At last Clinton has stumbled on a theme

Robert Kuttner

October 18, 1993|By Robert Kuttner

PRESIDENT Clinton has at last offered a basic theme to define his administration, and it is a good one -- security. In a major address last Tuesday in Chapel Hill, N.C., the president astutely linked "economic security, health care security, personal security."

Connecting this theme to his oft-repeated campaign mantra -- "We must change" -- he told his audience: "People resist change when they are most insecure." Distinguishing his conception of security from a culture of dependency, Mr. Clinton declared, "The security we seek is like a rope for a rock-climber, lifting those who will take responsibility for their own lives to even greater pinnacles. It is not the absence of risk. It is the presence of opportunity."

This is an apt theme for a president who wants to reclaim government as an instrument of common purpose but who also insists on a new ethic of personal accountability. It is a deft strategy for a Democrat who professes to be tough on crime. And in the realm of employment, "security" is indeed a necessary lifeline for ordinary wage earners whose jobs are vanishing with the shifting global economy.

The ideological subtext to Mr. Clinton's new message reclaims a core theme of the modern Democratic Party: The free market may provide opportunity, but it doesn't guarantee security. This is exactly the right message for the first Democratic president in 12 years. It harkens back to Franklin Roosevelt's 1944 Four Freedoms address -- new freedoms from want and fear, as well as the traditional freedoms of speech and religion.

The trouble, however, is that many of the administration's parts are not consistent with this elegant and apt whole. Mr. Clinton's health-care reform -- which suggested the larger theme -- is perfectly on target. So is the increase in the earned income tax credit, which offers low-income wage earners with families a survival subsidy. But NAFTA? And budget balance?

If Mr. Clinton is serious about making security more than just the latest buzzword, he needs to bring consistency to the several realms of government policy-making. He needs actually to deliver security, not just invoke it. Roosevelt was a great phrase-maker too, but he was a much-loved president because the New Deal delivered.

If ordinary working people are to enjoy economic security amid a turbulent economy, it can't be done on the cheap. Government will need to modernize the archaic safety net of the 1930s and 1940s to fit the economy of the 1990s.

That means a lifetime entitlement to training and retraining and what Mr. Clinton termed "a continuous re-employment system," because, as Mr. Clinton said, "economic security can no longer be found in a particular job." It also means support systems which will recognize that in most families today both parents work.

Freedom from fear of street crime means more than just tighter gun control or surer justice. It means bringing jobs and economic hope back to inner cities.

And none of this can be accomplished by manipulating symbols, or by enacting token programs.

Unfortunately, conventional wisdom says the cupboard is bare. Departments that would actually carry out strategies of economic security, such as Labor and Housing and Urban Development, have no major new resources and little likelihood of getting them. But incredibly there are reports of White House plans for major additional budget cuts.

Vice President Gore's task force on reinventing government aims to save money that can be redirected mainly to budget balance, not to new entitlements. Savings in Pentagon spending, likewise, are earmarked mainly for deficit reduction, not for economic conversion and development.

As long as budget balance is a centerpiece of Washington's thinking, the resources will not materialize to make security more than a symbolic appeal.

And after the 1980s, voters are wary of politicians who strike the right symbolic chord but fail to follow through.

NAFTA also rains on the president's own parade. NAFTA might make sense if it had labor and environmental safeguards and if it were implemented in a context of high growth and full employment. But in the present economy, the president is hardly "on message" when he touts NAFTA as an instrument of economic security for ordinary people. NAFTA signals the opposite.

Not long ago, Mr. Clinton was widely ridiculed for trying to be all things to all people. Critic Leon Wieseltier, in the New Republic, parsed Clintonism and found a contradictory psychobabble that Mr. Wieseltier wickedly labeled Total Quality Meaning. It was one part technocratic "total quality management" cribbed from business journals, and one part touchy-feely "politics of meaning" warmed over from the '60s.

Now Mr. Clinton seems have to found an authentic theme, one that has the virtue of being right for the times, is squarely in the grand tradition of his party, and fits Mr. Clinton's own values. Security, as outlined in the Chapel Hill address, rings true.

Having defied several conventional wisdoms with his big and bold health entitlement and having discerned in it an overarching theme, Mr. Clinton now needs to pursue the logic of security to its necessary conclusions, and get his administration fully on board.

Robert Kuttner writes a weekly column on economic matters.

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