He's not up to the job Is Clinton already a failure?

Mona Charen

June 01, 1993|By Mona Charen

IT'S beginning to look as if Bill Clinton peaked too early -- say, on Nov. 6, 1992. It was difficult to predict, on the evidence of his campaign (deceptive, to be sure, but also skillful), that he would implode like this.

But as the foul-ups -- from hairgate to the limping budget to the travel office quagmire -- accumulate, one is forced to conclude that Mr. Clinton is not up to the job.

Just after the campaign, Newsweek published a special issue providing never-before-revealed details about the presidential race. Mark Miller reported that Bill Clinton had entered the 1992 race as a trial run. He fully expected Gov. Mario Cuomo to receive the nomination. Only in February, when Governor Cuomo declined to enter the race, did Mr. Clinton realize that he might indeed be nominated himself.

Mr. Clinton was a veteran campaigner. Until very recently, the term for governor of Arkansas was two years, so Mr. Clinton had run five campaigns in a dozen years. (After the law was changed to provide for a four-year term for governor, Mr. Clinton made a promise that if elected, he would not seek the presidency.) Campaigning was second nature to him. Governing is not.

When Mr. Clinton took office, he had a magnificent opportunity to reshape and solidify the strength of the Democratic Party. The Republicans were demoralized and leaderless. The message of Reaganism -- pro-growth, anti-tax and anti-regulation -- had been vitiated by President Bush. Many, perhaps a majority of Americans, were hoping that the day of the "new Democrat" really had arrived.

What would a new Democrat have done? In the first place, he would have shunned the kind of social engineering associated with the left wing of the Democratic Party. That would have meant no gays in the military, no hiring by quota, no activist lesbian appointments and no class warfare rhetoric.

On the economic front, a new Democrat, recognizing the reputation of his party that must be lived down, would have become serious about budget cutting. He would have presented a budget to Congress that took aim at entitlements, at farm subsidies and at pork-barrel projects of every kind. In short, a new Democrat's economic program would have been what Bill Clinton claims his program is -- a serious effort to reduce the federal deficit. It's the spending, stupid!

The trouble, of course, is that President Clinton is trying to govern the way he campaigned -- dishonestly. He claims that his budget is a serious effort at deficit reduction, yet he originally proposed billions in new spending for social programs dear to the hearts of Hillary's constituency -- make-work public jobs, more spending on welfare, more spending on food stamps. The dishonesty of presenting a new spending bonanza as budget cutting is what sank his so-called "stimulus package."

Mr. Clinton claimed that only those in the very highest earning brackets would pay higher taxes. But the "millionaires' surtax" begins on those earning $250,000 or more, and the energy tax hits every income group.

When the Clintons are not defending their lifestyle, they are floating trial balloons for new taxes. In the months since the election, we have heard of a new corporate tax, a VAT tax, a gasoline tax and higher income-tax rates. The Clintons keep searching for the most palatable tax, because they are so excited about what government can do with the money. What the people are trying to tell them is thanks, but no thanks.

The president is badly off course, struggling to hold his own party together. But while there's talk in Washington of another failed presidency, it's not too late for Mr. Clinton to turn things around. He has made health care his next big crusade, promising to simultaneously increase coverage and lower costs. This is an economic impossibility -- not to say a hornet's nest. The plan Hillary's task force has designed is rumored to be more deception. It will be labeled "managed competition," but the emphasis will be on the "manage," not the competition.

Better to focus instead on something he actually campaigned on -- welfare reform. That way, Clinton might a) succeed at doing some good and b) have something with which to demonstrate that he is not the most mendacious candidate ever elected.

Mona Charen writes a syndicated column.

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