Magazines: Pilgrim's Regress

President Clinton's future depends on selling big government to a leery electorate.


As President Clinton celebrated his first year in office, some journalists admired his achievements, while others were skeptical. But for many journalists living inside the Beltway, President Clinton was not just a politician–he was a hero.

Journalists call a story a "beat sweetener" if it's meant to please a source or boost the ego of a powerful person. There were far too many writers whipping up sticky feasts of love in 1993, hoping that, if they were very good, Bill Clinton would pat them on the head and Hillary Rodham Clinton would reward them with a homemade cookie. While some writers, such as The Washingtonian's Barbara Matusow, Newsweek's Eleanor Clift, and Time's Margaret Carlson, were content to deliver lollipops to the Clinton camp, The New Yorker's, Sidney Blumenthal wanted to deliver the entire candy store to the presidential partners.

Blumenthal was in an odd position. He had made his career as a liberal pit bull who saw conservatives and Perotistas as juicy raw meat. When attacking right-wingers, Blumenthal wouldn't usually stop until the bones were picked clean.

But now the Republicans were out of power, and diminutive billionaire Ross Perot had disappeared from the national political radar. Worse still, Blumenthal's good friend, Bill Clinton, was in the White House–and under attack. The revelations of the Arkansas state troopers had made the president's private parts fodder for comedians, and the smoldering scandal of the Whitewater Development Corporation threatened to burn the president, the First Lady, and several other White House staffers. Something had to be done!

So in the January 24 New Yorker, Blumenthal concocted a beat sweetener so sugary it threatened to give the magazine's readers diabetes. In his effort to become Clinton's best friend in the press, Blumenthal pulled out all the stops. He made comparisons between the president and Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, and Woodrow Wilson. Showing his mastery of history, Blumenthal wrote that "Clinton had the worst first week of any president since William Henry Harrison, who caught pneumonia while delivering a long inaugural speech and died a month later. Clinton suffered from attorney general nominees with nanny problems and from visceral opposition to gays in the military."

My favorite passage in Blumenthal's article described Bill Clinton's goals. The dilemmas Clinton faces, according to Blumenthal, "must be excruciating, because the issues he insists on confronting are so basic. Yet…he is open to recasting his methods in order to reach his goals. Honor and glory must remain ceremonial. If the glittering superficialities of the office entrance its occupant, he risks distraction from his arduous tasks. This pilgrim has to be a politician: it is the only way he knows how to progress."

In the midst of such high-minded praise, Blumenthal had one substantive point to make. If Clinton is to succeed, Blumenthal wrote, "he must revive belief in positive government. Not for a long time–not since the mid-1960s, really–have Americans been confident that government could help them deal with the significant problems of their lives."

The national lack of faith in "positive government"–more commonly called big government–will be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. The New Dealers who were active in the Democratic Party during the Carter presidency are by now dead or retired. The Great Society advocates who could still pass themselves off as young Turks in the late 1970s are discredited graybeards now.

But the problem isn't just on the big government side. The Clinton administration faces more-sophisticated intellectual opposition than the Carter crew ever did. Free-market think tanks are far larger now than they were in the "national malaise" years. Had Jimmy Carter proposed a national health-insurance scheme, it's unlikely it would have been countered as effectively as Clinton's was by the Manhattan Institute's Elizabeth McCaughey in the February 7 and the February 28 New Republics (it's equally unlikely that The New Republic would have run an argument against a Democratic president).

The lingering resentment of government doesn't, of course, merely exist among think tankers. This dislike for the state is the result of our country's contempt for petty bureaucracy. The regulators who make sure you stand in line for hours to renew your driver's license have done more to undermine support for government than any policy analyst ever has. As the American Enterprise Institute's William Schneider notes in the November 27 National Journal, when critics of the Clinton health plan ask, "Do you want health care run like the Post Office?," the charge is effective because postal workers, protected by a state-granted monopoly, have no incentives to be pleasant to their customers.

Liberals have duly noted this sea change in attitude. The cover of the January Washington Monthly asserts "Government Can Work"–the implication being, of course, that everyone agrees that it is not working at the present moment. Inside, Nicholas Lemann notes that when he first came to D.C. in 1976, the notion that government bureaucracies were inefficient and unpleasant was "considered the province of anti-New Dealers and Taftites." Even mainstream Republicans, Lemann writes, thought that bashing big government was "faintly embarrassing–the kind of thing that one doled out for Nebraskans at fundraisers but didn't really mean."

But today, observes Lemann, statements such as "the federal government could really improve public schools" or "government can build safe, decent housing for the poor," usually result in a response "like that of Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers movie (jaw dropping down in disbelief, eyes whitening in horror)." Lemann unconvincingly faults the press for the new anti-government consensus. If the fourth estate looked at how big bureaucracies worked, he argues, people might approve of them more. At best, this is wishful thinking. Given the sorry state of Clinton's cabinet–a group that looks like America only if the country is populated exclusively by rich lawyers and deal makers–it's hard to see anyone getting excited about, say, reforms in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And does anyone sleep better at night knowing that Federico Peña–whose primary claim to fame is an over-budget, behind-schedule airport in Denver–is secretary of transportation?

So it won't be easy for Clinton to restore big government's reputation. And making the already herculean task even more difficult is Clinton's status as what Michael Barone, in the January 31 U.S. News & World Report, calls a "preemptive president." Barone, borrowing from political scientist Stephen Skowrenek, explains that a pre-emptive president is one who "come[s] to office in a party whose positions do not command majority support." Even though the Democrats control both houses of Congress, Clinton was elected with only 43 percent of the popular vote and has had to fight off his own party to pass his budget and NAFTA. Pre-emptive presidents are typically threatened with impeachment (e.g., Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon) or succeed only in discrediting their parties for a generation (e.g., Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson).

The only successful pre-emptive president, according to Barone, was Dwight Eisenhower–and even he couldn't get a Republican Congress after 1954 or ensure that his vice president would succeed him. What's more, Clinton is noticeably lacking Ike's "steely self-discipline, military renown, and moral authority." Barone predicts that until Clinton comes up with a "compelling narrative" of why the Democrats should run the country, his presidency cannot be truly successful.

For its part, the GOP is having trouble writing its own narrative, compelling or otherwise. Some older Republicans have called for pushing slightly more market-oriented versions of Clinton's proposals, a 1994 version of what Barry Goldwater used to call the "dimestore New Deal" and what Democrats in the 1960s referred to as "Constructive Republican Alternative Policies" (sometimes just by the acronym).

In the wake of the 1992 elections, most of the disgraced senior advisers to President Bush have dropped out of party politics (it is indeed a pleasure not to know what James Baker, Nicholas Brady–and especially Richard Darman–thought about anything). Even though nationally known figures such as Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Dick Cheney, and Bill Bennett have hit the airwaves to plug Republican initiatives, no one has emerged as a compelling party leader. As strategist Jeffrey Bell told James A. Barnes in the November 6 National Journal, what the Republicans stand for is now "very amorphous. They really don't have a positive economic policy of their own that they are pushing, and their social policy is under review."

What is clear, however, is that the Bush presidency, with its return to patrician rule, did very little to help the Republican cause. As Barnes notes, the heady brew of Reaganism enticed voters to switch parties. Roper surveys show that while 47 percent of Americans in 1978 said they were Democrats and 23 percent said they were Republicans, by 1985 only 37 percent of Americans said they were Democrats, while 34 percent said they were Republicans. But the tepid tea of Bushism stopped the trend: Most surveys of party identification since 1985 have shown that more Americans, by a margin of one to four percentage points, still see themselves as Democrats than Republicans.

Exiled from power, the GOP is searching for ideas that can win elections, and the conservative public-policy magazines are eager to give space to right-wingers with ideas. Sen. Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming in the February 7 National Review presents "A Conservative Manifesto" and proclaims, "Most Americans sense that our ever-rising taxes are feeding a machine hostile to our values. They ask: 'Who represents us? Who's on our side?'…Disdain for modern government is wise, patriotic–yes, even lovely." Wallop upbraids his fellow party members for their role in the problem: "Once elected…many Republicans promptly put on their tuxes and became concerned with 'governance.' "

And William Kristol, who was Dan Quayle's chief of staff, is interviewed in the Winter Policy Review. Kristol, currently chairman of the new think tank Project for the Republican Future, is confident that health care will be "liberalism's Afghanistan–the overreaching that exposes liberalism's weakness and causes its collapse." Kristol has hired thinkers he hopes will develop ideas as radical as the ones the supply-siders cooked up during the last Republican exile.

Certainly, intellectual debate is far more productive than the traditional Republican practice of doing nothing, smiling, and hoping for a Democratic blunder. But as the Republicans hammer out a new political platform, they should understand that Bill Clinton is neither a hero nor a fool; though he beat the weakest presidential incumbent since Herbert Hoover, he is in fact a very skilled politician who could do well against tougher opponents. While there's an outside chance that the Democrats can restore the coalition that sent Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson to the White House, it's more likely that Bill Clinton will be very vulnerable in 1996. The real question, come re-election time, may be whether the Republicans have written a narrative compelling enough to recapture the White House.

Contributing Editor Martin Morse Wooster is a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center.