A political Elmer Gantry


CHICAGO -- Here is a measure of the emptiness of politics during Bill Clinton's purely tactical presidency: The delegates who will rock the rafters for him tomorrow night have only varying degrees of hostility for the only truly significant things -- there are only three of them -- he has done.

Democrats are the party of government, so a majority of Democrats in Congress opposed NAFTA. A Republican initiative, it decreases the importance of government by increasing the sovereignty of economic forces over political choices. Democrats are the party of compassion, meaning the prevention or amelioration of pain, and free trade causes some pain by increasing the velocity of economic change.

Democrats favor a large federal role in directing domestic social change. Therefore they cannot admire Mr. Clinton's proposal to balance the budget in seven years by, among other measures, cutting discretionary domestic spending almost one-third.

Democrats have been the party of the teeming cities, committed to palliating the stresses of urbanism, particularly for minorities. Yet now, when the phrase "inner city" has become a delicate synonym for "slum," Democrats have a president who, given an opportunity to refute those who say he is a human windsock, empty and blown about, would not seize that opportunity. He would not exercise his only substantial power, the veto, to block a Republican welfare bill that terminates the federal entitlement to income support for the poor.

Democrats, who are acutely hostile to policies that have what they call "disparate impacts" on minorities, must loathe the new law under which two-thirds of the millions of children removed from the welfare rolls will be black or Hispanic.

When, years hence, historians highlight today's indices of the Democrats' intellectual bankruptcy, they may dwell upon Vice President Gore's statement here Sunday that a re-elected President Clinton would wield the line-item veto to force more generosity in welfare policy. A president cannot increase spending by vetoing a line item, so what Mr. Gore meant was the line-item veto would give Mr. Clinton bargaining leverage with legislators: increase welfare spending or I will veto that appropriation for a federal project in your district.

Mr. Gore, an intelligent and informed man, knows but chooses to ignore what conservatives, too, ignore when the subject is welfare: Serious welfare reform -- meaning the painstaking process of equipping for the work force people who may have only the dimmest family memories of regular work -- requires increased spending by an enlarged, supervising government.

But the government is out of money and the public is out of patience with the government. That is why the most distinguished Democrat, Pat Moynihan, says, "The cheapest thing to do with chronic welfare-dependent families is simply to leave them as they are."

Meaningless mandate

Mr. Gore said the president will have a "mandate" to "fix" the cuts in food stamps and the denial of most benefits to legal immigrants. But a mandate is something asked for, and the way Mr. Clinton is seeking office -- by conforming to conservative rhetoric and acquiescing in conservative measures -- guarantees that the office, if he gets it again, will be of little use to him because there will be little meaning to his tactical presidency.

The last Democratic president before Mr. Clinton, who also was a Southern governor with surreptitious ambitions, sneaked by the electorate in 1976 by saying things like, "Our government in Washington is a horrible bureaucratic mess. It is disorganized; wasteful; has no purpose and its policies . . . are incomprehensible." And: Government is "a bloated, confused, bureaucratic mess."

Then president Jimmy Carter hectored Americans to turn down their thermostats and drive less and slower. He was surprised that the government he had flayed did not have standing to deliver such lectures.

It is often thus. With measured malice, American history seems to distribute retributive calamities even-handedly, punishing all who enjoy a spell of political prosperity.

President Clinton's current ascendancy is an affliction visited on Republicans as a result of their control of Congress -- both the clumsiness of their use of that control, and the adroitness of Mr. Clinton's use of what that control did for him. It emancipated him from governing, leaving him free to resume his life's vocation as a political Elmer Gantry, forever campaigning. But now what he is doing to sustain that ascendancy -- promising to be not much more than not Newt Gingrich -- increases the probability that his presidency is just a diluted Democratic moment in an ongoing Republican era.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/28/96

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