Clinton Claims the Center

Photo by AP/Wide World

Official 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 are the center in America — and to a considerable degree, the left and the right as well.

Which leaves the Republicans, as their response to the State of the Union demonstrated, increasingly and petulantly the party of an ideological fringe.

For when congressional Representatives Jennifer Dunn of Washington and Steve Largent of Oklahoma sought to define the Republican agenda in the GOP’s official response to the State of the Union, they found that Clinton had often as not gotten there first. Largent called for more Pentagon spending, though he was compelled to acknowledge that Clinton had beaten him to it. Dunn called for private retirement accounts, but unlike Clinton, had no specific proposals to flesh out her program. The primary issues on which the two were able to differentiate their party from the president were partial-birth abortion and tax cuts — the latter really the sole remaining article in the GOP catechism, but one that the public, in poll after poll, says is less important than saving Social Security or Medicare, or improving education.

What the GOP’s general paucity of agenda confirms is that a full decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Republican Party has still not recovered from the end of the Cold War. Anti-communism was the glue that held modern conservatism together, the larger purpose that animated its activists. The Cold War placed the nation on a permanent quasi-war footing, which gave the GOP an edge over those Democratic appeasers. Now that edge is gone, and the Republicans seem to have elevated the Dem- ocrats generally and Clinton in particular to virtually the same demonic status they once accorded the communists. Bizarrely, they are re-igniting the cultural civil war that racked America in the ’20s — howling against modernism, raging against relativism.

Indeed, by their omission of virtually any other defining GOP issue, Largent and Dunn made clear how the Republicans have become the party of impeachment. Little else unites them. Nothing else excites them. Bill Clinton has become their surrogate evil empire.

The House managers, of course, can’t quite bring themselves to make this case before the bar of history, let alone before the Senate. Instead, they’ve been stuck since the trial began replaying the same sordid story that the nation has known for a full year now. At some not-quite-rational level, they seem to have come to the conclusion that their only hope lies in endless repetition of the same material. And so one manager after another discusses Clinton’s disquisition on the meaning of is. One after another, they run the footage of Clinton’s taking the oath at the grand-jury deposition. You’re not convinced that this requires his removal from office? they seem to be saying. Here: Watch it for a fifth time. Maybe this time it will sink in.

In their saner moments, even the managers apparently realize that repetition unto itself won’t turn the tide, so they have determined to cloak their charges in the majesty of history. In his summation last Saturday, Henry Hyde situated the case for Clinton’s ouster in the grand progression of human freedom that, as he told it, runs backward from Desert Storm through Normandy, Valley Forge, the Declaration of Independence, the Magna Carta, Roman and ultimately Mosaic Law. He inexplicably omitted the Babylonian Traffic Code.

But it’s not just Hyde who’s misappropriating history. Day after day, the trial itself has the form of history without the substance. Seldom has so weighty a proceeding seemed so weightless at the core. Nothing new has been revealed, or alleged, or adduced. No hitherto unseen threat to the republic has emerged. Except, of course, the one we’ve known about all along — that of a political faction which, on the flimsiest of constitutional grounds, is seeking to overturn the quadrennial vote of the American people. That’s the only genuine piece of history in the whole damn proceeding.

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