Executive Decisions


Bill Clinton's supporters compare the Arkansas governor to Jack Kennedy. His detractors say Clinton's libidinous, all right, but as a policy maker he more closely resembles Michael Dukakis. Partisan bickering aside, there is a chief executive with whom Clinton shares striking similarities: California Gov. Pete Wilson, who recently survived his second consecutive budget crisis.

Compare Wilson's 1990 campaign to Clinton's. Both candidates are tough on crime, liberal on social issues, and as green as the Sierra Club. Despite facing big budget deficits, each proposes an aggressive legislative agenda highlighted by expensive programs for children. Both disparage bureaucracy but not regulations. And both run against the prevailing images of their parties—Wilson against the tax-cutting social conservatives of Orange County, Clinton against the special interests that keep Democrats from winning the White House.

Pete Wilson won in 1990 but has had little opportunity to implement his ambitious agenda. A $55-billion budget that was supposed to be $500 million in the red on election day was nearly $15 billion short four months later. To balance his budget, Wilson raised taxes by $8 billion and relied mostly on accounting gimmicks and inflated revenue projections to do the rest.

As soon as the 1991 budget fiasco was over, this year's crisis began. It ended this September, after the California government operated for more than 60 days on IOUs.

To his credit, this time Wilson refused to allow general tax increases and held education spending in line with inflation. He also cut the state's fairly generous welfare benefits and increased the fees paid by well-subsidized college students.

The state will continue to have longterm troubles maintaining a generous welfare state, but Wilson learned how to read a calendar: Unpopular legislators must face voters this November, two years before they decide Wilson's fate.

Wilson discovered that, as he faced a crisis, he had to rely on an ideology and stick with it; competent management wasn't enough. He chose fiscal conservatism, which (his critics claim) doesn't accurately reflect his temperament. But even if Wilson doesn't make a credible Reaganite, his new-found conservatism has enhanced his reputation as a chief executive.

When Bill Clinton faces a fiscal crisis, and he will, he will have to find his ideological moorings. He could embrace the entrepreneurial vision of David Osborne and the Progressive Policy Institute. Clinton articulately supports welfare reform. The PPI vision would also suggest establishing partnerships with private investors to build roads, bridges, and airports, and leasing some existing government facilities to entrepreneurs. Clinton could thus boost infrastructure investment without tapping taxpayers.

Much of Clinton's rhetoric, however, suggests he would turn left. He already endorses new payroll taxes to fund national health insurance. And his agenda relies on mandates, which hide the cost of government services by forcing businesses to provide them. Family leave and worker retraining are but two examples.

His key economic advisers oppose deregulation. One, Robert Reich, believes infrastructure privatization has gone too far; another, Derek Shearer, was the architect of Santa Monica's tough rent-control laws. His vice president, Al Gore, advocates draconian environmental policies.

As a candidate, Bill Clinton can get away with pandering. But if he wins the election, he'll find (as did Pete Wilson) that governing requires making tough choices. The direction his ideological compass points will say much about how intrusive the federal government would become under President Clinton.