Governing in an Age of No Majorities: Bill Clinton’s mission for a second term

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

December 1, 1997

What are politicians to do with an election whose mandate was, in so many ways, negative? President Clinton rebuilt his standing not by proposing bold new programs, but by promising to protect the country from the excesses of the Republican Congress. In the end, the Republicans hung on to Congress by presenting themselves as the people who would save the country from the excesses of unified Democratic government.

Most of the country did not, in fact, vote for divided government. Nearly 80 percent of the voters supported the same party for president and the House of Representatives, according to the exit polls. But neither party can claim a mandate for its policies. About half the country voted for President Clinton, half for Republican members of Congress. This is not so much a “moderate” country as a country evenly divided over the course it should pursue. The question, for both the president and the Republican congressional leadership, is how is one to govern under such circumstances? And if President Clinton wants to go down in history as a great president, how can he expect a Republican Congress to give him any help in his project?

One answer lies in the messages the electorate sent in this election. What, if anything, did the campaign settle?

It is obvious that the electorate reacted negatively to the first year of the Republican Congress. Clinton regained his standing by opposing the Republicans’ 1995 budget, especially reductions in the growth of Medicare and Medicaid and efforts to cut back on environmental and worker safety regulation. However negatively the voters viewed the federal government in the abstract, they welcomed a substantial role in matters they cared about, particularly education and crime prevention. And voters were clearly upset with the shutdown of the federal government in the fall of 1995, a fact House Speaker Newt Gingrich has acknowledged.

This message, confirmed by polling from both parties, is why the Democrats, including Clinton, ran their M2E2 campaign—Medicare, Medicaid, education, the environment. It is why Republicans ran away from the 1995 budget right and tried to build a “constructive” record in 1996 around one initiative they liked, welfare reform, and many that conservatives in their ranks didn’t, including the higher minimum wage and the Kennedy-Kassebaum health reform bill. And it is why President Clinton was relentless in highlighting the crime bill and its promise to put “100,000 cops” on the street. Republican arguments that crime was essentially a local issue didnþt work. Voters did not reject federalism as a general proposition. Rather, as William Galston, Clinton’s former deputy director of domestic policy, noted, certain problems—crime and education notably—become so important that voters come to demand federal action.

So the clearest lesson from 1996 is this: cutting back on federal health and environmental programs will be difficult because voters want them. And voters would welcome further federal initiatives on crime and education.

For those interested in a balanced federal budget, this news need not be as catastrophic as some deficit hawks may think. The voters did not trust the Republicans’ Medicare initiatives because they did not believe that their primary purpose was to “save Medicare.” The voters remembered, and were reminded at crucial moments by both Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich, that many Republicans had opposed Medicare in the first place. The Republicans proposed a tax cut almost exactly the size of their Medicare cuts, which made it easy for Democrats to argue that the Republicans were cutting Medicare to pay for tax reduction. Poll after poll showed that given a choice, a majority preferred protecting Medicare to cutting taxes.

The issue now is what cuts are necessary to keep Medicare solvent for the foreseeable future. This points to a more modest approach that, in fact, matches the one Washington pursued during both the Reagan and Bush years. The Medicare cost problem will not find one grand, all-encompassing solution. It will be solved slowly but steadily as voters come to terms with the tradeoffs between what they want for themselves (and their parents and grandparents) and what they are willing to pay for. If the failure of the Clinton health plan pointed to a gradual approach to the problem of guaranteeing universal health coverage, the failure of the Republicans on Medicare points to gradualism in solving the Medicare cost problem.

On the environment, the lesson is equally clear: the country is proud of its achievement in cleaning up our air, water, and land. The Republicans were not wrong in thinking that the country might support more efficient approaches to ensuring a cleaner environment. They were wrong in thinking effort to clean up the environment had “gone too far.” If there is any ground for common action here, it lies in pursuing effective but less intrusive approaches to regulation that rely on incentives for good environmental behavior. In this area, as in others, conservatives and liberals alike could usefully take a hint from some of Vice President Gore’s “reinventing government” proposals. Conservatives ought to welcome more efficient and less intrusive government. Liberals should welcome efforts to make the federal government, whose role they rightly defend, more effective.

On education, a useful debate is possible only if some mistaken ideas that are held to as a matter of high principle are abandoned. Republicans are stuck on the notion that national education standards are a grave threat to local control of education. They have thus been wary of national action on an issue that is so clearly of national urgency. They would do better to admit that education is inescapably a national problem and then to argue over the best ways to structure the federal government’s response. As Diane Ravitch, assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration and author of National Standards in American Education, wrote in the Washington Post last April, “National standards—not federal standards managed by the federal government—are a necessity in an advanced society.” It is “naive,” she explained, “to believe that each state should have different standards in science, mathematics, English, and other important subjects. . . . National standards are essential both for equal opportunity and for excellence.”

This should be the starting point of the debate, which then needs to take into account two insights, one from liberals, the other from conservatives. The liberal insight is that there is a grave inequality between the educational resources available to poor children and wealthy children—and that children from inner cities often need more help from the schools. The conservative insight is that many of our big city school systems are failing and that experimental and private schools are often doing better. Conservatives will make a better case for experimentation if they acknowledge the problem of inequality. Liberals will make a better case for providing more resources to poor children if they are more open to experimentation, including vouchers.

Finally the election might usefully remind the Republicans that the tax cut issue ain’t what it used to be. Bob Dole’s 15 percent tax cut did not fail because, as some conservatives contend, he lacked enthusiasm for the idea. It failed because the idea was not nearly as popular as conservatives hoped it would be. True, individuals usually like cuts in their own taxes. Ronald Reagan won the 1981 tax cut because the country felt it was in the midst of an economic catastrophe and was willing to try anything, including supply side tax cuts. But Republicans spent so much energy in 1995 convincing the country that the budget deficit was the most important thing that they succeeded. The country (correctly) didn’t believe it was possible to have a 15 percent tax cut and a balanced budget without severe cuts in programs they liked. Republicans will be for tax cuts as far into the future as we can now imagine. But they need a less theological, and less expansive, approach.

Lessons from the Campaign

And what of President Clinton? He, too, can usefully learn from the campaign, particularly from his own. The paradox of Clinton’s 1996 campaign is that it was based on declaring that “the era of big government is over” and then on promising a rather extensive list of things that the federal government could do to (1) help individuals make the transition through a promising but worrying period of economic change; (2) help families cope with a new economy in which both parents are working; (3) make it easier for individuals to achieve higher levels of education and job training; (4) preserve popular federal programs—M2E2 again; and (5) take action on a series of nagging problems, ranging from high crime rates to the large numbers of Americans still without health insurance. Big government was over, but smaller government would do a whole lot of stuff.

Before discussing this contradiction, it’s worth looking at the important ways in which Clinton succeeded in altering the political debate—changes that are likely to be enduring. The paradox is this: Clinton moved the political dialogue slightly to the left of where it was in 1994 by seeming to move (and in some cases moving) to the right. How can this be?

He did so, first, by taking issues that had traditionally been the province of the right and transforming them. Nowhere is this clearer than on family values. Until recently, family values had been a Republican issue because it was discussed primarily in terms of publicly declared moral positions. Clinton and the Democrats turned the question of family values into a matter of what government could do to assist families whose values were not in question, but who felt under pressure because of a new division of labor outside the home. With both fathers and mothers working more, they feel an acute lack of time to raise their children properly and worry that they are botching the job. Clinton used seemingly small but symbolically powerful issues—school uniforms, teen curfews, v-chips—as a simple declaration that he felt the anxieties of these families. On a larger front, he touted the family and medical leave law and proposed a modest expansion. Suddenly, “family values” was about concrete steps government could take-often steps that conservatives opposed.

Clinton moved with similar skill in taking the crime issue away from the Republicans and turning gun control from a losing issue into a winner. And by endorsing a balanced budget and declaring the “end of big government”—these were moves to the right—he turned the budget debate from an argument over whether to balance the budget to a matter of how. This made the campaign an argument dominated not by attacks on profligate, deficit-ridden government, but by a defense of the basic outlines of the social insurance state. Profligacy and deficits are not popular, but the social insurance state still is.

Similarly, Clinton endorsed tax cuts, but cuts with—as some Republicans pointed out—specific social purposes. The traditionally “conservative” vehicle of tax reduction was used for traditionally “liberal” purposes. Clinton’s education tax cuts may not be the most efficient way to help people go to college, but they achieve this basic (and traditionally Democratic) purpose. Similarly, the child tax credit geared to low- and moderate-income families is redistributive and offers modest relief to parents feeling pressure to do more work outside the home.

Promises to Keep

Clinton’s fundamental obligation in his second term is to prove wrong those who insist that his 1996 program was nothing but electoral fluff. That means, first, a serious effort to keep the promises he made: the tax cuts, the expansions in the parental leave law, the modest expansions in health insurance coverage. It also means, as Brookings’ Tom Mann has suggested, transforming the rhetoric of the argument over federal insurance programs from a battle over “cutting entitlements” to a discussion of the reforms needed to save social insurance. There can be no denying that Clinton won the election as the defender of social insurance. He cannot, without losing all credibility, suddenly become an entitlement-cutter in the mode of Warren Rudman or Pete Peterson.

Paradoxically, this will put him in a far stronger position than most Republicans to rein in social insurance spending—though not by as much as the foes of the entitlements might like. Voters will accept economies in these programs provided they are proposed by politicians who support them. For this reason, Clinton needs to be wary of plans to change Social Security radically. Trims and reforms aimed at keeping Social Security viable—some additional means-testing, for example, or moves to invest some of the Social Security fund in private securities—are very different from radical privatization proposals aimed at fundamentally altering a system that, justifiably, enjoys deep popularity.

Clinton will also need to keep his promise to revisit the 1996 welfare bill. His justifications for signing it notwithstanding, the bill clearly promises something—to put welfare recipients to work—without providing the means to achieve the promise. Having agreed to large cuts in welfare spending, Clinton will be hard pressed to convince a Republican Congress to spend more on the welfare poor. But that is exactly what he will have to do to meet the moral obligations of his own rhetoric. Supporters of the bill argued that once the federal entitlement was ended and welfare abolished, it would be easier to argue for additional spending on job creation and education for welfare recipients. Clinton needs to prove that assertion right. In going along, Republicans could demonstrate that they meant what they said when they insisted that their goal was to lift up, not to punish, the poor.

Both parties also need to put some substance behind their claims of concern about inner-city problems, including efforts to reduce teen pregnancy, to spur economic development in poor areas, and to strengthen neighborhood institutions and civic organizations. Democrats, especially Clinton, could usefully engage community-minded Republicans such as Senator Dan Coats of Indiana and former Education Secretary William Bennett in a serious effort to strengthen the local institutions that mediate between individuals on the one side and their government and the economic system on the other.

And it goes without saying—but it needs to be said—that Clinton should, this time around, keep his promise to push for campaign finance reform. He would have saved himself and his party a lot of trouble if he had pushed hard to keep his 1992 promise on this issue. He now has a powerful personal stake in a reform that, at the least, ends the existing system of uncontrolled “soft money” and guarantees candidates some free and cheap television time to reduce the pressure to raise outside money.

Above all, Clinton would do well to see his 1992 and 1996 campaigns as of a piece. Both campaigns, and most of the promises he made in them, were addressed to the opportunities and insecurities created by the global economy. The promise to expand health coverage was aimed at easing one major insecurity created by job-shifting and downsizing. His repeated invocations of education and training were a message that the government would help young people and middle-aged workers adjust to gain rather than lose ground in the new circumstances. His family rhetoric spoke to the moral anxieties created or deepened by economic change.

In policy terms, this means the president will have to return to the health care issue by proposing steady expansions of coverage—starting, perhaps, with universal coverage for children. He will have to be serious about education, which means taking on issues that make both liberals and conservatives uncomfortable. He will have to show that the job training and job transition programs he would expand have more promise than some of the earlier efforts in this area. And he will have to push for a much broader debate on how the rules of work should be changed, by law in some cases, to match the radical changes in the division of labor between men and women. Finally, he might do what he failed to do in his first term: create a former link between the effort to “reinvent government” in management terms and the need to define exactly what the federal government should be doing.

The Advent of the Sensible Deal

All this suggests agendas far more modest than either party would like, and an approach to problems far less radical than many in both might claim (quite plausibly) is necessary. It is not a deregulating, supply side conservatism. Nor does it propose profound structural changes in economic policy that many liberals believe are needed. It is more redistributionist than most Republicans would like, less so than Democrats would favor. It accepts a larger federal role than the one supported by Republicans, but it is no New Deal or Great Society.

But as long as power in Washington is divided by an electorate that is itself both split and somewhat ambivalent about exactly what it wants government to do, the New Modesty or the Sensible Deal may be the most expansive slogans available. If Clinton is to find his path to greatness, he may discover it less in grand programs than in success at transforming the political dialogue. The debate over “small” or “big” government is a dead end because voters have endorsed the largest parts of government, its social insurance programs, and the most “intrusive” parts of government, its role in regulating the environment and safety. The issues for now are how should a government of about its current size solve problems, and which problems are paramount?

If he can succeed, Clinton’s most useful legacy may be to move a series of problems—health care, job training, education, strengthening community life, righting the relationship between work and family—to the center of the political argument. He could then spur a debate that might bear fruit not only during his own term, but also after. The president who declared the era of big government over could thus find himself bringing new legitimacy and respect to the federal government. That was, after all, one of his central aims in seeking the presidency.