But he has to lead

February 07, 1997|By Michael Kelly

WASHINGTON -- The State of the Union speech, was not, of course, a good speech. Bill Clinton is not incapable of giving a good speech in the technical sense, but he is pretty close to it. He is as pedestrian as a postman, and he is under the impression that verbosity is the soul of wisdom. But the speech, at least, strongly suggests a president who has a clear sense of the direction in which he wishes to go, and this direction is by and large a good one.

The speech was first of all focused on significant goals. The great things that need to be fixed in this country are all about the restoration of a decent life to working people, the privilege of living in modest comfort, with certain minimum expectations met: good free schools, safe neighborhoods, functioning institutions of government, the possibility of generational advancement. Mr. Clinton unambiguously embraced these expectations.

The broad domestic goals he set for his second term were these: to produce a balanced budget; to rescue Medicare and Medicaid; to pass meaningful campaign-finance reform; to stick hard to the effort to reduce welfare dependency; to extend health coverage; to continue efforts to reduce crime and punish the criminals who have destroyed city life for working families; and, above all, to address the failure of public schools to educate children, especially poor children.

Political frivolity

It is true that not all of the specific proposals toward achieving these goals are real, right and serious -- the call for a victims'-rights amendment to the Constitution was a notable intrusion of the politics of the frivolous -- but the main thing is that the goals are right, and serious. An administration that sticks with these goals, and accomplishes them (we'll see about that), will have accomplished a good deal.

A government that balances the budget, saves Medicare, finishes the job of welfare reform, imposes real campaign-finance reform and sets public schools to hard national standards for reading and mathematics will be able to boast that it has done honorable, important work to improve the lives of the citizens of this country.

And a Democratic president who accomplishes these things will be able to boast of something else. He will be able to say that he has done what many people thought impossible -- to restore the Democratic Party as the majority party in America, a party that clearly represents the ideal of an activist government working on behalf of the interests and values of working men and women, and not the interests and values of the dilettante left.

There is much, of course, that could prevent such a happy outcome. There are, among other things, the Clinton fund-raising scandals, and Kenneth Starr and Paula Jones; it remains entirely possible that the second Clinton term will largely be an exercise in damage containment.

And there is Mr. Clinton himself, and Clintonism. Dick Morris may be gone, but his doctrine lingers on. This is still a White House that polls before breakfast, and deeply loves the idea of symbolic achievement. It is still the home of many people, including the president, who are susceptible to the belief that the main trick in politics is to produce something that is close enough to an achievement to fool enough of the people enough of the time.

Perhaps we will get four more years of extending family medical leave to cover PTA meetings, and targeted tax cuts for soccer moms, and all the other teeny tiny bennies that have lately captured the White House's fancy. Four more years of micro-pork.

But, for now at least, this speech suggests differently. Mr. Clinton spent the first two years of his presidency looking for direction, and the second two years looking for re-election. Now he has both, and a Congress that has so thoroughly spooked itself that it may let the president lead. But he has to lead.

Michael Kelly is editor of The New Republic, in which this article first appeared in longer form.

Pub Date: 2/07/97

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