By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by AP/Wide WorldOfficial Schedule, Office of the President, Tuesday, January 19: 1 p.m.: In the matter of president’s misstatements concerning sex (oral, nonmutual) with intern, White House counsel refutes characterization of same as grounds for removal; 9 p.m.: President delivers State of Union Address, establishes ideological hegemony and political domination for party, self.
What a day at the office! And extraordinary as the afternoon’s trial in the Senate may seem, the political achievement encapsulated in the evening’s address may prove even more remarkable. For Bill Clinton has an immense budget surplus to play with now, and with it, he has laid claim to the center, the center-left and the center-right of the American political spectrum.
Before Tuesday night, Clinton, constrained by the deficit, was triangulating on the cheap. For the right, there were low-dollar affirmations of order and tradition: more cops on the beat, a V-chip in every TV. For the left, there were off-budget regulations and pilot programs for universal problems: portable health insurance for the chronically ill (if they could pay for it themselves), a patient’s bill of rights (if only the Republicans pass it) in lieu of comprehensive health insurance.
On Tuesday, however, Clinton came before the nation with real money for discretionary spending. And suddenly, a specter that nightly had haunted the Republicans’ dreams stood plainly before them: a Demo-cratic president who, without a single drop of red ink or the merest hint of higher taxes, could greatly expand the government. The Republicans have warned us about this day for decades — only when it actually arrived, Clinton didn’t really expand the government at all. Not qualitatively, anyway: There were no new entitlements; national health was nowhere to be seen.
Instead, the Republicans came face to face with the nightmare they didn’t anticipate, one which befuddles and confounds them all the more. For Clinton is proposing, on the one hand, to use the surplus to shore up, and perhaps even expand, the most popular of the government’s long-established entitlements, Social Security and Medicare. And on the other hand, to fund some of the Republicans’ own pet projects: a lot more military spending (a $112 billion hike over the next six years) and private retirement accounts. For the left, there is more funding for schools; for the right, more emphasis on teacher performance. There is now enough money, Clinton is all but crowing, for me to be not only a good Democratic president, but a good Republican one as well. No wonder the GOP legislators looked surly during Tuesday’s address.
Nothing better illustrates Clinton’s political balancing act than his proposals on Social Security and Medicare. Just over three-fourths of the surplus (more than $3 trillion over the next 15 years), he proposed, should go to shoring up the traditional programs. Indeed, he proposed enhancing them — first, by investing a small portion of the Social Security trust fund in the market, which should produce a higher yield than the Treasury notes in which all the fund is currently invested. On Medicare, he expressed hope that increased funding might finally enable the government to cover "affordable prescription drugs" — a significant broadening of coverage even if relatively few prescription drugs meet anyone’s definition of "affordable."
But Clinton also proposed using 11 percent of the surplus for establishing individual retirement funds — providing seed money and some matching funds (more for low-income Americans) for private accounts. That is, Clinton has taken a right-wing idea, made it more progressive, and used it to supplement the basic program (which, of course, had a left-wing provenance).
If the right doesn’t get its goal of having private accounts replace a socialized system, however, the left shouldn’t feel too cozy about this proposal either. The danger of having separate systems side by side is that the privatized program could turn into a dagger pointed at the socialized one. Social Security, after all, doesn’t just provide for everyone’s retirement: It redistributes money from the young and middle-aged to the elderly, from rich to poor (the benefits are tilted toward low-income recipients), and it funds the disabled as well. Individual accounts, by contrast, aren’t redistributive at all, and one can imagine a rising public demand for the government simply to help people fund their own retirement, rather than maintaining a tax that helps a lot of other people. Clinton could — and, in my assessment, should — have avoided this potential disaster by proposing that the surplus enhance the social system solely. Instead, he moved left, right and center simultaneously.
This, of course, is the essence of Clintonism. At times, it is all but self-negating. In Tuesday’s speech, for instance, Clinton renewed his call for fast-track authority to negotiate free-trade agreements, and for new global labor standards that are antithetical to the very notion of free trade. But this is the kind of contradictory pronouncement that Clinton has been making for years. What was new about Tuesday’s speech, though, was that now, freed from the constraints of the deficit, he has trillions for triangulation. So long as the surplus holds up, he and his party arethe center in America — and to a considerable degree, the left and the right as well.