Seven challenges for Clinton

January 26, 1996|By Robert Kuttner

WASHINGTON -- In the calculated headline of his State of the Union address, Bill Clinton declared to mostly Republican, applause: ''The era of big government is over.'' After a sly pause, the president added, ''But we cannot go back to a time when citizens were left to fend for themselves.''

How's that? Just how exactly do we protect citizens if not via government?

Oddly enough, President Clinton has sworn to defend two very expensive public institutions, ones that precisely protect citizens from having ''to fend for themselves'' -- Social Security and Medicare. These social programs are expensive, but not the bureaucratic ''big government'' of the right-wing caricature.

Social Security spends less money administratively than private annuities or pension plans, since it has no sales force and no portfolio managers.

Medicare gives the elderly a better return on the health dollar -- only about 3 percent goes for administration -- than any private sector health plan. Medicare lets people choose any private doctor.

These public bureaucracies are far more efficient than their private counterparts. They are also justifiably popular. So why bash the underlying philosophy on which they rest?

Moreover, these two entitlement programs, which virtually define the difference between a liberal and a conservative, are the fruits of political struggles by earlier generations of Democrats. President Clinton's partisan forebears embraced government programs -- big ones -- precisely to protect citizens from the economic turmoil that left people ''to fend for themselves".

Mr. Clinton, living off the legacy of these earlier partisan struggles, now joins the attack on big government. A cynic might think this posture opportunistic, even self-destructive, certainly destructive of his party.

Because of his embrace of budget balance, President Clinton has helped create a fiscal context in which bigger government is out of the question. And because he couples this fiscal conservatism with a defense of costly entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, the result is massive cuts -- upward of 30 percent -- in everything else government does to protect citizens.

So what does Mr. Clinton have left to offer?

First, with big government pronounced dead, he can offer small government. In a kind of vestigial, token liberalism, the president offered a new round of mini-social programs: merit scholarships for the top 5 percent of the class, training vouchers (reprogrammed from existing outlays), expanded work-study and Pell grant outlays.

Conflicts of purpose

With one hand, the president is cutting domestic outlay by 30 percent, and disparaging government. But with the other, he can't resist the liberal impulse to address problems with programs, in this case programs too small to make a difference.

Secondly, if the president abjures activist government, he can always exhort. Most of his speech was a series of ''challenges,'' with a heavy emphasis on families. Parents should turn off the TV and help kids with homework. Married couples should stay together. Teens shouldn't get pregnant. Absent fathers should provide both child-support checks and love.

Fine. But this man's job is chief executive, not chief exhorter. The right can out-exhort him, any day.

Last, if the president is reining in government spending, he still has government regulation. And here, if the headline was ''the end of big government,'' the fine print was that government is still needed to regulate.

It turns out government can do a lot to protect citizens, without having to tax and spend. But the task becomes more difficult and contradictory if you encourage the stampede against government itself. So which is it?

President Clinton offered the citizenry seven challenges. Herewith, seven challenges to President Clinton:

Challenge 1: Stop trashing government. It's what differentiates Democrats from Republicans. You will need it.

Challenge 2. Remember that you are a partisan as well as president of all the people.

Challenge 3. Don't give the opposition party everything they want. They won't respect you for it. Neither will voters.

Challenge 4. People will vote for you (or not) because your program would make a difference in their lives, not because of your homilies. Offer some policies that would make a real difference.

Challenge 5. If you are serious about using the regulatory power of government, offer a vision that would require corporations to offer more of a two-way compact with their workers. There just aren't enough enlightened employers like Aaron Feuerstein.

Challenge 6. Give Democrats some reason to support you with enthusiasm. It's not enough that Bob Dole is worse.

Challenge 7. Keep those speeches under an hour.

Robert Kuttner writes a syndicated column.

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