Picture this: The Progressive Policy Institute holds a conference called "After the Los Angeles Riots: New Perspectives on America's Urban Crisis," and hardly anyone praises Bill Clinton. The story could be a movie. It lacks sex, but it has plenty of drama.
The PPI is an offshoot of the Democratic Leadership Council, the group of moderate-to-conservative Democrats that Clinton chaired until he resigned to run for president. Using DLC credibility, Clinton campaigned as "a different kind of Democrat." That's the setup.
Now the plot thickens: The leading man, having gotten what he wanted, abandons the people who helped him on the way up. The treatment for The Sweet Smell of Success? No, this is a new story. Call it When Paradigms Collide.
Scene 1: The new secretary of housing and urban development, Henry Cisneros, rolls up to a plush Washington hotel in his limo, is bustled into the room, shakes hands, and starts speaking. This is no impromptu talk. This is a Speech. Cisneros has his script down cold. Sample line: "We must infuse throughout all our programs a sense of upward lift. Our business is not just to create housing but to make housing a platform for upward mobility."
Cisneros has star presence—not just movie-star looks; he dresses better, styles his hair better, and carries himself better than the nerds, job seekers, academics, and journalists in the audience. He talks a little about "reinventing HUD," but the thrust of his speech is the reinvention of American society. He concedes that "scandal, ineptitude, and bureaucracy" are the appropriate word associations for HUD. But such concessions serve mainly to ladle mud on his predecessor, Jack Kemp. Cisneros decries the "backlog of inadequacies…financial systems, control systems, flawed organizational structures." He is doing his part to write the 1996 remake of last year's hit, Triumph of the Bill.
But Cisneros's main focus is a different set of problems: "racism," "discrimination," and "neglect." These lines were boffo at the political box office in the '60s; it's surprising to hear them today, in the wake of the Great Society.
There's also a confusion in Cisneros's message. On the one hand he says, "We must invest in central cities." (As if the first $2 trillion in social-welfare spending were just table stakes.) On the other hand, Cisneros declares that "spatial separation"—between the poor and potential jobs—is the biggest problem. So which is it? The answer, to Cisneros at least, is obvious: Spend more on both.
Cisneros does not shrink from the challenge. "We need to work with the Labor Department…with the Department of Commerce," and so on: Education, SBA, HHS…Nobody ever thought of that before!
Cisneros adds, seemingly without irony, that he will "delegate responsibility deeper in the system." No one asks how bureaucrats can give away money without falling prey to favoritism and cronyism, if not outright corruption. Why bother? Cisneros is too sleek and moves too fast to be slowed down by tough questions. You just know that, having been the first Hispanic mayor of a big city and the first Hispanic HUD secretary, he'll go on to become the first Hispanic everything else.
Scene 2: Fred Siegel follows Cisneros at the lectern. He is a different kind of different Democrat. For one thing, he's shorter and rounder. Siegel looks like what he is: a professor (at Cooper Union University), an editor (of The City Journal), a New Yorker (and also a colleague of mine at the Manhattan Institute).
Siegel's message is different too: What Cisneros said was "old wine in new bottles…an update of Model Cities, wrapped in the rhetoric of responsibility." Siegel is just warming up: "'Responsibility,'" he says, "is the Clinton administration's verbal amulet," the word they use to ward off accusations that they are just tax-and-spend liberals. "The problem of the cities," Siegel says, "is the way that city governments actually work."
Siegel brings up the underclass, to which the politically correct Cisneros barely alluded. Siegel asks: "How can you demand a work ethic for people on welfare when [city governments] don't demand a work ethic of their own employees? Cities that think of themselves as victims are ill-prepared to draw their underclasses out of victimization." New York City, Siegel notes, tripled its budget, from $10 billion to $30 billion, during the '80s. Yet the bureaucracy is so incompetent that it even loses money on its Off Track Betting operation. In Gotham, even bookies get a government subsidy.
Supporting characters round out the story:
Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell describes the situation when he took office. Philadelphia had lost one-third of its tax base in the previous decade, chased out or destroyed in large part by 19 different tax increases. And still the city had a $250-million deficit. Where did the money go? The city was "horribly mismanaged," with "work rules that…exist[ed] nowhere else on earth." City firefighters were contractually entitled to 47 days off per year. Think about it: That's almost one workday in five.
Rendell's experience supports the argument that the problems of the cities are systemic and structural. His predecessors in city hall included a white conservative (Frank Rizzo) and a black liberal (Wilson Goode). But as Rendell describes it, they both "want[ed] to keep the peace with the city unions." Thus Rendell inherited "a bureaucracy that's immovable—managers couldn't promote, demote, give bonuses, they had nothing to do with managing. Nobody cared."
Author Joel Kotkin, another Democrat, describes the small-scale entrepreneurship that is building the cities from the bottom up. Kotkin warns against "repetition of what we did in the '60s." If G.M. and IBM are too ponderous and incompetent to help the cities from the top down, one can only wonder how HUD will succeed. Kotkin's bottom-up vision is similar to that of Hernando de Soto, whose book The Other Path describes the efforts of ordinary Peruvians to earn a living in spite of the government. Kotkin on Cisneros's speech: "gobbledygook."
Errol Smith, a black Los Angeles businessman and radio talk-show host, was born and raised in Harlem and the South Bronx. He gets an attentive hearing. Blacks who succeed, Smith says, have "a different set of values, cultural beliefs, a different set of attitudes." Then the punch line: "It's very clear to me that…Dan Quayle was right." The room bristles. These are Democrats, after all.
Smith keeps going. What we have is "a deficit of values and attitudes." A cynic might ask what good all the HUD secretaries have done when, as Smith puts it, "we have an entire generation of people who believe that they cannot make it on their own…and outsiders who also think the same thing."
Smith's solution? We need "a paradigm shift." We must "remove the genuine barriers to enterprise…in order to drive a taxicab in New York—$175,000 for a medallion." Getting on the ladder of upward mobility "should be the kind of opportunity that's available to anyone."
Joe Klein, the Newsweek columnist who is emerging as the Clinton administration's fiercest friendly critic, leans over and whispers: "Pinkerton, this guy is a figment of your imagination." But Smith is real. I have witnesses—although none of them works for the Clinton administration, which was unrepresented at the conference after Cisneros's keynote address.
A funny thing happened on the way to the White House: Clinton got elected. Since then, the reformers of the PPI and DLC have sunk from view, crushed under the weight of the new acronyms: VAT, BTU, and HRC. The suspicion is spreading in Washington that Clinton is…a liberal.
After hours of exhaustive speeches and panels, Siegel is still buzzing with intellectual energy, still critiquing and kibitzing. He observes that nobody at the conference even mentioned Clinton's effort to spend billions for more community development block grants. After praising some pieces of Clinton's urban program, such as extending the low-income housing tax credit and toughening equal-housing enforcement, Siegel assesses his president: "In practice, Clinton is nine parts old liberalism and one part New Democratic rhetoric."
Siegel reminds me that Cisneros said one in five American children are born in poverty, and the percentage for blacks is one in two. So, Cisneros concluded, the probability of childhood poverty is a "flip of a coin." His dudgeon high, Siegel snorts: "It's not the 'flip of a coin' that determines who's born poor. It's which kids have two parents."
A smart point, one of many made by these forlorn Clinton supporters during the day. Of course, Cisneros didn't hear any of them. He was long gone.
James P. Pinkerton is the John Locke Foundation Fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Washington office.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Washigton: When Paradigms Collide".