Thinking Small

Thinking Small

Once upon a time, President Clinton was a man of big policy ideas. In his first address to a joint session of Congress, shortly after taking office five years ago, he "challenged" Americans to join him "on a great national journey." And they did, for a spell. They accompanied him on a two-year trudge through the perils of revamping health care, imposing fiscal discipline and letting gays and lesbians serve openly in the military. The result: The voters delivered Congress into Republican hands.

So Clinton, ever the political chameleon, won a second term in the White House by accepting the Republicans' big ideas (on reforming welfare and balancing the budget) and offering a slew of small ideas meant to help voters in their everyday lives. Clinton has proved more adaptable, presidential historian Michael R. Beschloss said, than anyone could have guessed.

Now, with the end of his presidency increasingly in sight, Clinton is making another stab, in his State of the Union address on Jan. 27, at putting forth proposals of at least medium size--notably, to extend Medicare to some people as young as 55, to double the federal subsidies for child care and to spend more on civil rights enforcement. Those, plus offering health insurance to as many as five million children (which was part of the balanced budget law last summer), "add up to a very big idea--a restoration of progressive government," said Mark Penn, the White House's pollster.

But this is hardly the New Deal or the Great Society. These proposals, Administration officials estimated, would bring health insurance to 300,000 of the near-elderly, subsidize day care for one million more children and boost a child care tax credit for three million families by an average of $6.88 a week. James Carville, an outside adviser to Clinton, acknowledged that--in magnitude--these initiatives are "certainly not the same as Medicare," which President Johnson pushed to enactment in 1965, or the Interstate Highway System, which President Eisenhower got through Congress in 1956.

"Bill Clinton has not articulated any large visions," said University of North Carolina historian William E. Leuchtenburg, an authority on Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Not that the public is in the mood for any. Dramatic departures or sweeping solutions are about the last thing the public wants, specialists in public opinion say. Consider recent political history. First Clinton got stymied. Then so did Newt Gingrich, the big-thinking Georgia Republican who became House Speaker in 1995. Gingrich's grand hopes of radically reducing the intrusive role of government in people's lives got nowhere, once his popularity tumbled.

"What once was seen as Clinton's overreaching came to be seen as Republicans' overreaching," Columbia University professor Alan Brinkley, an expert in American history, said. "There's no great initiative, no great enthusiasm, behind large goals in public life."

This isn't new. For a decade or more, maybe since late in President Reagan's tenure, the country has been in an era of small ideas. Some big policy proposals exist, with no shortage of eager hucksters. Only, nobody's buying. The public isn't interested. "Different times have a different marginal propensity to consume big ideas," noted James P. Pinkerton, who was a domestic policy adviser to President Bush and has seen only limited success in peddling his "New Paradigm" for a market-based activism. "Times are good," he explained, and so "the market for big ideas is naturally smaller."

No Stomach for Change

Back in 1993, as Clinton's advisers were fashioning a health care proposal, Carville declared that he didn't care what it looked like "as long as it's big," a participant in some of the early meetings remembered. To a President hell-bent on greatness, bigger was better.

But not to the public. The breathtaking sweep and complexity of Clinton's plan gave its critics plenty of ammunition and perhaps preordained its defeat. In hindsight, the participant said, if the White House had announced a modestly scaled plan to let Americans take their health insurance from job to job and to assure them coverage despite "preexisting" medical conditions--things most voters worried about--Clinton "would have been nominated for sainthood."

"When people don't have big problems, they're not necessarily looking for big solutions," said Democratic pollster Mark S. Mellman, whose surveys showed that 85 per cent of Americans were happy with their medical coverage.

The culprit, that is, has been the absence of crisis. Frustrated policy entrepreneurs have taken to blaming peace and prosperity. By and large, the public seems pretty satisfied--and more so all the time. Forty-seven per cent of Americans described themselves as highly contented and precious few of them bother to follow news from Washington, according to an opinion poll the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press issued last month. Robert M. Teeter, a Republican pollster, found only 12 per cent of Americans very dissatisfied with their financial circumstances. "I've never seen a poll where [people are] so satisfied," he said.

Yet the times aren't nearly good enough to kindle the sort of bigheartedness and sense of high purpose that during the 1960s gave rise to the Great Society's ambitious, expensive assault on society's ills. Even amid the current peace and prosperity, Americans who need two incomes per household and still can't save much aren't prone to feeling fat and sassy. "Life is now a zero-sum game," Beschloss said. "The public is against anything with a downside."

In the '60s, times felt flush; lately, Washington has been strapped for money to spend on the public good. "If you're poor, you don't think big, and the country has been feeling poor," Brookings Institution economist Henry J. Aaron said. William A. Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to Clinton, traces "the defining decision of '96"--a year dominated by a small-issue election campaign--to Clinton's 1995 willingness to follow the Republicans in balancing the budget. That shifted the political battle to one of priorities, and left Clinton touting small ideas--school uniforms, V-chips and the like--that he deemed significant to voters' lives.

Something else has happened since the big-government heyday of the 1960s: The public's trust in government and other big institutions has plummeted. The ability of government to get things done has been "oversold by politicians" who've misapplied the successes achieved in World War II, said Joseph S. Nye Jr., the dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and the co-editor of a recent book, Why People Don't Trust Government. Reduced trust in government has produced "a diminished willingness to seek big ideas in government," Nye said in an interview. "When politicians say, `Let's solve all health care,' [they're] swimming upstream."

After the failed War on Poverty, the failed Vietnam war, the Watergate scandal, the failed welfare system, the lagging educational system, the $600 Pentagon toilet seats and the fall of Communism, big has gone bad in the public's mind. Americans have been "disappointed with big ideas," Pew Research Center director Andrew Kohut concluded. "People have given up on change."

A Change of Heart About Big Government

What has happened, in a way, is that one humongous idea has triumphed so profoundly that it has suffocated all rivals. From the Progressive Era through the '60s, the prevailing assumption in the United States--and in most of the world--was that a bigger government was a better one. The past quarter-century, though, has witnessed an unflinching about-face. Taxes got cut, federal revenue was shared, industries were deregulated, the Berlin Wall fell, the Cold War stopped, the era of big government ended, the market triumphed.

Just about everyone agrees on the basics. On economic policy, for instance, Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, a Democrat, "is not much different" from Republicans Gingrich and Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan, said Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, a liberal journal. "There isn't an awful lot to argue about, by historical standards," said Everett Carll Ladd, the executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut (Storrs).

On the left, traditionally the home of ambitious solutions, big ideas are notable these days for their absence. There's some policy work under way, on how to create jobs using public-private partnerships and how to reverse the rising inequality of wealth. But well-framed, big-picture ideas are nowhere in sight. In a widely publicized speech at the Kennedy School last month, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo.--liberals' likely standard-bearer in the next presidential campaign--attacked "our leaders [who] seem enamored with small ideas that nibble around the edges of big problems," but he offered no big ideas of his own.

"There's much more intellectual energy on the right than the left," Brookings's Aaron noted.

The Right has some big ideas. All of them are keyed to using markets instead of government for public ends--issuing vouchers for education, establishing medical savings accounts (MSAs) to finance health care, privatizing Social Security. So-called New Democrats have proposed their own versions of market-based policies, such as pollution permits that companies may trade. Movements are also under way to supplant the welfare state with private charity (driven by tax credits) and to flatten the income tax or abolish it altogether.

But even these ideas, in sync with the zeitgeist, are flagging. In the spring of 1995, after pushing most of the GOP's Contract With America through Congress, Gingrich made a strategic decision, a confidant said--to push all-out for a balanced budget instead of trying to dismantle the workings of government--because he feared that the rest of his party wouldn't go along. School choice has made occasional inroads, but Jennifer Grossman, the director of educational policy at the libertarian Cato Institute, said it has largely been thwarted by the influential teachers' unions and the apparent lack of a crisis. Bill Gradison, the president of the Health Insurance Association of America, surmised that MSAs haven't taken off because "people are risk-averse" when it comes to health care.

The national debate over policy has been dominated by "small ideas because no one has been successful in creating a framework for big ideas," said Jeffrey A. Eisenach, the president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank. He cited the "continuing failure by both political parties to create any kind of philosophical context that would support a big idea."

Land of Incrementalism

James Madison would surely be delighted. The checks and balances that he designed for the fledgling Republic were meant to discourage big changes in policy unless the need was overwhelming.

Don't cast aspersions, though, on small ideas, counseled Richard P. Nathan, who was a domestic policy adviser to President Nixon and is now the director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government. "America is the land of incrementalism," he pointed out. "It takes a crisis to [produce] big change."

Indeed, that's what many policy and political experts say it will take--an economic dive or an international calamity--before big ideas come back into vogue. Or it may just take time. Kennedy School professor Elaine C. Kamarck, until recently a policy adviser to Vice President Al Gore, said she's convinced that--within a decade or so--the government will follow the private sector in replacing the big bureaucracies that arose in the industrial era with the supple market mechanisms suited to the Information Age.

The public doesn't necessarily need a crisis, however, to make it endorse big change, Progressive Policy Institute president Will Marshall maintained. His evidence: the 1912 election. The Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft, finished third, behind two Progressives--Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic winner, and former President Theodore Roosevelt of the Bull Moose Party. The outcome marked the start of the Progressive Era, as Washington moved to regulate a transformed economy dominated by industrial trusts.

The 1912 election, however, was a culmination of 20 years of "steadily growing reform ideas" that had coalesced into a "coherent, well-articulated challenge to laissez-faire and Social Darwinism," Columbia professor Brinkley said--far beyond anything that's going on today. The current lack of sophistication of policy thinking "is more comparable to 1898 than 1912," the historian added, predicting a transforming election "maybe in 2012."

Poor, legacy-lusting Clinton. If he arrived in Washington harboring hopes of winding up on Mount Rushmore, he had the bad luck to be elected at the wrong time. Yet he keeps revealing a wish to govern in a grander way than the citizenry seems to want.

Clinton allies say they're hopeful he can speed up the cycle of history by proving to the public--such as by balancing the budget and "reinventing" government--that Washington can once again be trusted. But in the meantime, Clinton may have to curb--or disguise--his policy ambitions.

Probably wisely. Big ideas take time. Welfare reform was debated for more than a decade before it happened. Starting to lay the groundwork for addressing big problems--rescuing entitlement programs, for instance--may be as much as any President can accomplish in a few years. Given the constraints of the political age, Clinton may have to rest content with being essentially a steward--albeit one of an activist bent--guiding a nation through a formidable transition.

And what's wrong with that? Historians, after all, have been giving higher and higher marks to Eisenhower, a capable though prosaic leader in an era that suited him. There's nothing shameful in being a President who's right for the times.

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