Bill Clinton, we know, was the Third. Between the traditional Roosevelt/Truman/Johnson big-government liberalism and the traditional Coolidge/Reagan anti-government conservatism, Clinton built a Halfway House he called the Third Way. The era of big government was over, but pick-your-shots activism — a little more health insurance for kids here, a spate of new ergonomic workplace regulations there — was fine.
And for the first half of George W.’s address to Congress on Tuesday night, our new president strolled amiably down the Third Way, too. Right at the top of his speech, he bemoaned the “old tired argument [between] on one side, those who want more government, regardless of the cost; [and] on the other, those who want less government, regardless of the need. We should leave those arguments to the last century,” he counseled, “and chart a different course . . . Our new governing vision says government should be active but limited, engaged but not overbearing.”
It was as if the Pardoner had never left us. Bill Clinton could not have said it better, nor Dick Morris triangulated it more deftly. What W.’s address confirms is the triumph of Clintonism as America’s dominant public philosophy. In tone and argumentation, the speech was pure Clinton.
In substance, however, it was pure Reagan. What Bush is offering is the second coming of the Reagan tax cut: a massive redistribution of resources to the rich, which will have the ancillary effect of thwarting the government’s ability to provide health insurance, better schools, subsidized child care, the works. But unlike Reagan, who said right upfront that government was the problem, Bush has hijacked the rhetoric of Clintonism to dress up his advocacy of Reaganism. The Third Way has been enlisted in the service of the First — if that’s what we call Reagan/Thatcher conservatism; or is it the Second? Call it the Fourth Way — or is it the Fifth?
This deception is understandable. Bush could not possibly argue for Reaganism on Reaganism’s terms. Reagan took power on the wings of an anti-tax revolt, having dispatched a Democratic incumbent president and brought in a heavily Republican Senate on his coattails. Bush took power with a popular-vote margin of negative 540,000. He took power with every poll showing that the electorate preferred Al Gore’s proposals for spending and debt retirement to his own proposal for a massive tax cut. On the morning of his speech, an ABC/Washington Postpoll showed that 35 percent of the public favored spending the surplus on increasing domestic programs, 25 percent on strengthening Social Security, 22 percent on cutting taxes and 17 percent on debt retirement. That’s 60 percent support for big government, which Americans tend to favor so long as it’s targeted at the great middle class and isn’t labeled big government.
So what’s a tax cutter to do? Facing numbers like those, even Reagan wouldn’t have sounded like Reagan. Bush’s solution, plainly, was to sound like Clinton. The entire first half of his speech was devoted to listing government programs he would support, and providing assurances that he’d continue to retire the debt. He affirmed a patient’s bill of rights, so long as it didn’t result in more lawsuits; he vowed to clean up brownfields and spiff up the national parks. He even called for an end to racial profiling — though in the next breath, he said that he’d entrusted this task to John Ashcroft, who for all we know may still want to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.
For 30 minutes, Bush spoke of helping schools and paying off debt; he defended every purpose on which the public wants the surplus spent. Lyndon Johnson, the last real Texan to serve as president (Poppy Bush was a Kennebunkport Texan), argued during the Vietnam War that we could afford guns and butter; W. argued on Tuesday night that we could afford guns, some butter — and a tax cut, too.
This, of course, is nonsense. Taking $2 trillion out of the federal budget, and handing back close to $1 trillion of that to our wealthiest 1 percent, will force any number of public programs to clank to a halt; already, the Labor Department is looking at cuts in job training and workplace oversight. Bush argued that taxes are too high, though in fact taxes on middle-income Americans are a little lower than they’ve been in years.
On top of this, Bush proposed setting aside an additional trillion dollars for a rainy-day fund — actually, though he did not say so directly, a fund to help subsidize the privatization of Social Security. This trillion is designed to make up the shortfall to current Social Security recipients when younger workers are handed a portion of their Social Security investment and told to go make a killing on the NASDAQ instead.
Bush, however, merely said this trillion dollars was there for “additional needs.” You might think that providing health insurance to the 43 million Americans who have none might be one such need, but apparently that’s not how a Compassionate Conservative thinks.