "is . . . maybe getting a little out of focus. And I think we can . . . tighten the focus a little bit . . ."

The key phrase, certainly, is "out of focus." It not only sums up the current conventional wisdom; it resonates strongly with other recent stock phrases. One of these was the famous sign on the wall of the Clinton campaign headquarters "The economy, stupid."

This advice demonstrated "focusing" in action. It divided the world into two realms: 1) The economy (implicitly, smart) and 2) everything else (the preoccupation of the stupid).

Russia? Stupid. Bosnia? The same. Thinning ozone, warming global climate, decaying cities, declining schools: all stupid. The same division of the world was implied in another famous stock phrase: Mr. Clinton's promise to concentrate "like a laser" on the economy. Laser light is focused light. It is blinkered light. Every photon is sent like a bullet toward the same target. In the vision suggested by this phrase, the president, now himself a sort of high-tech gadget (the better, presumably, to compete with his Japanese counterparts), remains dutifully "on message," and shuts out the rest of the world. Monomania becomes policy.

As a method of campaigning, the technique proved its worth. Today, Mr. Clinton sits in the White House. Deliberate monomania showed itself a superior method for surmounting one of the greatest challenges faced by a political candidate: getting his message through to the voters in a world of virtually infinite distraction by the proliferating media of our day. For these media are not only instruments for conveying the "message;" they are an ocean in which a message can drown.

Once Mr. Clinton had been elected, the question naturally arose whether other techniques might now be appropriate. Administration officials, however, soon noted that the techniques of the candidate had their uses for the president. Instead of pressuring legislators directly, he would use the new media to bring his message to the public, which, in turn, would indirectly pressure the legislators. The technique of monomania was deployed anew. The passage of Mr. Clinton's initial budget plan was testimony to the technique's success.

Then things began to go wrong. For one thing, the Republicans defeated the president's economic stimulus plan with their filibuster -- but that's another story. (In effect they discovered an issue on which they could inflict a defeat on him without suffering too seriously in public esteem.) What is more important, the world continued to turn.

That is, history continued producing a fantastic profusion of events, including the constitutional crisis in Russia and a worsening of the crisis in Bosnia. It is a profusion that since the end of the Cold War has, if anything, increased.

Mr. Clinton responded, as any president worthy of the office had to. He gave strong support to the Russian president, Boris N. Yeltsin, shortly before the referendum on Mr. Yeltsin's presidency and policies. Mr. Clinton's support unquestionably helped Mr. Yeltsin win on all questions on the referendum.

Yet in the battle for "focus," Mr. Clinton's highly successful initiative must be considered a defeat. The same will be true for whatever Mr. Clinton does in Bosnia, although to neglect that crisis would be an unthinkable dereliction of a president's duties.

The political needs of the presidency, everyone now seems to agree, require him to focus like a laser beam on one thing only. But if that is so, then American politics is heading toward a dangerous collision with history, which has a way of producing many things to deal with at once, and does not countenance delay. Monomania may be a way of winning elections. It cannot be the way to run a country. It is a formula for misrule.

Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.

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