Of Our Time: A Pile of Vetoes

Midway through this first year of Republican legislative hegemony, President Clinton has seemingly risen, once again, from the political dead. One cannot yet say the same for the Democratic Party or the cause of liberalism. The Republicans are still very much in charge, with an agenda more stridently radical and more dominant than anything justified by their slender win last November. One prospect is that the Clinton presidency will survive, but in an alliance with a conservative Congress and at the expense of liberalism. Another is that Clinton's attempt at accommodation will fail, and the right will make a clean sweep in 1996.

To date, Clinton's posture has been that of Great Conciliator. During Gingrich's giddy Hundred Days, the president kept his head down. He was polite, even deferential to the Republicans, insisting that he wanted to work constructively with the new congressional majority. He was not elected "to produce a pile of vetoes," Clinton declared on several occasions. (FDR, a pretty effective chief executive, used the veto 635 times and on a Democratic Congress.) For a time, Clinton appeared almost as a ceremonial, European-style president with Gingrich as prime minister. In April, a reporter could seriously inquire whether the president was "relevant" at all.

One wondered: what was the White House strategy? Was there a strategy? Was President Clinton shrewdly waiting for the Gingrich wave to crest, confident that Gingrich would overreach? Or had he cravenly concluded that much of the Contract was actually popular and that his re-election depended on collaborating with the right? Did he hope that if he resisted attacking the Republicans, they might reciprocate and treat him gently? Was his more conservative side genuinely attracted to some of Gingrich's ideas? Or was the game plan to bide his time, appear presidential, and wait to see what happened next?

In January and February, Clinton's speeches and radio addresses had an almost surreal quality, as if he were president-in-exile. He trouped around the country, relentlessly cheerful, giving speeches at community colleges, high schools, small businesses, talking about his New Covenant, a document plainly irrelevant to the steamroller on Capitol Hill. His speeches emphasized education, job training, tax cuts for working people, national service, all unimpeachable, even liberal, goals. But nowhere was there a frontal attack against Republican plans to remove over a trillion dollars from the federal budget--a goal that would plainly moot all of the president's initiatives, and more. In fact, one looked in vain for a serious challenge to the public philosophy behind the Contract.

In one of his most important speeches, on April 7 to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Clinton went out of his way to emphasize commonalities between his program and the Republican one. He had been elected in 1992, he noted, because the voters wanted change. The Republicans won in 1994 because the voters still wanted change, Clinton continued, ticking off area after area where his goals were the same as theirs--deficit reduction, welfare reform, smaller government. "We both want tax cuts, less intrusive government regulation, the line-item veto, the toughest possible fight against crime," Clinton declared, almost as if he could somehow wrap himself in their victory by embracing their ideas. Later in the speech, he drew some lines--against tax cuts for the rich, punitive welfare reform, and excessive cuts in social outlay. But the strategy plainly seemed an effort to preempt the center by offering a kinder, gentler, moderately conservative program.

In Congress, not only were many Democrats reluctant to take the Republicans on, but their own initiatives often had the same me-too quality. Democrats criticized the Republican welfare reform proposal, which omitted funds for jobs, but much of the Democratic rhetoric implied the Republicans were not being tough enough. In the absence of a clear White House strategy, the House and Senate Democratic leadership concentrated on maintaining a semblance of party unity, which gave the most conservative Democrats in both chambers all the bargaining power.

The official House Democratic alternative budget resolution, drafted by Representative Charles Stenholm, leader of the Democrats' conservative "Blue Dog" bloc, was a near copy of the Senate Republican budget. Speaking at a Republican campaign dinner in the midst of the budget debate, Gingrich crowed that the best the House Democrats could do was to oppose the Kasich budget with the Domenici budget. He demanded, tongue in cheek, that Senator Dole "keep better control of your documents."

In the Democratic cloakrooms, the all too revealing word of the moment was "cover." The Democratic response to much of the Republican agenda boiled down to, "Yes, but...." Many Democrats responded to Republican proposals with their own, slightly less awful, versions. This was necessary, strategists explained, to provide political "cover." Consider what the need for cover implies. It presumes that the Republican assault on government is basically popular and that the Democratic position, should it become known, is not. It suggests that Democrats lack either convictions or courage, and that they can survive only by stealth.


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Seeking cover on the issue of welfare reform, House Democrats allowed Georgia Democratic Congressman Nathan Deal, whose district adjoins Newt Gingrich's, to craft a substitute welfare bill only a shade less harsh than the Republican one. Majority Leader Dick Gephardt gamely delivered a nearly unanimous Democratic caucus for the Deal substitute bill. The measure, as expected, failed on a straight party-line vote but allowed Democrats to be recorded in favor of a stern welfare bill. Not long afterward, Deal reciprocated by switching parties.

The emblematic case in point, of course, is the balanced budget. In the current climate of antipathy to tax increases and a refusal to tamper with Social Security or cut defense spending, a balanced budget would crowd out not just new initiatives but wreck what is left of affirmative government. It would also be fiscally contractionary. Its first incarnation this year was the constitutional amendment to require budget balance by the year 2002. At press conferences, Clinton repeatedly passed up the chance to say that the amendment was simply a bad idea. White House staffers gave the impression that they opposed the amendment; during much of January, they distributed materials projecting its devastating effects on popular outlays, state by state, program by program. But nobody would quite say that the White House wanted the amendment to fail, because that went beyond the president's own position.

On January 26, the amendment easily passed the House. Key Democratic senators, including liberals like Joe Biden of Delaware, began defecting, while the White House dithered. Only in the final week did the president, prodded by staff, begin discreetly working the phones. With just days to go, one small group of wavering Democrats led by California's Dianne Feinstein resolved to vote nay, on the grounds that the amendment failed to protect social security -- cover! In a cliff-hanger finale, three brave Dakotans kept the amendment from passing, by a single vote. But the political price was steep. In rejecting the amendment ("Yes, but...") scores of Democrats felt constrained to insist that they supported balanced budgets, too.

Instead of opposing the whole idea, the president limited himself to challenging the Republicans to specify what they would cut. In due course, they called his bluff. Budget balance by the year 2002, the target of the blocked constitutional amendment, became the sacrosanct legislative goal of Republican budget resolutions in both houses.

Smoking out the Republicans did give the Democrats a temporary upswing. Reducing spending by some $200 billion a year over seven years entails cutting more than fat. Democrats pounced on massive Repubican proposed cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, funding for basic science, school aid, and so on. Clinton, almost in spite of himself, ventured his first veto, of a Republican bill to take back $16.4 billion already appropriated. Delicious cracks appeared in the Republican steamroller. Dole and Gramm plainly detested each other. Gingrich wanted even steeper cuts in order to deliver tax relief. Pete Domenici, the Senate Budget Committee chairman, did not.

On other fronts, Dole had to backtrack on his threat to deny Henry Foster, the nominee for surgeon general, a floor vote. Nor could Dole get his tort reform bill through the Senate as drafted, and had to make major concessions. And President Clinton, if somewhat cautiously, turned the Oklahoma City bombing to advantage. The bombers, stupid as well as crazy, had selected a target in the Bible Belt. Republicans awkwardly delayed their ill-timed bill to repeal the ban on assault weapons.

But because they have been so hesitant to challenge the entire Republican program, the Democrats' counterpunches have been feeble. As Congress moves to finalize budgetary and other legislation, both Clinton and the congressional Democrats will have to decide whether to go along with a slightly milder version of the Republican program ("Yes, but ...") or to offer a fundamentally different vision.

If they opt for the former approach, the tactical gains of the Democratic spring soon will be forgotten. It is one thing to criticize the Republicans for gutting Medicare, another to specify how Democrats would balance the budget. It is a different strategy altogether to make the case that budget balance itself is a needless and wrongheaded goal. But far too few Democrats have been willing to say that.

Liberals like Dick Gephardt, the House minority leader, and David Obey, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, are professing support for fiscal discipline while they chip away at its implications, hoping that as more details of Republican cuts become known, public opinion will turn against the entire idea of budget balance. But it is very late for Democrats to back off that goal, especially when a Democratic president insists he supports budget balance, too.

Rather, a more distressing scenario is taking form. The Gingrich-Kasich brand of budget balance, approved by the House, would balance the budget by the year 2002 and raise the ante by throwing in $353 billion in tax cuts. The more moderate Senate version, courtesy of Domenici, would also achieve balance, but award modest tax cuts only if a predicted fiscal "bonus" emerges in the form of lower interest costs to the Treasury. Even the Domenici approach would require cuts in discretionary programs averaging 30 percent. An all-Republican conference will split the difference.

The present trajectory of debate could well lead to a September budget summit in which the Domenici budget is the left alternative. Clinton could define tax cuts for millionaires as the key unacceptable feature of the Gingrich approach, restore a few crumbs of budget cuts, and end up embracing a budget perilously close to the Domenici plan and declaring victory. This would leave a Democratic president sharing credit for a budget that achieved balance by eviscerating public spending and leave the Democrats as an opposition without an alternative.

This likely ending was foreshadowed by Clinton's negotiation in May about the Republicans' $16.4 billion recision bill. The president was prepared to give up all but $1.3 billion of the cuts, but Gingrich rejected the compromise and forced a confrontation that Clinton really didn't want.

Budget balance has become a test of virtue in the elite press. But polls suggest that when faced with a choice between budget balance and the scrapping of popular programs, voters really don't want budget balance. It would be salutary for Messrs. Clinton, Gephardt, and Daschle to explain, in unison, that the goal of budget balance by the year 2002 is the reason for these draconian, unpopular, and entirely unnecessary cuts. If we want to spare Medicare, job training, education aid, and the rest, and do so without raising middle-class taxes, we should reject absolute budget balance as a goal.

Some basic arithmetic: The ratio of publicly held debt to gross domestic product is now about 51 percent. The postwar low was about 25 percent. If we want to bring down the current ratio of debt-to-GDP, we need only to keep the deficit below the rate of economic growth. It would be much more sensible to reduce the ratio of debt-to-GDP gradually than to pursue absolute balance by a date certain. At some point late this summer, Democrats will have to put up or shut up. Republicans can legitimately demand to know: Are Democrats for budget balance or not? If so, what would the Democrats cut? If not, why not?

Not only is budget balance seemingly sacrosanct. Routes to fiscal discipline that would spare popular and legitimate social spending are evidently off the table, too. You would think that Democrats, faced with the need for deficit reduction, might propose to close tax loopholes and pare defense spending, the better to fight for traditional social outlays. But the only proposal to pursue that route, a Black Caucus-Progressive Caucus alternative that actually increased funds for jobs, education, and public investment, got just 56 votes in the House (and no notice in the press). The Stenholm budget, plagiarized from Senator Domenici, got 100 Democratic House votes.

In order to have an endgame, the Democrats need a middle game. It is improbable that Clinton would preach cooperation and conciliation all spring and then suddenly veto everything in the fall. Elements of the Gingrich Contract will soon reach the president's desk, and his response should be to veto, not split the difference. Now is the time for drawing lines in the sand and educating public opinion. Much of the Gingrich Contract is an insider document, written to satisfy partisan ideologues and interest groups, not popular demands. "Regulatory reform," Republican-style, would paralyze regulation of health, safety, and environmental hazards--regulation that is necessary and popular. "Tort reform" would serve mainly business interests and deny ordinary citizens redress for injury. The Gingrich brand of block grants would give Congress the credit for balancing the budget and leave states and cities holding the bag. This is not a program that reflects popular demands. If Clinton vows to veto it, he will win credit both on the merits and for his toughness. The process of mustering the votes to sustain his vetoes would be good for Democratic unity. Newt Gingrich, as Barney Frank likes to say, is a "bleeder." Punch him in the nose, he whines and backs down.

If, on the other hand, Clinton goes along with most of the Republican program, he will win little applause for conciliation and he will squander the "product differentiation" that allowed Democrats to score those tactical budgetary points in late spring. The sense of conservatism on the march will continue, ratified by the fact that even a Democratic president has gotten with the program. Clinton may take credit for sanding down the rough edges, but the conservative triumphalism at having transformed the national agenda will only deepen.

Of course, it is possible that by conciliating the right, Clinton might save his presidency. Too many of the President's advisers have little difficulty with a strategy that has him tack to starboard, proclaiming that he "got the message" of 1994, and offer a center-right program more high-minded and less mean-spirited than that of Gingrich, Gramm, and Dole. A Clinton-Domenici entente is one strategy for winning re-election. But a second Clinton term, won on that basis, would be without resources or principle, and more dependent than ever on Republican votes. It would be a true disaster for Democrats even modestly to Clinton's left, who would be painted as out of touch, statist, and even less able to deliver for their core constituencies.

There are two contending interpretations of the 1994 election. One holds that the voters bought the philosophy behind the Gingrich contract. The other suggests that having voted for change in 1992, people were weary of continuing stalemate in Washington and multiple insecurities in their lives-and voted for the out party. There is no evidence of mass support for the radicalism of Gingrich's program. But through his deference Clinton undermines his own party's resolve to fight, and validates Gingrich's claim to speak for a mass majority.

If the current conservative dominance were the result of a popular upsurge, liberals should simply let the right reign and try to rebuild a popular and intellectual base. However, Republican strength today reflects not a popular revolt, only an asymmetry of conviction and political will among party elites. In this climate there is no "cover." There is only leadership--and barely time to reclaim it.

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