Clinton can put it together again

January 25, 1995|By Kalman R. Hettleman

TO REVIVE the political fortunes of Democrats, President Clinton is being urged to look to Harry S. Truman for inspiration. But an even better role model would be Franklin D. Roosevelt. Harry "gave 'em hell" and made a stunning comeback, but FDR launched a political revolution.

The New Deal redefined the relationship between government and business in order to protect the interests of working people. It reinvented American politics. A coalition was formed of "forgotten Americans": urban ethnics, labor unions, racial minorities and southern whites. President Roosevelt chose sides. In language that shocks even today, he exhorted Congress to combat an "economic autocracy" seeking "power for themselves, enslavement for the public." He condemned "economic royalists," "economic tyranny" and "the unjust concentration of wealth and economic power."

At the same time, FDR's class warfare bark was worse than its legislative bite. New Deal measures struck a balance between capital and labor. FDR sought to save capitalism from itself -- from the excesses which caused the Great Depression and brought the threat of a worker revolution. He succeeded famously, and the allegiance of a majority of Americans, united by economic interests, was secured.

Over the years this legacy has been squandered. The Democratic coalition self-destructed as working class whites split from racial minorities and upper-income liberals over affirmative action, welfare, tax burden and family values. Republicans were able to pose as populists, embracing disaffected white voters on social issues while diverting attention from the growing redistribution of income to the wealthy.

Bill Clinton understands this. But he has failed to re-cement the coalition, even though the opportunity is ripe. The global economy, driven by technology, threatens the standard of living of most Americans. Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently stated that the United States has "the most unequal distribution of income of any industrial nation in the world." In the '80s the wealthiest 1 percent of American families reaped 60 percent of ++ the gains in after-tax income. Simultaneously, large corporations bought substantial control of the political process through campaign contributions, lobbyists, think tanks and other means

of influencing public opinion. Policies result which favor bond markets over economic growth, perpetuate tax loopholes

and enable corporate profits to soar while layoffs multiply and wages stagnate. These outcomes are not Adam Smith ordained, but politically engineered by those political analyst Kevin Phillips calls "the political and financial elites."

The Democratic challenge today, as in FDR's time, is to restore a greater balance of power between economic classes and a fairer distribution of risks and rewards.

But you would hardly know it from the Clinton presidency. The economic recovery plan caused the president himself to wail, as reported by Bob Woodward in "The Agenda,": "We're all Eisenhower Republicans . . . we're losing our soul." The final Clinton budget package featured deficit reduction over social investment and economic growth. Mr. Clinton said, "Roosevelt was trying to help people. Here we help the bond market, and we hurt the people who voted us in."

Nonetheless Mr. Clinton caved in -- and no wonder. His economic team has been headed by Wall Street super-power, Robert E. Rubin, director of the National Economic Council, and recently resigned Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, a fiscal conservative and disciple of Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. Moreover, Democrats have become as indentured as Republicans to special interest money, especially from the financial sector.

Mr. Clinton also has defaulted on his populist promises to "clean up Washington." Trade Representative Mickey Kantor and Commerce Secretary Ron Brown epitomize the "high-priced lobbyists and Washington influence peddlers" that Mr. Clinton vowed to uproot. Ethical breaches in high places have been numerous. Mr. Clinton has even failed to cultivate a good ol' Arkansas boy image, yielding to the elite trappings of the office and hanging out with the Hollywood crowd.

The appointment of Judge Stephen Breyer to the Supreme Court seemed to sum up the pattern. Mr. Breyer is generally liberal on social issues but staunchly conservative on economic ones.

These lapses in populist style and substance have cost Mr. Clinton credit for those initiatives (for example, the earned income tax credit and health care) that favor the working class. The president is the victim of his own lack of coherence and conviction. Republicans have been able to falsely portray him as "too liberal" because voters don't have any clear image of him one way or the other.

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