Washington. -- It is the least that Harvard could do. Having saddled the Clinton administration with many of the people and ideas under which it is sagging, Harvard has now produced an alibi for the sagging: Ronald Reagan had a better beginning because he was dumb. Bill Clinton is too smart. Hence his diffuse focus and, according to most critics, his themeless presidency.
The author of this alibi, Professor Michael Sandel, a political philosopher and a gentleman, put it delicately:
"The risk is that he [Mr. Clinton] knows too much. Reagan did not have that problem. For Reagan, a thematic presidency was easy because he did not know very much. All he had were broad themes on three-by-five cards. Clinton has a CD-ROM in his head."
(A CD-ROM is a computer thing. I didn't know that, but have noted it on a three-by-five card.)
Actually, most of President Clinton's critics are precisely wrong. He is in trouble because his theme is alarmingly clear.
It is: Americans do not spend their money or otherwise exercise free choice sensibly, so government, run by sons and daughters of John Harvard, and by other people with CD-ROMs in their heads, should do more spending and choosing for Americans.
President Reagan had two advantages over Mr. Clinton. Mr. Reagan was doing what he campaigned on doing -- cutting taxes and re-arming -- and what the country wanted done.
Mr. Clinton's core problem is the pervasive belief that he campaigned disingenuously, and began governing the same way when, after election day, he feigned shock about "new" deficit projections of more than $300 billion that, he said, required huge tax increases. Trouble is, way back on July 6, 1992, he said: "When I began the campaign, the projected deficit was $250 billion. Now" -- four months before the election -- "it's up to $400 billion."
The administration also is in trouble because of its "Through the Looking-Glass" use of language. (" 'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean.' ") "Investment" means spending, a tax increase on Social Security is a "spending cut," other tax increases are "contributions," and a surtax on people earning a quarter of a million dollars is a "millionaire's tax."
A CD-ROM is not needed, a three-by-five card will do for this rule: Americans are not as dumb as many clever people think they are. They understand the casual misuse of words.
And of promises. From the transparent truth-stretching of the "25 percent cut" in White House staff, to the abandonment of pressure for a 25 percent cut in Congress' staff and a line-item veto (both abandoned at President Clinton's first post-election meeting with Democratic leaders of Congress), to the incredibly vanishing middle-class tax cut and the incredibly shrinking interest in ending welfare "as we have known it," to Leon Panetta's talk of two dollars of spending cuts for every dollar of tax increases, promises have been treated cavalierly.
Mr. Panetta, director of the Office of Management and Budget, caused commotion last week when he said that much of Mr. Clinton's agenda is in trouble in Congress and the North American Free Trade Agreement is "dead." But of course. Mr. Clinton killed much of his agenda (see above) and other Democrats are mangling much of what remains (from higher grazing fees to the investment tax credit). Furthermore NAFTA's condition, parlous if not terminal, is a natural result of government by growers of government, such as Mr. Clinton and his people.
Consider O'Sullivan's First Law (authored by John O'Sullivan, editor of National Review): "All organizations that are not actively right-wing will over time become left-wing." Mr. O'Sullivan has in mind organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, the Ford Foundation, the Episcopal Church. People who run such organizations tend to disdain business, making money, private property, even the current arrangement of society.
But O'Sullivan's Law holds for U.S. administrations: Those not conservative by principle become statist and hyperactive by innate momentum. They are staffed by people who have no principled reason for resisting government's natural tendency to expand; indeed, they are in the public sector because they think it wiser and more moral than the private sector.
Which brings us to NAFTA and a corollary of O'Sullivan's Law: Administrations that do not favor free trade as a matter of principle will become protectionist by inertia and conviction.
This is so because there never is a shortage of interests petitioning for protection. Besides, people with CD-ROMs in their heads know (in Professor Sandel's words) "too much." They know the proper price for Polish steel sold here, the proper number of Japanese minivans to be bought here, the right sort of environment and labor laws for Mexico, and millions more things, probably including, soon, the correct number of hysterectomies for American women and the proper compensation for anesthesiologists.
So why let free markets -- the free choices of hundreds of millions of people, most of them three-by-five-card simpletons -- make decisions when there is a government run by people with CD-ROM's in their heads, ready to take over the choosing? That is the clear theme of Mr. Clinton's presidency, and protectionism is one of its implications.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.