The White House Flopulists

June 17, 1994|By TRB

Washington -- On page 114 of his book ''The Agenda,'' Bob Woodward describes a February 1993 meeting between White House political consultant Paul Begala and deputy budget director Alice Rivlin. ''Rivlin was on the phone and eating a chicken salad sandwich, which Begala noted was dripping from her chin,'' Mr. Woodward reports.

Nasty little detail, that. The obvious question is why Mr. Begala -- who else could the source be? -- would dish it to Mr. Woodward. The obvious answer is that people dish to Mr. Woodward about others because they fear others are dishing about them.

Mr. Begala would seem to have nothing to worry about in that contest. No food drips from his chin in the book. Indeed, he and his three fellow consultants -- James Carville, Stanley Greenberg and Mandy Grunwald -- provide Mr. Woodward with his main plot line, the story of how they tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to prevent Mr. Clinton's populist agenda from being ''hijacked'' (Mr. Greenberg's word) by Wall Street types obsessed with cutting the deficit and appeasing the bond markets to bring down interest rates.

But there is no need to wait for another book in which Mr. Begala's enemies make the case against him and his allies. Mr. Woodward, with Mr. Begala's unwitting help, has already written that book. Time and again in ''The Agenda'' the ''populist'' consultants are shown giving Mr. Clinton advice that turns out to be politically dumb as well as economically foolish. Am I exaggerating? Let's go to the text:

Page 28: Candidate Clinton, after being lectured by consultants Begala and Carville, makes the promise of a middle-class tax cut a central part of his campaign. The pledge immediately becomes a liability in New Hampshire, where Paul Tsongas derides it as pandering. Shortly after being elected, Mr. Clinton abandons his promise as unaffordable. Focus groups show voters thought it a bad idea anyway.

Page 94: Mr. Greenberg learns that the president is considering an energy tax to help close the budget gap. He is furious that Mr. Clinton would consider imposing a new burden on the ''forgotten middle class.''

Page 126: Mr. Begala confronts the president and tells him he's ''too obsessed with the deficit. This is all about how elite economists see this.'' He asks Mr. Clinton, ''Why are you listening to these people?'' The president tells him to cram it.

Page 197: Ms. Grunwald prepares a populist attack on Senator David Boren, whose vote the president desperately needs to get his budget out of the Finance Committee. When cooler heads prevail, Ms. Grunwald goes into a ''near depression.''

Page 227: Mr. Greenberg sends the president a memo arguing fTC that he must choose between emphasizing deficit-reduction to please congressional moderates and a ''real-world'' message of economic growth that will please voters.

Page 229: Congressmen report that voters are demanding . . . well, deficit reduction.

Page 241: Mr. Greenberg's polling also shows that, contrary to what the consultants have been urging, President Clinton's most effective ''message'' is deficit reduction.

Page 242: The point of maximum insanity. After a protracted struggle, both houses of Congress have passed budget bills containing either energy or gasoline taxes. But to become law, the bills need to be ''reconciled'' and passed again.

At this delicate moment, the consultants dramatically produce a four-page memo, stamped ''CONFIDENTIAL.'' The memo urges the president to drop all the hard-won energy taxes. The consultants call this the ''bold zero option.'' Mr. Clinton would then be able to boast that he imposed no taxes at all on the middle class. Mr. Greenberg provokes an emergency meeting in the White House solarium. Even a small 4.3 cents-a-gallon gasoline tax, he declares, would ''remain in people's consciousness through our administration.''

In the end, of course, the consultants' ''bold zero option'' was rejected. Mr. Clinton's budget passed, gas tax included, and this victory at least temporarily revived his presidency. A year later, the tax is a non-issue, forgotten by the voters.

In economic terms, too, it turns out that Mr. Clinton's plan worked more or less the way the ''elite'' economists said it would. The purpose of cutting the deficit was never to somehow ''please'' Wall Street bond-traders and produce lower interest rates. The purpose was to avert long-term decline by stopping the government from soaking up savings that could otherwise be used by the private sector to boost future productivity. The point about interest rates, made by the economists, was simply that if they went down the needed deficit reduction could be accomplished without sending the economy into a recession. That is, so far, what has happened. It's no small achievement.

But Mr. Begala, Ms. Grunwald et al. weren't hired to give economic advice. They were hired to give political advice. Their advice was that middle-class voters needed a ''story'' with heroes and villains, that they were incapable of confronting a problem such as the deficit, in which the most obvious culprits were the political demands of middle-class voters themselves. This advice proved to be quite spectacularly wrong. Luckily, Mr. Clinton didn't take it.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written this week by Mickey Kaus.

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