Is It Over?
Clinton's Pathetic Second Term
Posted Wednesday, September 8, 1999
Is the Clinton Presidency over? Not "over" in the sense that nothing will happen. But "over" in the sense that there will be no more big achievements, at least on the domestic front. As of Clinton's 1996 reelection, his domestic legacy was a) a sound economy, and b) welfare reform. As of his 2000 retirement, his legacy now looks like it will be a) a sound economy and b) welfare reform (unless a Democratic House elected in 2000 undermines the latter). That would hardly amount to a bad presidency, but it would amount to a pathetic second term, especially given Clinton's ambitions and abilities.
As recently as a few months ago, it seemed there was some hope Clinton might achieve two other big things: Social Security reform and Medicare reform. After his 1998 State of the Union address, which highlighted his desire to "save" Social Security" and extend Medicare eligibility down to age 55, polls showed an overwhelming 79 percent approval. But according last Friday's Wall Street Journal, Clinton's chief of staff has now dropped Social Security from his list of priority items for this fall. In effect it's dead for the rest of Clinton's term. Since Medicare is harder to reform than Social Security, that would seem to wipe the slate clean. (This is more or less the conclusion reached by Elizabeth Drew's column in today's Washington Post.) We'll see a minimum wage increase, plus a lot of jockeying for position over tax cuts, the budget, and assorted other issues that are of second- and third-order importance.
Clinton, it's said, sees his remaining legacy as getting his Vice-President -- and, perhaps more importantly, his wife -- elected to terms of their own. He's willing to risk his popular standing by pardoning FALN members, but not by increasing Medicare premiums. To the extent this dynastic emphasis is driven by personal guilt -- see today's familiar, but extremely satisfying, Maureen Dowd column -- it would mean that Monica Lewinsky has derailed, not just the first two years of Clinton's second term, but the last two as well.
But it's not true that the year before a presidential election can't be the occasion for big legislation. At least it wasn't true with welfare reform, either in Reagan's final year -- when the significant-but-incremental Family Support Act was passed -- or in 1996, when Clinton signed the GOP's revolutionary entitlement-ending overhaul. What made welfare reform special? It wasn't that the two parties did not have intense differences. It was that the voters also had an intense interest. In a divided government, with one party controlling the executive branch and the other controlling Congress, the natural impulse to partisan conflict -- a zero-sum game in which it's always in one party's interest to block action and preserve an "issue" for the election -- often gives way, as election day approaches, to a bipartisan, save-our-asses coalition, in which incumbents in both branches try to avoid the voters' wrath by actually accomplishing something (even if it means passing up the chance to capture the other branch). That's certainly what happened in '96, when the Gingrich Republicans in Congress realized a few months before the election that they needed to save their majority by passing a welfare bill that the President would sign -- although that meant also saving Clinton (and screwing Bob Dole) in the process.
Is there an issue of similar salience now? Yes: education. As Robert Reischauer of the Brookings Institution pointed out to me, it's not at all inconceivable that the next two years will see some sort of big, semi-transformative compromise on education, in which the Republicans accede to a large infusion of federal aid, while the Democrats accept a nose-in-the-tent element of "choice" -- a push to vouchers, or at least charter schools, for some students in failing urban districts. If Republicans played their cards right, I think they could probably enact the core of George W. Bush's appealing, fairly mild education program (choice for students in poor districts that have been shown to fail for three years) before they went to the trouble of actually getting Bush elected president.
So it's not over. Quite.
Hill GOPs: Lock and Load! If Pat Buchanan bolts the Republican party and runs for president as the Reform Party nominee, that would hurt the GOP's chances of regaining the White House because Buchanan would drain votes from the Republican candidate -- presumably Bush. So why are Congressional Republicans secretly hoping Buchanan does indeed bolt and run? Because the extra voters Buchanan lures to the polls with his morality-based pitch are much more likely to then vote for a Republican in the down-ballot Congressional races than a Democrat. What hurts Bush helps Hastert. ...
Don't Panic, Marty! Just a reminder: although a new poll shows Vice President Gore falling into a dead heat with Bill Bradley in New Hampshire, that doesn't mean what it would ordinarily mean, namely that Gore is heading down the tubes. Gore can even fall well behind Bradley and still come back to win by pounding the ex-Knick with TV ads pointing out Bradley's opposition to, yes, the 1996 welfare reform. Bradley is especially vulnerable on the welfare issue among New Hampshire's relatively conservative Democratic primary voters. . . . He's even more vulnerable because he really does oppose welfare reform. .. To "drill down" on this point, click here. ...
[ Who is Marty? -- ed. Click here.]
Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.