Selected Skirmishes: Freshman Year

Clinton's dizzying debut.


The most amazing year of living politically dangerously has just rolled by, and those bratty, rich kids in the Clinton gang have taken the Administration Building by storm. These bright youngsters have proven that all it takes to succeed in America is a little pluck, good SATs, and a super-collider's worth of spin.

Traipsing through its first months like a drunk in denial, unable to nominate an attorney general who was a) female and b) legal; mired in that gripping social issue rocking millions of American families—gays in the military; and backtracking on promises about Bosnia, China, and Haiti faster than you can say, "George Bush is a buffoon—we can do better," the Clintonites were in Gallup Poll free fall until they hired a Republican policy masseur. David Gergen did massage their message gently, and a more relaxed, self-confident White House managed to produce not just sound bites and screw-ups but actual Policies.

Policies that just feel right. Maybe the rough edges rub, or the columns don't quite add up. What do you expect after so many years of Republican neglect? Stephie's glib rejoinders were largely swallowed whole by groupies in the press. When inquiring minds began reading stories asking if the media were being too hard on the president, you knew the White House had some dedicated disciples. If Clinton were to disguise his new tax policy with the excuse, "Oh, on the campaign trail I said I wouldn't raze—R-A-Z-E—your taxes," The Washington Post would do a feature on how difficult communication is in a language as complex and confusing as American English—particularly after 12 years of linguistic-studies cutbacks under Reagan-Bush.

The Clinton-Gore team believes its ideas are fresh and herald change. As Thomas Sowell has noted, everything looks brand-new to those who don't know any history. While the administration twirled itself dizzy selling its $496-billion deficit-reduction plan, the Bush budget compromise legislation of 1990, which "slashed" the budget by $492 billion (also over five years), and which was larger in real terms, is simply a wisp in the winds of time. Under Clinton, the largest federal agency has become the Department of Revisionism, and its output is truly prolific. Reinventing government? More than you think, they already have. Let us count two ways.

The ethics thing. What's the secretary of commerce doing, meeting with Vietnamese lobbyists in private condos and then lying about it? If nothing happened, why lie? And forget about Hillary wearing the pants—what about her shorts? When she's caught speculating in health-care stocks, the White House dodges by claiming that she's not really a government employee. (Whatever happened to the "appearance of impropriety"?) Alas, this classic conflict-of-interest story goes nowhere. Indeed, we are treated to fawning coverage of the (meaningless) campaign finance reform vehicle which the administration will ride to the Clean Politics Ball. (It's a masquerade.)

I may not be a free-trader, but I play one on TV. Most astoundingly, Clinton has now positioned himself as a courageous and principled champion of free markets. If only it were so. But the evidence is overwhelming in act, deed, appointments, and policy that Clinton hasn't the slightest faith in the invisible hand of commerce. He latched onto NAFTA only to increase his opportunities for international sport. (Like getting into some Japanese prime minister's face over Rice-a-Roni, the Nippon basher's treat.) The administration came to power denouncing the loss of American jobs via unregulated market forces and scaring the populace about the insecurity of economic competition. When Al Gore told Ross Perot in their CNN debate that "fear and despair will take you only so far," a sharper opponent might well have responded, "Well, it seems to have gotten you and your boss into the White House."

Where Clinton promptly appointed Laura D'Andrea Tyson as his chief economist. Dr. Tyson's new tome on trade policy, released in 1993, is a primer on how and when to disrupt free-trade flows with targeted subsidies, "aggressive unilateralism" (intimidating trading partners with tariff threats), and "managed trade" (outright protectionism).

The great international-trade economist Jagdish Bhagwati described the book's key contribution this way: "Tyson would overturn the basic premises of our postwar trading policies….Her positions also dovetail nicely with the inclination to interventionism that attends declinism." If Ross, a declinist deluxe, read books without cartoon illustrations, he might have gained some debating points by quoting Tyson to Gore. In the event, the ad-ministration's true colors on trade were washed away in a grand moment of enlightened globalism, and the president was allowed to stand on a stage that White House termites had sought to dismantle.

1994's going to be a helluva year. I'm going to pull up a chair and watch, although I think I'll megadose some Dramamine to ready myself for the spin cycle. It's fascinating to watch history in the remaking.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.