The Magazine

REELECTING CLINTON

Oct 2, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 03 • By BYRON YORK
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There' s been talk among Jessie Jackson supporters that a run for presid ent m 1996 would be a great way for Jackson to help the Democratic Party -- not by winning but by energizing borderline Congressional districts and helping Democrats take the House of Representatives back. Of course the downside is that by doing so he would virtually guarantee the election of a Republican president. We know, say some of the most liberal Democrats, but losing Bill Clinton might not be so bad. Just give us the House back.


Perhaps there's a perverse political lesson in that for the other side. If doctrinaire Democrats would sacrifice their president, maybe Republicans should take another look at him. The inescapable fact is that Clinton has been very, very good for conservatives. His presence has helped them achieve greater focus than they've had in years -- and infinitely more power. Now, with Congress on a roll and the GOP almost certain to pick up even more seats in both the House and Senate next year, maybe the best choice for conservatives would be to concentrate on their revoluuon free from the burdens of controlling the executive branch. Maybe there's a conservative case for Clinton in '96.


Look at the main goal of conservatives -- reducing the size, expense, and intrusiveness of government -- and ask whether it would be furthered or hindered by having a Republican in the White House.


The first thing to remember is that Republicans and conservatives did a rather awful job of it during the Reagan/Bush years. The numbers are familiar.


Federal expenditures for welfare and income security programs (excluding Social Security) rose from $ 86 billion in the last year of Jimmy Carter to $ 207 billion in the last year of George Bush. The budget of the Department of Health and Human Services went from $ 76 billion to $ 283 billion in the same time. The Agriculture Department grew from $ 35 billion to $ 63 billion. The annual deficit rose from $ 74 billion to $ 255 billion. And interest on the debt rose from $ 53 billion in Carter's last year to $ 199 billion in Bush's.


When confronted with these ghastly numbers today, the conventional Republican wisdom is twofold: It was the Democratic Congress's fault, and $ Ithings will be different when we have a Republican president and a Republican Congress. But the first statement is wrong, and the uncomfortable truth is the second probably is, too.


Those who still want to blame Democrats for the failures of the Reagan administration should re-read David Stockman's The Triumph of Politics. The young budget director of 1981 would be quite at home with the Republican class in the House today. He was using the same arguments back then that they are using now, and he was filled with the energy of an ambitious back-bencher. But his book is a tale of one defeat after another.


Time after time, the conservative president's cabinet secretaries maneuvered to keep their programs untouched, their budgets high and their power undiminished. "Cabinet officers fought to the last drop of blood against even minor cuts," Stockman wrote. They couldn't kill the Department of Education. They couldn't kill Export-Import Bank subsidies to giant corporations. They couldn't even kill Urban Development Action Grants, which Stockman called " perhaps the most ideologically offensive and wasteful bit of federal spending on the block." Still, Stockman, like many Reaganites, continued to believe the administration was on the right path. "How was it I didn't realize," he wrote later, "that if the administration couldn't turn down something like UDAG, it wasn't about to cut all the less ideologically obnoxous programs necessary to balance the budget?"


Would it be different with a Republican president and Congress? Consider a few realities that will hold regardless of which Republican occupies the Oval Office. While there is certainly a larger field of more experienced conservatives ready to take over the executive branch than there was in 1991, does anyone really think there won't be a few Richard (HHS) Schweikers or James (Energy Department) Edwardses the next time? Given the political nature of high-level appointments, the answer has to be that there will. Like their predecessors, they'll fight to protect their turf -- and be hood-winked by the permanent bureaucracies in the their departments.


And what about those departments that should be eliminated? Some GOP strategists concede that top Republicans, once appointed to that long-sought job in the cabinet, might lose their zeal ito abolish their departments. But most believe that the presence of a Republican Congress -- filled with determined government-cutters -- will keep the Republican executive in line.


But having Republicans run fling HUD, Commerce, and Education might actually make them harder to kill. After all, GOP leaders will think, these guys are on our side. And the political reality of Congressional oversight is that while la wmakers have a responsibility to oversee the workings of the executive branch, fealty to that res ponsibility fades when one's own party is in the White House. Democrat John Conyers, pretty energetic when it came to investigating Republican administrations as chairman of what was then called the House Government Operations Committee, seemed to lose his investigative fervor when a Democrat moved into the White House. He barely held any hearings at all during the two years of united government.


Any government watchdog should be just as uneasy about the prospect of Republicans controlling both branches. When a Republican agency does something stupid and wasteful, will a Republican Congress come down on it as heavily as if the transgressors were Democrats? They'll have to know that doing so might damage their party in the White House. One small example. It was reported recently that Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary grabbed $ 400,000 from the department's nuclear regulatory funds to pay for security for her extensive travels. The Republican Congress is rightfully up in arms. It simply strains credulity to believe Republicans will be as vocal and as aggressive when their own party is running the agencies.


In the meantime, the Republican Congress is forcing real reforms on the Democratic-controlled executive branch. Contrast the pace of change at HUD under Jack Kemp (non-existent) and HUD under Henry Cisneros with a Republican Congress on his back (significant). The reforms might well quicken in a second Clinton term; there will no doubt be quite a lot of change at the top of the agencies, and it seems likely the only people Clinton will be able to find who want the jobs and who could be confirmed by a Republican Senate will be moderate in the first place. It's possible that a kind of productive antagonism like that between Congress and HUD will spread throughout the departments.


But maybe a Republican president will keep the Republican Congress in line. Perhaps the new chief executive will really believe -- and act on -- the hard truth that you cannot succeed by trimming government programs but must instead rip them out by the roots.


That is hard to picture. Unlike any member of Congress, the president is elected nationally; for him, all those programs affect some constituent group or another. Would a President Dole, who fights as hard as anyone for money for his voters in Kansas, passionately argue for killing programs that would affect his voters across the country? What would a President Grimm, who denounces pork but says he wants his share to go to Texas, do when his constituency is the entire nation? Perhaps we'd start hearing a lot about getting rid of waste, fraud, and abuse, and less talk of reducing government.


This plain political reality would be exacerbated by the people in the White House inner circle. Of Ed Meese, Michael Deaver, James Baker, and their ilk, Stockman wrote, "the White House itself had surrendered to the political necessities of the welfare state early on."


The president's inner circle is politically loyal to him. They watch polls constantly, they think short-term, they're scared of anything that causes his popularity to dip. And he relies on them, regardless of what the ideologues in his own party say. If Bob Dole wants his chief of staff, Sheila Burke, in a critical position, he'll put her in a critical position -- because she has been with him on the Long March and is personally loyal to him. It doesn't matter that she's been bashed in every conservative journal of opinion; a president simply has to: have loyalty in his inner circle. The "No New Darmans" pledge now being circulated by activist Grover Norquist is clever but unworkable. There will always be Darmans.


If domestic policy were the only issue at stake, a vote for Clinton would be easy. Change the subject to foreign policy -- Clinton's biggest weakness -- and things are not so clear-cut. But there's still a case to be made.


Given Ronald Reagan's monumental victory over communism, it is certainly impossible to argue that his Republican administration failed in dealing with the major foreign policy question f its day. But that was then and this is now. Look at some of today's most pressing foreign policy issues and ask whether today's Republicans would outclass Clinton.


Republican critics have jumped all over Clinton's policies for years and have ended up being wrong much of the time. In Haiti, for example, Republicans predicted a bloodbath; it didn't happen. They predicted hundreds of thousands of Haitian immigrants flooding Florida; that didn't happen either. In the end, Clinton got rid of Haitian goon Raoul Cedras, and he did it cleanly. Of course he did not bring democracy to Haiti, but who believes Republicans -- or anybody -- could do that?


Then there's Somalia. Even though the new Clinton administration allowed " mission creep" to set in, and 17 Americans died in a fight that shouldn't have happened as it did, the bottom line is George Bush got us into it, and Bill Clinton got us out.


On Bos nia, the most pressing foreign policy issue of the day, at this point one can simply say that Clinton appears to be learning. And the cost has been much lower than, say, the loss of 243 American lives in a misbegotten mission in Lebanon.


Most of Clinton's failings can be attributed, at least in part, to his weakness for multilateralism -- or, to put it less flatteringly, his penchant for hiding behind the United Nations and subordinating American interests to the UN. Some observers trace that to his core belief that America has often acted from imperialist and exploitative motives in the past, and any unilateral U.S. action is likely to continue that shameful tradition. There is no doubt that a Republican, any Republican, president would not share that assumption, and would thus take a comparatively dim view of taking orders from Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Whether that would result in better policy is another thing.


Besides, if they choose, Republicans can have a significant voice, even a dominant one, from Capitol Hill. Congress, a Democratic Congress, voted to nudge Clinton along on Somalia. Even though it's true that the Congress is not particularly well suited to making foreign policy, it can effectively limit what the president does. And with its constitutional mandate to raise and equip the armed forces, it can ensure that American military forces remain adequate to the needs of national security.


Unquestionably, a second Clinton term poses two potentially damaging downsides for conservatives. One is the issue of the Supreme Court and the judiciary in general; the other is the veto.


Start with the courts. Even though the Senate can limit his choices, the president still gets to pick the judges. How much control could the Republicans exercise? Theoretically, quite a lot. But doing so would mean challenging nearly every Clinton appointee sent to Capitol Hill, and even the most fired-up strict constructionist might have trouble with that. More realistically, Republican opposition would be reserved for Clinton's most egregious choices. That means Laurence Tribe is out of the question, but only at the cost of more Stephen Breyer. Given the number of close decisions from the Supreme Court this year, that could tip the court against conservatives and give Clinton lasting influence over the course of jurisprudence. Of course, if Republicans win the Whie House, there is no guarantee that more Scalias will be appointed to the court. Remember David Souter.


As for the Federal courts, Clinton got a slow start appointing appeals court judges. And from now until November 1996, Senate Republicans have no reason to move quickly on any of his appointments. So a one-term Clinton missed the chance to remake the federal courts. But several observers believe two-term Clinton might be able to name about 40 percent of the total judiciary by the time his eight years are up. Or he might remain sluggish and leave a huge backlog of vacancies to his successor.


Now for the veto. On the surface, it seems like a potent presidential weapon; very few vetoes are over-ridden. Ronald Reagan vetoed or pocket-vetoed 78 bills; Congress overrode nine.


George Bush did it 44 times; he was overridden just once. Harry Truman, the last Democratic president who had to deal with a Republican House (although just for one term), vetoed or pocket-vetoed 250 bills; Congress overrode just 12 of those. So far Bill Clinton has vetoed two bills. It is unclear whether he'll make good on his recent threats to veto more.


But vetoes don't tell the whole story. If Clinton is reelected and proves particularly combative in a second term, it might still be relatively easy for Congress to have its way with him. All Republican members have to do is take a lesson from the Democrats. in many cases during the Reagan and Bush years, Democrats in Congress made no real attempt to override the president's veto. They simply passed another bill, sometimes altered slightly from the original, and dared the president to veto it again. The president usually backed down. The plain fact is that Congress can defeat the president over the long run, particularly where spending is involved. He can only act on what they send him; if the Congress chooses to pass a budget with no funding for, say, the National Endowment for the Arts, he can't bring it back by using the veto.


Still, the veto could prove a serious threat on the biggest issues. While it is relatively easy -- although still not politically possible at this time -- to kill the NEA with one blow, what about remaking Medicare?


Or privatizing Social Security? They will involve enormous, scorched-earth le gislative fights. Winning would certainly be easier with a Republican in the Wh ite House, especially since nobody is predicting a veto-proof 288 Republican vo tes in the House next year. But if the GOP does make significant gains in '96, and a reelected Clinton suffers the traditional mid-term losses in '98, the Re publican Congress would be virtually invincible on any issue, even without reaching 288. Of course, with a Republican in the White House, the '98 losses would likely go the other way.


Given all this, conservatives face an unavoidable question: Is Clinton really so bad? Even a cursory look at his record shows he is not a dogmatic liberal; just look at how the real liberals hate him. He's certainly not a conservative, nor is he a particularly predictable moderate. He's not really anything, and with Republicans setting the agenda, he has been reduced to an often pathetic me-too-ism.


Would that continue in a second Clinton term? Would a narrow reelection victory convince him once and for all to be a centrist Democrat? Or would it give him confidence to return to his most liberal impulses -- -or perhaps more accurately, his wife's -- and come up with some new Great Leap Forward program like health care reform? Or would he continue to stumble around, hoping to gain some short-term advantage in whatever issue presents itself?


The last seems the best bet. But a more important political reality will set in: A safely reelected, lame-duck Bill Clinton will surely move into the legacy mode. It will be time to work on his place in history. And with Republicans in charge of Congress, he will most likely choose the role of Bulwark Against Extremism. While vowing to search for common ground, he will constantly denounce the right-wingers who have taken control of Washington. At the same time, out of necessity, he will have to further moderate his positions to avoid continued and devastating defeats at their hands.


What a wonderful thing that would be for Republicans. They would enjoy the benefit of having Clinton opposing them rhetorically while caving in to them legislatively. Having Clinton, the perfect enemy, in the White House helps conservatives define themselves. Losing him, and leaving everyone at least nominally on the same side, would complicate the political landscape -- and ultimately weaken the drive to reform the Federal government. Republicans should ask themselves whether they really want that to happen.



Byron York is a writer and television producer in Washington, D.C.