The New 'New Covenant'

January 26, 1995

President Clinton had every right to boast Tuesday night that "record numbers of Americans are succeeding in the new global economy. We are at peace, and we are a force for peace and freedom throughout the world. We have [added] almost six million new jobs since I became president, and we have the lowest combined rate of unemployment and inflation in 25 years. Our businesses are more productive, and here we have worked to bring down the deficit, to expand trade, to put more police on our streets, to give our citizens more of the tools they need to get an education and to rebuild their own communities."

So the state of the Union is good.

But that is not the true state of the Union in January 1995, and the president knows it. The true state of the Union is one of dissatisfaction with the status quo and a strong desire for change. The president acknowledged that by invoking the adjective "new" so often.

"So tonight," he said, "we must forge a new social compact to meet the challenges of this time. As we enter a new era, we need a new set of understandings, not just with government but even more important with one another as Americans. . . I call it the New Covenant."

Mr. Clinton means that he, like the Republicans now in charge of Congress, wants to downsize the federal government and ship a lot of decision-making out of Washington. He said it again and again and again, to cheers and applause: "move programs down to the point where states and communities and private citizens in the private sector can do a better job. . . we should get out of the way and let them do what they can do better. . . tak[e] power away from federal bureaucracies and giv[e] it back to communities and individuals. . . time for Congress to stop passing on to the states the cost of decisions we make here in Washington."

That's not just new, it's revolutionary, for a Democrat. Wilson's New Freedom, Roosevelt's New Deal and Kennedy's New Frontier expanded and centralized governmental power at the federal level. (In his 1992 campaign Mr. Clinton used "New Covenant" in a pro-federal government way.) President Clinton says now that the New Covenant's emphasis on decentralization "is something everyone should be able to be for." But most of the applause for those lines in the paragraph above came from the Republican side of the aisle.

We believe the president reads the political state of mind of the Union correctly. The question is, can he lead his Democratic Party in this new direction? The last time a moderate Democratic president tried to make a modest course correction to the right, the party broke apart and allowed Ronald Reagan to usher in the beginning of a conservative and, perhaps, a briefly interrupted Republican age.

Partisanship aside, if a Democratic president and a Republican Congress can bring about all the things both sides applauded Tuesday night and some of the things both sides must compromise on to enact, it will be good for everyone involved -- and for the Union.

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