Clinton: The Sequel

Would four more years bring out the Old or the New Democrat in Bill Clinton? His political past and present ambitions offer some clues.


e've seen this campaign before: Bill Clinton as the tough-minded New Democrat, a family values guy, a crime-fighting sportsman who's careful about how he'll spend the taxpayers' hard-earned dough.

That was how he got elected in 1992. He ran to the Right and ended the Democrats' string of presidential defeats. Then he governed toward the Left.

Not entirely, by any means. In the end, he halved the federal budget deficit, drove through the North American Free Trade Agreement, cut back on the size of the federal government and (tardily) proposed a tough-love approach to welfare reform--good New Democratic themes all.

But in tone and often in substance, he governed as more of an Old Democrat, at least at first. From the controversy over gays in the military that dominated his opening days in office to his mega-failure on health care reform to the Sixties-style indulgence that pervaded his Administration's culture, he often has come across like more of a liberal than a centrist.

Now he's running Right again. He started this election year by declaring that the era of big government was toast. He has tried to take on a culturally conservative cast by pushing for things, such as V-chips to shield children from televised violence and curfews for teenagers, about which a President can do little more than talk. The draft platform that the Democratic National Convention will take up is a ``stunningly'' New Democratic document, according to Elaine C. Kamarck, a senior policy adviser to Vice President Albert Gore Jr. who had a big hand in shaping it. The latest draft calls for ``a smaller, more effective, less bureaucratic government'' and ``a moderate, achievable, commonsense agenda.''

Since the Democrats lost control of Congress in the electoral shock of 1994, Clinton has governed at times like a pale version of a Republican, calling for tax cuts and a balanced budget. But whether he'd govern toward the Right in a second term is harder to know. The public doesn't. In an opinion poll recently conducted for The New York Times, 52 per cent of the respondents said they didn't know enough about where Clinton stands to predict what he'd do if he's reelected.

White House aides have been shy about saying too much about what a second term holds for fear of presenting Robert Dole, the Republican nominee, with fodder for his campaign. But there are some clues.

The advisers who drafted the platform--the White House's leading New Democrats--are confident that Clinton would govern as a centrist in a second term. ``He's really a New Democrat,'' Kamarck said. ``It will be a New Democratic second term.'' Bruce Reed, the deputy White House domestic policy adviser who was in charge of drafting the platform, said he foresees ``more vouchers, more tax credits, more efficient ways of delivering government services,'' instead of the big, bureaucratic mechanisms of the Democratic past. ``There's a recognition on our part that the government can't do it all, never could and shouldn't pretend to,'' Reed said.

Even some of the New Democratic activists, though, wonder how fiercely Clinton's heart would be with them in a second term. ``The acid test to me will be in the staffing,'' said Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), the font of New Democratic thinking.

Others allude to Clinton's penchant for half-measures. ``The era of big government isn't over,'' said Robert D. Reischauer, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, noting Clinton's continuing enthusiasm for medicare, social security, federal student loans and other huge government programs. ``The more appropriate statement is that the era of even bigger government is over.''

Something else might keep Clinton from becoming a full-fledged New Democrat: a yearning for greatness. If he's reelected, his advisers say, he may push next year for a far-reaching budget agreement. He may also barnstorm the country in hopes of persuading the public to regard 14 years of schooling--two years beyond high school--as the new standard of American education. Beyond those, however, the initiatives that he and his advisers have in mind for a second term are plentiful but hardly earthshaking.

``If the era of big government is over, maybe the era of big ideas is over,'' said William A. Galston, a charter New Democrat who left the White House domestic policy staff last year. ``If neither the President nor Dole puts large ideas on the table during the summer or fall of 1996, it's extremely unlikely that [the next] Congress will be dominated by large ideas.'' If Clinton is reelected, he and Congress may strike what Galston described as ``modest, incremental, bipartisan steps'' in arenas such as education and health care.

But if governing as a centrist means fiddling with the levers of government and then getting out of the way, that may not be enough for a man with appetites as large as Clinton's. A Nov. 5 victory would make Clinton just the third Democratic president this century to win reelection, joining the august company of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Clinton told an interviewer during his first year in office that he hadn't come to Washington to warm a seat. ``I don't think that flame inside him is doing anything but burning brighter,'' an Administration official said.

If thinking small gets in the way of conducting a possibly historic presidency, it's easy to guess which way Clinton would go.

Baby Steps

One place to look for hints about a second Clinton term is the Democratic Party's 1996 platform. Scholars say that platforms matter. That's what Gerald M. Pomper, a political scientist at Rutgers University, concluded after studying the promises that the major parties wrote into their platforms from 1944-76. Almost three-fourths of the pledges were fulfilled in whole or in part, or at least an effort was made. ``Platforms do affect behavior,'' Pomper said, recounting that President Carter printed his 170-plus pledges and distributed them to his appointees and that President Reagan would check to see what his party's platform had promised. Pomper added, ``Why do people have fights about them if they don't mean anything?'' The 1992 Democratic platform was a hodgepodge. Half of it came from the New Democratic themes propounded by the Democratic Leadership Council that Clinton once chaired, and half from the customary pledges meant to satisfy the party's traditional constituencies. It read like a document written by a committee.

The 1996 platform, written for a sitting President, doesn't. A few changes were made in the latest draft, issued last month after painstaking negotiations with Democratic interest groups, in the hope of averting any challenges on the floor of the Chicago convention. Still, the result has made organized labor, for one, uncomfortable. The platform is organized around the concepts of ``opportunity,'' ``responsibility'' and ``community''--buzzwords in the New Democratic lexicon that Clinton can be expected to invoke again and again in the weeks to come. It sketches a revised form of governmental activism meant, as the draft says, ``to give people the tools they need to make the most of their own lives.''

``What's happened is that there's been steady progress in the redefinition of the party, the refocusing of the party, on New Democratic themes,'' PPI's Marshall said. ``The platform confirms that the Administration wants to define itself in terms of New Democratic reformism.''

Maybe what's most striking about the Democratic platform is what isn't in it: ambitious health care proposals. There's nothing about revamping the medical system and not a word about universal access to health insurance, the central visions of Clinton's most notorious failure. The absence of a health care focus isn't a surprise to anyone. ``I find it impossible to believe that the President would return to the issue that nearly destroyed his presidency,'' Galston said.

The Kassebaum-Kennedy bill, which will let people keep their health insurance when they leave a job, is expected to become the jumping-off point for debate next year. Clinton suggested in an interview with The New York Times last month that he'd favor subsidizing people who've been unemployed for a while so they could afford the health coverage that Kassebaum-Kennedy will allow them to keep. That's ``the next logical step,'' a White House aide said, one that would cost $2 billion a year and help as many as four million people.

Clinton policy makers are also working on ways to help small businesses set up voluntary purchasing cooperatives so they can buy cheaper insurance. There's discussion as well on letting states experiment more easily with the medicaid program.

``You've got to be careful about going too far, too fast, especially in the area of health care,'' the aide said, citing an erosion in the public's confidence that Washington can deliver. Another Administration official said he expected ``baby steps now and for the foreseeable future.''

An Eye on History

In the opening year of a second term, a well-connected Democrat reported, Clinton ``really wants to make a name for himself.''

One way he may try to do so, Administration planners say, is with a far-reaching budget package that moves toward ending the federal deficit in 2002. ``I think he envisions a '93-style package,'' an Administration strategist said, one that eases the pain of deficit reduction with a bag of goodies. ``I'd be surprised [if] there's going to be what I might call a Tsongas-like austerity package,'' he said, referring to former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts, whose sourpuss demeanor on budget matters proved no match for the cheerier Clinton when the two men competed for the 1992 Democratic nomination.

It would be ``Balanced Budget Amendment Lite,'' Reischauer prophesied. Such a package would curb spending on entitlements--then add a plethora of programs that Clinton might want to claim as a second-term legacy. It might include the sequel to Kassebaum-Kennedy and a raft of other things that Clinton has been touting.

Some seem pretty modest. One is the set of pension reforms that Clinton has already proposed, which would let people who work for themselves or for a small company carry their pensions with them from job to job. Treasury Department officials have also been working on ways to funnel more capital to inner cities. One idea is to create a secondary market for mortgages in poor neighborhoods.

Other ornaments in a Clinton budget package would be considerably bigger--and pricier. Chief among them is the bundle of tax benefits that Clinton has dubbed the ``Middle Class Bill of Rights,'' which he proposed a month after Republicans triumphed in the 1994 elections. His proposals for a $500 tax credit for dependent children, a $10,000 tax deduction for higher education and an expansion of individual retirement accounts would, altogether, cost the federal treasury a whopping $109 billion over the next six years, according to the Administration's latest estimates. Having broken his pledge in the 1992 campaign to cut taxes for the middle class, Clinton would lose political capital by breaking the same promise twice.

Devoting so much money to tax cuts would intensify the pressure on the rest of the budget. The Administration's latest budget projections, issued last month, show the government's discretionary spending on most domestic programs ``in a freeze or worse,'' at least through 2002, a budget official said.

The things that aren't frozen suggest some likely priorities in a second term. Increases in discretionary spending are planned for environmental protection, law enforcement and science and technology.

But by far the heartiest increases in spending are reserved for education and job training. ``Education at every level will be a central focus,'' Reed said. He talked of distributing $1,000 scholarships to the smartest high school students, putting pressure on states to bolster their standards, encouraging the concept of ``charter'' schools, creating job-training vouchers and--in Clinton's latest initiative--spending $5 billion over the next four years to help local governments build and repair schools.

``Some New Democrats, like me, are not afraid to spend money,'' Reed said.

And they would. The price tag would come to $18 billion over six years for Clinton's proposed deduction for higher education and another $25 billion for the $1,500 tax credits he proposed last spring at Princeton University as a way to establish 14 years of schooling as the norm. The latter, pegged to the average tuition at a community college, would be available for an initial year of higher education and again for a second year to students who keep a B average and aren't convicted of certain felonies involving illegal drugs. Dealing with education issues, Reed said, would be ``the first thing out of the box.''

Some analysts object that the tax code is a horrendously inefficient tool to make higher education more widely available. But Clinton seems sold on it. ``Making the 13th and 14th years [of education] a standard for everybody is a pillar of our economic and educational agenda,'' Reed said.

It's also the closest thing Clinton has to a big idea, one that might capture the imagination of a cynical public. He seems to be aspiring to the label of Education President, much like the man he replaced.

Priorities Galore

The danger, as in Clinton's first term, is an Administration with so many priorities that it has none. Reed cited a ``shorter'' list that included education, deficit reduction, crime, portability for pensions and health insurance, ``reinventing'' government and family-related issues such as smoking and family leave. ``That's enough work to last four years,'' Reed said.

Of course, even the short list may not be so short. Each priority has sub-priorities. Next in line for reinvention are several federal agencies that will be allowed to customize their own rules for buying equipment and hiring workers. Among the anti-crime measures that officials are contemplating are a ban on so-called cop-killer bullets, a crime victim ``bill of rights,'' after-school programs to keep kids out of trouble and a plan for drug testing parolees.

The list goes on. Enactment of welfare reform would bring a second round of ``empowerment zones'' and an expansion in community development banks ``to make sure that there are jobs for people on welfare to go to,'' Reed said. Administration officials also talk (though vaguely) of expanding the hemisphere's free-trade zone into South America.

As part of its family and values focus, the Administration plans to raise the issue of fatherlessness. The Administration has already started to use the levers of government to address the issue by changing the rules for public housing to encourage fathers to live with their families. But Administration officials believe they can raise the visibility of the problem even further by having Clinton and Gore use the bully pulpit. ``This is enormous--this is classically new government,'' Kamarck said.

Much of what would dominate a second term, however, would lie beyond any Administration's control. Clinton and his advisers are dreaming if they expect to set the political agenda. Too much stands in their way. The Republicans have commanded the agenda since they seized control of Congress. Even more threatening are ugly realities that Clinton--and Dole, too--hopes to keep mum about as the campaign unfolds.

The spiraling cost of entitlements, for one. Clinton has gotten considerable political mileage since 1994 by defending medicare and other popular entitlement programs from Republican depredation. In a second term, though, he'd pay the price. The money that Clinton would need to finance his most ambitious plans for a second term assumes a deal with Congress on medicare and medicaid savings that is far from being struck. Maybe worse, the medicare trust fund is on the path to bankruptcy and will have to be bailed out. Clinton has suggested creating a bipartisan commission to figure out how. Once medicare is fixed, social security looms next.

Danger also lurks internationally. One date to keep an eye on is just after the election. Dec. 1 is the deadline for NATO and U.S. military forces to be withdrawn from Bosnia--assuming that nothing erupts there before then. A scaled-back version of a peacekeeping force is thought likely to come next, with American forces taking part (though Defense Secretary William J. Perry was muzzled when he mentioned this in public). The next four years are also bound to bring foreign policy crises in places as disparate--and potentially explosive--as Cuba and Saudi Arabia.

Along with the things that Clinton would like to keep quiet during the campaign, some of the issues he keeps raising on the stump may sink from view if he gets a second term. His calls for, say, school uniforms and curfews for teenagers, policies under the control of local authorities, have more to do with political atmospherics than the stuff of governance.

A Late Bloomer?

Clinton has had a second term before. His first term as the governor of Arkansas was a calamity. He tried to do too much, was considered out of touch, and soon became the youngest ex-governor in American history. The people of Arkansas forgave him and awarded him a second term, which turned out to be the most successful of the four and a half that he served. It featured his most far-reaching accomplishment as governor--education reforms, paid for with higher taxes, that have had a genuine impact on Arkansas schools.

His own history may offer the best hope for a productive second term. For most Presidents, second terms have been the pits. Fred I. Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton, couldn't think of a single second term in the modern presidency that was more accomplished than the first, with the possible exception of Reagan's success in winding down the Cold War. Roosevelt squandered a landslide reelection by trying to pack the Supreme Court, turning his second term into a disaster. Dwight D. Eisenhower's was as reactive as his first. Harry S Truman got mired in Korea, and Lyndon B. Johnson in Vietnam.

But, Greenstein added, ``it's possible that this could be a late-blooming second-term presidency.'' Clinton has a lot going for him. For one thing, he may find Congress more cooperative than he has so far, no matter which party wins control in November. The recent spurt of congressional action--notably, on welfare reform and health care--suggests that Republicans sometimes would rather get something done than fight with the White House. If the Democrats reclaim control of either congressional chamber, they would have Clinton to thank and may find it hard to be as willful as they were in 1993-94. Both parties have learned during the past four years of gridlock that each needs the other to succeed.

Clinton has also grown on the job. He is more disciplined and the White House runs more smoothly than before. Since about the time of the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City, more than a year ago, ``he's finally become President,'' a Democratic insider said. ``There's a confidence that's come into him in the last 8-10 months that I haven't seen before.''

He has never shown the deft touch of a Roosevelt or a John F. Kennedy in gracefully manipulating the political dynamics and playing interest groups against one another. This is a talent he'd find more useful than ever, given the fiscal constraints that have turned policy making--and politics--into a zero-sum game. He may have to rest content with the smallish accomplishments that the politics of limits entails, or else share the credit.

Even liberals in the Administration acknowledge that, as one of them put it, ``the center of gravity will be in the center of the political spectrum.'' Clinton, for his part, has shown that he can govern Left or govern Right.

If he wins a second term, for the first time in his frenetic political career he wouldn't have to face the next election. His endless campaign would be done. That would free him to be whatever he really is--the New Democrat, the tax-and-spend liberal or the policy wonk extraordinaire.

Or so the thinking goes. It seems likelier that the muddled, self-contradictory character of Clinton's first term serves as the truest reflection of his political soul. Clinton seems to believe in almost everything--and what's wrong with that?

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