CAN CLINTON GOVERN?
Richard E. Neustadt
The "Hundred Days" of l933 was bound to be a thoroughly misleading analogy for Bill Clinton's early months in office. The fact that he himself appeared to think it good and played it up right after his election testifies to a surprisingly naive streak in his make up (and his staff's), foreshadowing successive missteps in media and public relations. For l993 had little in common with Franklin Roosevelt's situation 60 years before. Then, the country's banks were failing, the farm economy was in collapse, a quarter of the non-farm labor force was unemployed, while both prices and consumption were spiralling down. The emergency was patent, national, immediate, and so perceived in Congress. There were newly elected Democratic majorities, called into special session by the president, himself well-elected, who were eager to follow his lead--a mood shared, indeed, by many Republicans. It was also shared by the working journalists in Washington, predominantly print, to whom he offered access, information, news, and charm on an unprecedented scale.
As a guide to Clinton's situation, the Reagan analogy is equally inapplicable. He, to be sure, got his legislative program through Congress (in six months not three), with only the Senate in his party's hands. But that program was centered on two highly popular items: tax cuts and defense hikes, benefitting constituents across America, along with promises of sharply reduced spending and of balanced budgets in future years. This improbable combination was premised upon one of the worst economic forecasts ever perpetuated by a national administration, the "rosy scenario" of 1981, and led in actuality to the federal debt and deficits Clinton now confronts. These were foreseen within weeks of Reagan's announced program, but adverse consequences in the Democratic House were muffled by his willingness to outbid rival leaders with tax breaks for votes, and more importantly, perhaps, by the new status in the public mind accorded to the president who, gallant under fire, had survived an assassination attempt, joking his way into the operating room. Thereafter, news shots of a pajamaed Reagan, phone in hand, calling congressmen from his hospital bed, overwhelmed the critics of his budgetary illogic.
As for Lyndon Johnson in early 1965, the differences again outrun the likenesses. The economy was booming then, without inflation. Unemployment was low. Barry Goldwater's defeat was thought to put an end to risks of imprudence in foreign policy. The election had brought 40 additional northern Democrats into the House of Representatives, ending for the first time since l938 the often-decisive power of the conservative coalition: midwestern Republicans and southern Democrats. And Johnson himself had simultaneously been elected by a nearly two-thirds vote, the largest majority ever achieved up to that time.
Contrast Bill Clinton, elected by 43 percent of the popular vote, with not a single congressman or senator whom he can claim to have brought in on his coattails--for he had none. Each did better than he, and knows it. This is the first of the five fundamentals in the Clinton situation, from which a real assessment of his prospects must begin.
The second is the economy, prospectively. He was elected to do something good about it, unlike his predecessor. Three years hence, if the unemployment rate is seen to have been coming down, with fears of job loss less, and if discomforts on that score are not replaced by comparable fears of inflation, Clinton probably will be reelected, never mind what did and didn't happen in his first six months, and never mind the actual relationship between his doings and those consequences. He will get credit even as George Bush got blame. "We planned it that way," claimed FDR in l936, who indeed had been vigorous, if all over the lot. Clinton could do the same.
Third is foreign affairs. It is a nice question whether the inflation rate or hostages in Teheran cost Jimmy Carter reelection in 1980: perhaps it was both combined. But these were not even on the horizon, certainly not foreseen, the spring of 1977. Both were products of the next year's Iranian revolution as it played out in 1979. The foreign policy context of 1996 is equally remote from now and what the White House is or is not doing now may or may not have bearing on the focal issue then (if there is one).
As those two imply, the presidential election in a year when the incumbent runs for reelection is predominantly a referendum on his stewardship by light of current events and feelings. What he is remembered to have done and not done, and to have been, will be recalled through the screen of what he is doing in relation to immediate events. But in that qualified sense, the election is uniquely his to win or lose, witness Bush.
Fourth is political opposition, its character and quality, and underlying that the institutional opposition our Constitution builds into congressional relations. If there is such a thing as a presidential "honeymoon" it is with the general public, tired of party politics and electioneering, eager for a new play with a fresh-appearing cast. Congressmen and senators are institutionally inclined to mistrust presidents, to dislike newness, and to doubt the reality of fresh appearances. Members of Congress and their staffs, after all, are predominately oldsters, relatively speaking. But sensitive to public moods as mirrored by the influentials in their own constituencies, they mostly have the tact to muffle their distaste until they sense the waning of the public honeymoon. Meanwhile they watch for openings to speed that process along. They then pounce.
There is nothing new in this. It happened to FDR in l937, when his ill-considered plan to "pack" the Supreme Court offered an opening so large as to induce the 26-year reign of the conservative coalition. It did not happen to LBJ in l965 only because his consciousness of Roosevelt's fate led him to deceive Congress (and the country) on the scale of his ground warfare in Vietnam. Thereby he sustained his honeymoon into the second session of his postelection Congress, but at the same time put in place the credibility gap that three years later forced him out of office. Congress turned increasingly on Carter once the Lance Affair lowered his public support manifestly and almost permanently below 50 percent. Congress, then still dominated by the anti-Roosevelt coalition, rarely gave John F. Kennedy his way in domestic affairs--to the point that just before he died columnists were writing of the "constitutional crisis" created by his "weakness" in congressional relations, "style over substance."
In Clinton's case, Senator Sam Nunn already has found and exploited one opening, while Senator Robert Dole drives wedges into another. The latter is more troubling for immediate effects on Clinton's public image, while spurring opposition to tax increases than in longer run policy terms. If the economy revives, nobody will recall the stimulus package of 1993, or its fate. If the economy does not, the stimulus package of 1994, and the ensuing fight in an election year, will probably have a quite different feel and perhaps outcome. But the combined efforts of Nunn and Dole have had a further consequence outside Congress as such: they have ended Ross Perot's temporary approval of the Clinton program. He did not challenge public approbation until after they had made their opposition manifest. But now he has plunged in, threatening congressmen with independent candidates of his choice in their elections.
That puts a period to Clinton's congressional honeymoon. He owes his position as a minority president to Perot's hold on some 9 or 10 percent of the electorate, which had been habitually Democratic in past votes. This constituted half Perot's strength in 1992. Clinton's initial legislative program stopped short of embracing Perot's full position on the budget, thus leaving the latter room to oppose. And Clinton stopped short of conciliating Republicans sufficiently to forge a bipartisan front. But both options remain open to him. So does the option of holding his present stance and waiting on events. Nothing is forever foreclosed save a honeymoon that might well have ended more stylishly but was bound to end regardless.
If first years were fatal, Harry Truman would never have been elected, or Richard Nixon reelected, and Gerald Ford would not have come within a whisker in 1976. Recall, incidentally, that in 1982 Reagan's approval rating stood at 35 percent.
Fifth is the learning process, as inevitable as it is underemphasized in most press commentaries. How are the Clintons to learn what they are doing? By doing it. Our constitutional system affords no other way. As they learn they will make numerous mistakes. That's how one learns and what one learns from. So it has been with every change of party in the presidency since the Twentieth Amendment squeezed the interval between election and inaugural and brought Congress on the scene before the president had even been sworn in. How rapidly they learn is the important question. Carter seemed slow. JFK was quick. Harry Truman in the different situation of successor-by-death, seemed slow indeed for two years, then in his third caught on, his grasp increasing month by month.
As for Clinton only time will tell. But there are reassuring indicators. Up to now in his administration there has been no "rosy scenario," no Lance Affair, no Bay of Pigs--errors of newness, all of them. To be sure there have been "piglets" of assorted sizes, quite a number, but no great, gross errors of the magnitude of those three. Our European allies were prepared to number as such an attempt to arm Bosnian Muslims. But with statesmanlike prudence, Clinton forbore to act unilaterally. His mistakes, indeed, seem to stem more from what he has said in unguarded moments than from what he has done (aside from that haircut at LAX). As he looks ahead and awaits events, what he needs to do most is keep his cool--and watch his mouth.
ON THE SHOALS, NEARING THE ROCKS
Walter Dean Burnham
The dialectic is speeding up. Since 1968, the only president to escape repudiation in one form or another and serve out two full terms has been Ronald Reagan. Less than six months into his presidency, Bill Clinton is showing unmistakable signs of joining that dismal parade of failed leaders. This time, there has been no honeymoon at all. Clinton's ambitious program for change, while simultaneously addressing the debt-deficit monster left him by the Reagan-Bush regime and the need for restored growth, teeters on the precipice of failure--or at best heavy congressional modification that may well compromise both its coherence and its claims for equity of sacrifice. And we haven't even engaged the health care monster yet! Democrats are discouraged. Republicans are invigorated. Indeed, the hiring of David Gergen signals that if you want a politically serious professional to clean up the mess made by the amateurs, send in a Republican.
What is going wrong? Essentially, almost everything that matters. Each incumbent of the White House is a particular individual, gifts and weaknesses attached. Additionally, each incumbent operates in a particular political time. Both must be addressed to gain some purchase on the situation. Both suggest serious problems in 1993.
Clinton's weaknesses, pounced upon by a White House press corps which is the most hostile faced by any president since Nixon, are becoming glaringly obvious. Readers of this essay will have already seen the press accounts of serious White House lapses in judgment, ranging from the early thrashings over prospective Attorneys General and the eruption of gays in the military as the first issue before the country down through the most recent spectacles: the presidential jokes at the National Press Club, the extraordinary mismanagement of the White House travel (for press) office affair (with Friends and Relatives of Bill lurking in the wings in Little Rock and Hollywood), and the $200 haircut from Cristophe on the LAX tarmac while engines ran and travellers were inconvenienced. One can add to this the judgment of an old and sympathetic Washington press hand, Albert Hunt of the Wall Street Journal, that Clinton's White House staff is the most incompetent he has seen in a quarter-century's experience. Trivial in themselves, these little sensations--particularly the $200 haircut--send symbolic messages that serve to undermine presidential credibility with the public and presidential clout with Congress. These are just the kinds of "issues" that the public can understand, just as it fails to understand issues such as the S&L deregulation disaster, the arcana of tax policy, or the BCCI scandal. We are in a crisis? We all have to sacrifice something? We're all in this together?
Much or most of this reflects the fact that there has been no successful transition yet from the very small and parochial world of Little Rock to the Big Time in Washington. To this has to be added the phenomenon of presidential waffling, revealed most recently in the capitulation to the Europeans over Bosnia and, at home, the deal cut with western Senators to refrain from imposing grazing fees for use of public lands, after Clinton had gotten western Democrats in the House to walk the plank for him on this issue. The sense that here is someone who can be rolled, at home and abroad, by people with stronger wills than his own, has grown apace as a result.
Apart from recommending that he replace his staff with another--and not a Republican one!--I would suggest that he contact Richard Neustadt to give him a seminar on presidential power. One aspect of this power that Neustadt's writings don't directly confront is that in our system, presidents merge what Walter Begehot once called the dignified and efficient functions of government: they are elective monarchs who are also chief priests of the American civil religion. Accordingly, the public expects gravitas from their presidents--a quality rarely discussed because it has rarely been at issue. Two presidents of about equal youthfulness, Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, had this quality (at least in public). With Bill Clinton, so far, it is harder to say. By all accounts he is a quick study. One can hope that these self-destructive gaffes will be overcome with experience and that they do not reflect some deeper flaw in presidential character, for such flaws do not yield readily to instruction or good advice.
Life would surely be difficult enough for the president even without these "distractions." For he confronts a conjunctural difficulty as well: the "political time" in which he operates seems all wrong for the kind of moderately comprehensive policy change that he and his top elite, including Hillary Clinton, are pushing. The 1992 elections give us a decisive clue. With 43 percent of the total vote, Bill Clinton is president because, essentially, he was the last man standing in a volcanically troubled year. The voters fired George Bush all right: 1992 was one of the best examples of a landslide vote of no confidence in history. But that was all. Republicans, if they forgot the presidential race, would be justified in saying that they had quite a good year in 1992. After all, they picked up ten seats in the House and after the June 1993 special Senate election, one seat in the Senate as well. They are primed to make further gains in 1994: over the past 170 years, the only case when the president's party gained in number or percentage of House seats was in 1934, in the midst of a full-fledged critical realignment.
No one thinks that any such thing is going on now. Neither the economic nor--therefore--the political situation in the 1990s bears comparison with the 1930s. The 1992 election, for all the real and unusual turbulence, reveals itself as taking place in the midst of a regime/electoral order mired in blockage and stalemate, rather than at its end. The election of Bill Clinton has really meant something in policy terms already. There is no doubt that it mattered who won the presidential campaign of 1992. But the electorate is not divided into two parts but into three. The battles of the first four months of the new administration have already revealed what could have been expected. Progressive comprehensive change in our political system requires exceptional majorities in Congress and a setting of extreme stress that paralyzes interest-group influence. Without these, as we have seen, the opposition can filibuster a stimulus package to death, and pivotal Democrats in the Senate can use the close balance of partisan forces to defeat or drastically modify a crucial component of the overall Clinton program, the BTU tax. John C. Calhoun was descriptively if not morally right in his stress on the role of "concurrent majorities" in a constitutional order and political culture that is normally heavily biased against comprehensive policy change. The elimination of formally divided government has once again revealed other layers of deeply echeloned defense against change, giving us a kind of dark-side-of-the-force replay of all the lessons we learned in American Government 101.
American politics today pivots around the hopes, fears, and passions of the suburban middle class. We need not rehearse here all the elements of long-term economic decline, the disastrous borrow-and-spend policy misfire of 1981, or the current impact of downsizing, restructuring, and permanent job loss in corporate America. Out of this farrago comes a classic policymaker's nightmare: closely balanced and antagonistic pressures on the state to attack budget deficits on the one hand and develop indicative programs to provide jobs and rebuild the economy on the other. This middle class, like many in modern history, is deeply divided. Old interest-group liberalism and Reaganism have both been exploded within the short space of a dozen years. Something like the Clintonite vision would seem to be about the only comprehensive option left. But it assumes that the state can play an active, creative role in macroeconomic affairs, an assumption which is the negation of Republican beliefs.
One could read the 1992 results not only yielding a 63-37 balance in favor of "change" but also a 57-43 balance against a kind of change that centers on this optimistic view of state capacity. The pivotal figure, of course, is Ross Perot. He is historically unprecedented as a political phenomenon, not least because he has not only held on to his voters of 1992, but has further added to his favorable ratings and base of support. His core following is white middle class, for the most part. It is worth remembering that, among 1988 voters who also voted in 1992, Perot drew more than three-quarters of his support from George Bush's original coalition. Put another way, almost half of the voters fleeing from Bush's standard in 1992 went to Perot, while barely more than half went to Clinton. Perot's priorities are overwhelmingly concentrated on debt-deficit reduction. This inevitably places him in a hostile stance to the Clinton program. As Perot is not only a hostile but a formidable presence in the current political scene, he adds another dimension of potential checkmate to the situation. Perot's appeal is a clinical verification of rapidly developing crisis in public support for government as such. He is virtually the embodiment of anti-state middle-class "common sense" and is in fact a serious threat to the future of both political parties.
So there is much public pressure for government to do something, but no evident majority for any particular course of action. America est omnis divisa in partes tres, or at least its middle class is. For much of this middle class, one suspects, "change" really means having government find some way back to the good old days when paying jobs were plentiful and a college degree really meant something. Such restoration seems beyond any objective possibility of achievement, in the near term at least. But any other kind of change inevitably involves increased tax expense and other ranges of sacrifice and discomfort. Thus blockage arises, as usual, out of basic contradictions within society at large as these are mirrored in political struggle. The inevitable implication is not that Clinton's program will fail to pass through the legislative mill all along the line but that it is likely to be modified, watered down and made less equitable and more incoherent than its authors had intended. Moreover, the balance of political forces seems unlikely to improve for the Clintonite "development coalition" when the next elections are held in 1994. Granted even the current balance in the "political time" of the moment, any final policy mix on the economy/budget or health care will probably require noteworthy Republican input for it to be enacted into law. As the two worldviews are so sharply different, this final policy mix may well have quite a few of its own contradictions.
Since what we have said up to this point is obvious to most politically knowledgeable people, it is also obvious to Bill Clinton. Faced with an incipient meltdown of his presidency with more than three years to go, what would he do? One attractive choice would be to execute a combined policy-image realignment toward the political center, "rediscovering" the links between him and the Democratic Leadership Council over which he once presided. With Clinton's choice of long-time Republican insider David Gergen to be something more than a mere communications director, exactly this signal was given. In the days since, it has been reinforced by a series of policy steps toward the center. For example, there will pretty clearly be a shift in the balance from tax increases to spending cuts, and the health care-package will be delayed for at least three months -- to be considered seriously only under the gun of the 1994 congressional election.
Such choices are logical enough, particularly considering that there are not enough congressional troops to prevail over united Republicans with a more unambiguously liberal agenda. In the end, just how many bricks can be made with so little straw? But the president walks a fine line. The sense of betrayal among core Democratic constituencies is likely to intensify, and with it an old political problem that Clinton carries with him: Who is he really, what does he really stand for, and how can he expect to be trusted? And what sort of "change" will really prevail at the end of the day? This remarkably protean quality in Clinton, dismaying as it is to liberals, might just permit him to salvage his presidency (at a cost, of course). But his rightward configuration can also be read as one more reflection of the intractable blockage that we have been discussing--a blockage at least as protean and complex as the president himself.
Underneath it all, the severe structural problems of economy and society that made Clinton's election possible in the first place remain as intact as do the blocked politics of the American middle class. If there is an experiment underway to "govern from the center," there is little enough reason to suppose that the Republicans will join the game except on terms that mean essentially the end of any serious effort to reconstruct the capacities of the state to deal with the situation. To repeat, both Old Keynesianism and Reaganomics have evaporated as credible organizing principles for dealing with the economy. There is now less reason than there was to assume that anything particularly coherent will emerge to take the place of either.
If this is the drift of things, we can certainly hope that, as so often in the American past, the difficulties that seem so mountainous today will evaporate of their own accord through the workings of subsequent capitalist development. But where is it written that this has to happen again in our time, or that ours will necessarily prove an exception to the usual fate of complex human-society systems in decline? Thinking about political blockage in his own time and place, Antonio Gramsci famously observed, "The old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interval a large variety of morbid symptoms appears." This insight seems all too appropriate to American politics in 1993. But politics is not a determined system such as those with which physicists deal. It is better described in Max Weber's words: the slow boring of hard boards. We have discussed the setting of politics in 1993, the odds, the balance of probabilities. For those of us who also come from a place called Hope, it is well to remember that odds have been overcome before and that the improbable sometimes happens.
TWO VIEWS FROM PENNSYLVANIA AVE
Walter F. Mondale
When I was in the U.S. Senate, I would look longingly down Pennsylvania Avenue at the power I thought resided at the other end, in the White House. Once I moved to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, however, it didn't take very long before I began to look longingly in the other direction, for by then it seemed all the power lay at the other end.
This frustration probably brought a smile to James Madison in his grave. Pennsylvania Avenue is a two-way street, of course. The Constitution establishes authority at both ends, and power normally flows back and forth with the creative tension the founders intended.
These are the institutional realities--separation of powers, checks and balances--all treated with reverence in civics textbooks. And well they should be. But the Constitution is not a "gridlock machine," as one commentator has recently suggested. In the end, success on Pennsylvania Avenue often depends simply on how well the occupant of the White House and the leaders of Congress, regardless, get along.
Although we have the same party in control of the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time in 12 years, we should not expect miracles from unified government. Especially within the Democratic party, geographic and ideological differences have often diluted partisan loyalty. It was southern conservatives in the Democratic party, after all, who gave Franklin Roosevelt a hard time in the 1930s. Later, these same forces--in fact, many of the same individuals--fought their fellow Democrats on every major piece of civil rights legislation. The experience of the Carter administration also provides ample testimony that control of the White House and Congress by the same party does not guarantee peace and harmony on Pennsylvania Avenue. Family fights can sometimes be the most bitter and intractable.
When the time comes for heavy lifting, a president finds just how lonely it gets at the top. Only one person--the president--is elected specifically to watch out for the interests of the whole country. Regardless of party, members of Congress are elected, first of all, to represent their state or district. If it comes down to a question of what is good for the nation as defined by the president and what is good for his own district, a Congressman might wish to stick with the president--and he might take a day or two, praying for guidance--but in the end he will probably vote for his district.
Thus a president's particular ability to work with Congress ultimately must depend on deeper qualities of presidential leadership. Congress will respond quickly when it receives a clear message from the public. If the president has the American people on his side, Congress will take notice--because, like a hanging, the prospect of defeat in an election concentrates the mind. That is why, when the going gets tough, a president must be prepared to take his case directly tot he American people and make full use of the persuasive powers of his office. In fact, a president's responsibility for public education may be the most important responsibility he has and, when properly conducted, the most significant power he possesses. The public education role goes to the heart of a president's capacity to lead and to gain the public trust and support that he must have.
Since FDR, as the president's powers have grown, so has his responsibility for the national prosperity, the global stature of America, the health of democracy abroad, and peace in the world. presidents have found themselves the focus of rising expectations and the target of mounting demands.
The presidency has become an increasingly brutal job. Given the experience of recent decades, one wonders whether we will ever again see a confident presidency from start to finish. Eisenhower was the last president to complete two terms confidently. After that, Kennedy was killed; Johnson limped home unable to run again; Nixon left in disgrace; Ford was defeated; Carter was defeated; Reagan lost his magic by the end; and his heir, George Bush, was defeated after one term.
I saw President Carter start out as the miracle man from Plains, Georgia, with great hope and confidence. Then I watched as he was slowly ground down, leaving office four years later looking like he was a decade older. At the end, I stood beside a tense, dispirited, and ashen man departing the White House without any of the self-confidence that had once been his hallmark.
Whether problems first develop with the Congress or with the federal bureaucracy, every new president soon learns that government will not simply move to his command. Shortly before Eisenhower took office, President Truman was at his desk in the Oval Office and remarked to his staff: "He'll sit right here and he'll say do this, do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike--it won't be a bit like the Army. He'll find it very frustrating."
Having a clear focus and setting priorities are crucial, especially for a new president. After sending some 70 legislative initiatives to Capitol Hill in our first nine months in office, we learned that we had seriously overloaded Congress. We had dispersed the energies of our departments and divided the attention of government. That fall--and each of the following two falls--we asked each Cabinet member to send us his or her list of top priorities. We ranked these, and limited ourselves to 10 or 15 key initiatives to submit to Congress each year.
We went so far as to plan the president's schedule well in advance--when he should make major speeches, take domestic and foreign trips, receive foreign visitors, and all the rest the president must do. It was a simple idea but it addressed one of the greatest needs of any modern president--namely to get on top of the tremendous amount of business that lands at his door.
In the volume of all these demands, it is hard for a president to sort out what is and isn't important. Yet that task is absolutely essential. For more than the actual decision that a government makes, what sometimes really matters is what issues the government chooses to decide on.
The American constitutional system, of course, is built to check and balance, to slow down and deter. Thus defining priorities and setting the agenda are essential. Ronald Reagan, in his blissful simplicity, could manage this pretty well. Jimmy Carter, an extremely intelligent but also very complex leader, had a more difficult time of it.
On the other hand, a president cannot simply tell the Congress what to do. Lyndon Johnson, the master himself, put it well: "There is but one way for a president to deal with the Congress, and that is continuously, incessantly, and without interruption." On each piece of legislation, every step of the way, he has to take the members with him--consulting with them before it's drafted, shaping it to take their needs and constituents into account, timing its submission with the leadership, persuading and compromising until the bill is passed. As Johnson demonstrated, this process does not require a compliant president. Fear as well as friendship has to be used.
It is not always a pretty sight. It can be even worse than Bismarck's comparison with sausage-making--more like making Spam, perhaps. Although it has probably always been much like this, the process is now more fully exposed to public view.
As a rule, the best way to get the attention of members of Congress is to get the attention of their constituents. When the president launches a new program, proposes a new idea, he must go out and explain his purpose to the nation. Even in this age of instant communications, major ideas take time to gather momentum. One of the first things a person learns in the White House is that the presidency can be impressive and strong, and yet incredibly weak if the American people do not understand, accept, and support what the president wishes to do. The only way a president can lead is with a set of priorities which are coherent, understandable and consistent and that the American people can follow. Without that, inertia always wins.
To govern effectively, a president also needs a few people who can honestly appraise and evaluate his performance--people with whom he can sit down and discuss problems confidentially and get help in deciding what finally to do. These might include confidantes in the Congress, as well as a few voices that speak from a national perspective. A president has no limits to the number of people who want to talk to him, but that does not assure him of the confidentiality he needs to speak freely.
A president also has no limits to the number of people who censor themselves within his earshot, even though what he may need is blunt, direct, critical advice. I was witness many times to a very strange phenomenon: I had friends come into my office in the White House and say, "I have an appointment with the president, and I'm going to tell him bluntly the mistakes he's making; he's going to get it raw from me." But then we would step into the Oval Office and, invariably, these people would say something like, "Hello, Mr. President. How is Rosalynn and how is Amy? I want you to know that you are doing a terrific job." Hawks would become doves; conservatives would become liberals. Even experienced members of Congress, without meaning to be duplicitous, would tell the president one thing when meeting with him in the White House and then return to the Hill to vote the opposite way.
The general problem is that there are so many powerful forces--ranging from his staff to his hectic schedule to the very preeminence of his position--that remove a modern president from the rest of the nation and from independent opinion. Thus it is necessary to constantly puncture this bubble of isolation surrounding the president if he is going to work with the Congress and communicate with the American public.
This does not mean we should have a presidency run by electronic town meetings. If anything, every new president would do well, as his first official act, to sit down alone and have a talk with himself about what it means to be president, what he wants to accomplish, and what it will take to do it.
A president should be thinking about his place in history, not his ranking in yesterday's polls or whether or not everybody likes him. Both the public and the members of Congress, Republican or Democrat, will pay attention when they are dealing with a president who knows what he wants to do and is prepared to use all of his skills and powers to get it done.
THE 1994 SOLUTION
James MacGregor Burns
Watching Bill Clinton during his first 200 days reminds me of a spirited but errant deer, chased by hounds, struggling through thickets and bogs and headed for quagmires. But whatever human mistakes he has made, the president is mainly a victim of our constitutional system of deadlock combined with media that heat up every trivial gaffe into a momentous event.
Is there any way out of this fatal combination of ancient gridlock and scorching gridiron? Only one--to begin planning now for such a convincing victory in next year's congressional elections as to give the administration's program a fresh mandate and impetus. Such a victory would require enough additional seats in both chambers to overcome combined Republican and conservative Democratic opposition.
This strategy, so simple in concept, would be most difficult to pull off. It would call for a long-run strategic decision that Clinton-- a totally "pragmatic" American politician-- may not find possible to make. Too, it would defy history. For almost two centuries presidents have almost invariably suffered congressional losses in "off-year" elections. But for that very reason, a reversal of the historic pattern would be so stunning as to give the president new credibility and a fresh beginning.
How to begin now to win in 1994? The administration and the Democratic party leadership must move quickly to identify states and districts that offer good prospects next year. They must divert White House resources of people, ideas, and money into critical elections fights. Such a diversion is not easy for presidents, who in this century usually have hogged those resources for their own reelection campaigns. Clinton must recognize that a major setback in 1994 could produce an even greater one in 1996.
Such an effort, both in fact and appearance, must not be a frontal assault-- it must not be a "purge." The goal should be keeping and increasing administration supporters on the Hill, not pushing them off it. This would require early recruiting of top-quality House and Senate candidates, giving them every kind of campaign support within the law, helping them avoid destructive party primaries, letting them share the White House limelight.
But how to do this without arousing time-honored outcries about presidential dictatorship, White House bossism, outside interference? By mobilizing local support that would take over the election efforts. The White House cannot win elections by remote control, nor should it. The administration need only demonstrate the finest kind of leadership--setting goals, dramatizing issues, and then mobilizing followers, who in turn become the local leaders and activists in the effort.
Crucial to this effort would be the state and congressional Democratic parties-- and here we encounter the biggest hurdle. Political parties--especially the Democratic party--have so deteriorated that few of them, as presently constituted, can identify, recruit, nominate, and elect the best candidates. But the potential of revival is there, and nothing would so jack up and democratize present dormant Democratic organizations as a grass-roots effort to win the 1994 elections. Such an effort might, for example, require participatory caucuses to undergird the existing regular committees, such as we have in Massachusetts. A Democratic party revitalized in this fashion could bring presidential and congressional victories for years to come.
Could Clinton mount such a long-run electoral and party strategy? It would call for political and moral commitment beyond anything he has yet to make. Political, because he would have to share campaign resources that presidents hate to give up. Moral because few will to respond to Clinton unless he sets clear political and policy guidelines, measured by traditional Democratic values of liberty, equality, and justice--and unless he himself sticks to these guidelines. He above all must rise above brokerage. Centrism, gradualism, pseudo-Republicanism, and immoderate moderation-- such postures will not mobilize the millions of activist Democrats who still stand behind Clinton, the Democratic party platform of 1992, and the election promises he made to the American people.
Franklin D. Roosevelt is the prime presidential model for Bill Clinton. And FDR learned and taught two lessons. You cannot "purge" conservative Democrats from the outside; you must help find and promote able young progressives from the inside. And you must win off-year elections! The remarkable boosting of Democratic House and Senate seats in 1934 paved the way for the Second New Deal, the enduring laws passed in 1935, such as Social Security, and Roosevelt's landslide win in 1936. Bill Clinton, take note.
IN SEARCH OF A GOVERNING PARTY
Richard M. Valelly
The morning after the House vote on the budget reconciliation bill, Mack McClarty, the White House chief of staff, was asked on television if the 219-213 cliffhanger vote was, in the end, a vote to prevent the Democratic party's collapse or, instead, a vote for good economic policy. Accepting the question's premise of an antagonism between these two goals, McClarty insisted that the vote was for good policy. The two goals are not inevitably opposed. But the premise of the question--and McClarty's silence about it--go straight to the heart of what is at stake in American national politics between now and the 1994 off-year elections.
Governing this country, and governing it well, will require party cohesion, not least because our institutional system tends to reinforce the blocking capacities of minorities with intense policy preferences. The punditry about Clinton's leadership and personality, the rise of Hillary-bashing, and the calls for returning to the center obscure the drama and importance of the Democratic party's painful, difficult reconstruction as a cohesive governing party.
The Democratic party's national leaders are struggling, first, against the historic weaknesses of political parties in the United States. But they face more immediate obstacles as well. Clinton is not a majority president but a plurality president. Since the election, Ross Perot--the most influential independent candidate for president since Theodore Roosevelt--has continued to set the national agenda but has been free from any political accountability. In a parliamentary system his forces would join a governing coalition, and they would have to take responsibility for policy. Perot and his supporters instead stoke discontent with politics and threaten subtly to poison public respect for party government, all in the name, ironically, of accountability.
Second, the Congress got more, not less, Republican in the 1992 elections. Consider, as well, that when Jimmy Carter was sworn into office there were about 14 percent more House Democrats than there are now and about 11 percent more Senate Democrats. Between Clinton's continuing status as a plurality president and the narrowness of the Democratic edge in Congress the margin for mistakes in important legislation and in building party cohesion is slim.
Third, party government requires a sense of shared fate at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and between the House and the Senate. But such a sense, in turn, requires common partisan experience together, and that will take time. The House has the largest class of freshmen since 1949, 64 of them Democrats. While these Democrats are far more oriented toward party discipline than the more rebellious class of 1974, fully integrating them into the party structures constructed over the past two decades will also take time. Of the House Democrats now in Congress, nearly three-quarters have never worked with a Democratic president, and over half of the Senate's Democrats have never worked with a Democratic president.
Further, because the Democrats are not a super-majority in the Senate, the disproportionate influence that accrues to that chamber's Republicans and its moderate-to-conservative Democrats in turn complicates the tasks of party leadership. Individual members may well find that a difficult vote means little if the president must bargain away what he asked the House to pass, or if drastic surgery on a House bill occurs during House-Senate conference negotiations. Democratic loyalists on Capitol Hill may have misgivings about shows of bipartisanship, such as bringing David Gergen into the White House. Many black and women leaders have searching questions about how the White House allowed conservatives to demonize Lani Guinier, a talented and hard-working civil rights lawyer. A build-up of such resentments will place special demands on Clinton and the party leadership in both houses.
A grand irony in the uncertainty of the current struggle to build party government is the evidence of public desire for effective government. Most of the public believes that Clinton is trying to change how government works. This means, in part, breaking from the inaction on social and economic problems that characterized the Bush administration and launching domestic policies and initiatives with long-run, broad payoffs, such as national health insurance and deficit reduction. But increasingly the public disbelieves that Clinton can make the break and that he can work with Congress in order (in the wording of an ABC-Washington Post poll) "to pass laws the country needs." This growing public disbelief has contributed to Clinton's reduced job performance rating that, in turn, makes it more difficult for him to lead his two congressional parties.
In short, a struggle to rebuild the party is unfolding. And a turning point in the struggle will be 1994. The possibility of a return to divided government, albeit very different from the kind we had during the first half of the 1970s and throughout the 1980s, is quite real. Nearly twice as many Senate Democrats as Republicans are up for re-election. Also, the Republican share of the nationwide House vote went up in 1992 and it may continue to grow, given the increased competitiveness of House elections in 1992. The Democrats have a lot to do in the next 18 months.
Most theories of American politics focus on presidential elections as catalysts of change, not off-year congressional elections. However, 1994 promises to be much more important than the usual off-year electoral cycle. We may have to wait for the mid-term elections to know whether and how quickly the Democratic party's reconstruction as a governing party will continue. With a lot of hard work, Clinton and his Capitol Hill colleagues may find, as the Democrats did in 1934, that they have built a stronger party.
GIVE THE MAN A CHANCE
Critics who write off the Clinton presidency as ineffectual are penning the obituary of a chief executive who is not only alive but thriving. The 100 days test is meaningless. Aside from Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, every president in this century would fail it.
Clinton's program, truly enough, has encountered difficulties with an intractable Republican Senate minority which angrily refuses, by threat of filibuster, to let his major initiatives come up for votes. And some Democrats hold out for one more parochial fix. But those obstacles cannot prevail. The public, weary of gridlock and eager for action, will eventually let its wishes be known.
This president's greatest assets are his ability to communicate and the basic soundness and popularity of his positions. If Senator Bob Dole's bitter-enders misuse the Senate's archaic rules once or twice more to block a majority vote on major proposals already passed by the House, Bill Clinton can go directly to the public by television, expose the dictatorial unfairness of a tyrannical minority hell-bent on a partisan scorched-earth policy, and the public will rise in open rebellion.
It is against Clinton's instinct to do this. He likes to be collegial. He is attracted to conciliation rather than confrontation. It is this trait, however, that will make him believable if, goaded to righteous outrage by repeated parliamentary garroting at the hands of a willful minority, he appeals in exasperation to the people whose mandate for change is being thwarted.
Bill Clinton is a man of formidable talents, a first-rate intellect with a pleasing manner and indefatigable energy. He has some of Kennedy's youthful exuberance without the pixieish humor, some of Jimmy Carter's mastery of detail and a more relaxed way with Congress, a touch of Lyndon Johnson's determination to make things happen without Lyndon's flamboyance. His best speeches combine a Reaganesque delivery with factual credibility.
Clinton's goals--economic stimulus, deficit reduction, health care, and a chance for millions of young Americans to get a college education--are indisputably popular. Their attainment is constrained by three obstacles--stern budget realities, an opposition party determined to obstruct, and media that magnify trivia at the expense of substance. It must have been particularly galling, in the very week he chose to travel the country getting the public focus back on America's economic problems, to have the news dominated by the thoughtless folly of a $200 haircut.
But Clinton is not given to despair. Frustration, perhaps. He needs to recall that all presidents have suffered from the media's distracting fixation with absurdities. Predecessors have been ridiculed over things scarcely less frivolous--fighting off attacks by fierce rabbits, squandering money on expensive china as poor folks are being denied food stamps, stumbling down the stairs of Air Force One, lifting Beagle hounds by their ears, or writing silly letters to music critics.
Like all presidents, Bill Clinton gets plenty of advice. Critics are as numerous, and sometimes as irritating, as fleas on a wooly dog. But usually no more deadly. Depending on what columnists he reads, the president can find admonitions to compromise more and to hang tougher, to speak more often and less frequently, to lop off Leon Panetta's head and to treat Senator Shelby more gently, to make more haste with presidential appointments and to slow down and study them more carefully. Not to mention all the free-flowing wisdom on Bosnia.
By and large, I think Bill Clinton is doing an excellent job. America has not had such a tirelessly active president since LBJ. He reads a lot, listens well, and unlike Ronald Reagan, knows the facts of which he speaks. Once I sat and listened for more than an hour as Clinton took questions at random from members of Congress. Discussion ranged the gamut from homelessness at home to famine abroad. From job programs to medical care to energy to budget deficits.
It was a virtuoso performance. Hard-bitten Congressional veterans and eager newcomers alike left convinced that the new chief executive has a firm, fact-centered grasp on the variegated problems that beset us at this turn in history. He is eager to learn and unafraid of an open exchange. What an asset in dealing with that heterogenous body of self-confessed experts!
Speaker Tom Foley's House leadership team has run up a string of hard-won floor victories this year, culminating in the adoption by a cliff-hanging 219-213 vote of Clinton's five-year tax-and-cut deficit reduction plan. It was a tough vote, likely the hardest test of the year. The president worked around the clock, talking one-on-one with recalcitrant members.
A subtler pressure is rising among House ranks against the little group of elitist Democrat holdouts. Other members, irate over the repeated defections of a self-important few, are reminding committee and subcommittee chairs that such power perks are not the automatic adornment of seniority but gifts of the Democratic caucus. People who hold these coveted posts do so only at the pleasure of a majority of their party colleagues, whose faithful agents they are expected to be.
The message grows clearer by the day: this is a team effort; the rest of us are doing the blocking, taking our lumps, and running the plays; if you expect to stay on the varsity, you've got to stop trying to tackle our own quarterback! Such discipline could not be imposed by a Speaker alone; from fellow members it can be quite effective.
Speaker Foley is a patient and understanding man, not given to retribution. But after this string of bruising victories, even he grows weary of having to beg and bargain with the same cadre of harping critics, vote after vote. And an expanding group of his colleagues are showing their aggravation with the pretensions of members who raise the "economy" cry against Clinton's efforts to stimulate the nation's economy but always finagle a costly project, contract, or installation for their own districts. Some whose constituencies have been our government's greatest beneficiaries consistently vote against the taxes required to finance the benefits they greedily demand.
Nobody can make taxes taste like ice cream. Clinton shouldn't try. But without more revenues, deficits cannot be cut and essential
You may also like:
You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)