What will Clinton do for his country?: As a Democrat closes on the White House, Patrick Cockburn in Washington looks at the changes he would make after 12 Republican years

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The Independent Online
IN THE FRAME houses along Midland Street, which climbs the steep hills above the Arkansas river, there are limited expectations for a Clinton presidency. 'He'll make a difference, but it will take longer than four years,' said Steve Goss, a construction worker, who voted for George Bush in the 1988 election.

He felt a national health system should be set up, the wealthy should be more heavily taxed and people on social security should be 'set to work instead of sitting at home watching television'.

Bob Wozencraft, a courier for a computer company, said: 'I am afraid he will raise taxes. He's been governor here for 12 years and I don't think he's done anything. Out of every dollars 400 ( pounds 250) I make, I already pay dollars 75 in taxes.'

A woman who withheld her name said she would vote for Bill Clinton, but she thought he would be out after his first presidency if he did not lower taxes and improve health care. In any case, she was moving to Britain.

From construction workers in Little Rock to bankers in Wall Street, people across the US are trying to work out what a Clinton administration would look like and how it would affect them. James Nickels at the University of Arkansas said a junior member of the university staff, on an errand to Washington, was repeatedly asked by people who detected his Arkansas accent: 'Are you a member of the transition team?'

All this may turn out to be premature. But the likelihood is that Mr Clinton is heading for a comfortable victory on 3 November. The dimensions of his victory, however, will be important in determining the policies of the new administration.

If Ross Perot, with drastic action to cut the deficit at the heart of his platform, does well in the vote, it will increase the pressure on Mr Clinton to do something about the dollars 320bn budget deficit. Getting the deficit down will get priority over investment in infrastructure, training, education and health. Mr Clinton will find himself squeezed between his commitment to stimulate the economy and fear of reaction on Wall Street.

Sixteen million viewers watched Ross Perot's half-hour commercial on America's economic problems. During every meeting and television appearance, Mr Clinton invariably says, and truthfully, that 'most Americans work harder for less money than they did 10 years ago'. How radical is he prepared to be in reversing this? The spending he has proposed during the campaign is too meagre to stimulate the economy. Indeed, he has been lucky over the last three months that Mr Bush, wanting to avoid examination of his own economic record, never really tested his challenger's economic proposals. But Mr Clinton had another good reason for reticence, in that the Democrats themselves are deeply divided on the economy, and these divisions will become more important if he wins next week.

The distribution of the top economic jobs will indicate the direction of the Clinton presidency. 'Once you know the name of treasury secretary, then you will know everything you need to know about economic policy,' said a Democratic economic specialist. 'If he appoints an investment banker like Roger Altman or Bob Rubin of Goldman Sachs, the markets will be reassured.'

A more radical economic prescription is likely if Mr Clinton chooses somebody like Felix Rohatyn of Lazard Freres, known for his work in saving New York City from bankruptcy. During the campaign, Mr Clinton was careful not to give any hint about what balance he intends between cutting the deficit and investment. But there is a clear swing of intellectual fashion away from the free marketeering of the Eighties and towards greater state intervention. In September, the Wall Street Journal worried over the 'Battle for the soul of a President Clinton', between interventionists and what it regarded as more acceptable types. In fact, most of his potential economic advisers believe in the effectiveness of state action in providing health care, education, training, incentives for industry and infrastructure.

Mr Clinton never had a radical reputation as Governor of Arkansas, but he needs to deliver on his pledges to act in three areas: jobs, health care and training of the workforce. This means he is unlikely to appoint anybody to a senior economic job who will lock him into austerity with Perot-style rapid reduction of the deficit.

One saving could be defence, but Mr Clinton's proposals for a cut in the military budget are only slightly deeper than those put forward by Mr Bush. Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia is unlikely to give up his position as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee for the uncertainty of being Mr Clinton's defense secretary. Another strong candidate is Les Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

For secretary of state, Lee Hamilton of Indiana, a moderate, is among the favourities. Whoever takes over, foreign policy in a Clinton adminstration - described by the foreign affairs specialist James Chase as 'the status quo plus' - is unlikely to have much priority. Deviations from Mr Bush's foreign policy are most likely to be seen in a tilt towards Israel, a harsher line towards Cuba and tougher trade restrictions on China.

Neither Robert Gates at the CIA nor William Sessions at the FBI is likely to survive the transition. Mr Gates has a reputation as a lapdog, but the hostilities between the CIA, the Justice Department and the FBI in the last few weeks, over who knew what about the supply of credit to Iraq in the late Eighties, are likely to bring him down. With the end of the Cold War and its poor performance during the Gulf war, the CIA counts for less than it did during the Democratic administrations since 1945.

Mr Clinton and his supporters sometimes describe themselves as the new Democrats, an almost entirely opportunistic label making it easier to evade Republican accusations that they are 'tax-and- spend liberals'. Political scientists have also been quick to see 1992 as marking a realignment in American politics, with the collapse of the Republican grip on much of the white working class in presidential elections.

In fact, Mr Clinton and Senator Al Gore, his vice-presidential choice, are both typical enough of Southern Democrats, in favour of the death penalty and tough on people dependent on welfare. Welfare rolls and death row have a high proportion of blacks; the two Democratic leaders' hardline stance on both issues has prevented the Republicans playing the race card they have used so successfully in other campaigns.

Yet blacks and liberals alike are desperate enough to get rid of the Republicans to turn out for Mr Clinton. Leaving aside the radicalism or lack of it in new policies, they want to reverse the tide of conservative appointments to federal judgeships and the Supreme Court.

The so-called Webster decision by the Supreme Court in 1989, restricting the right to abortion, galvanised pro-abortion opinion. There is nothing much Mr Clinton can do immediately about the Supreme Court, but in more junior judicial and administrative appointments, the impact of a Clinton administration will start at once.

The mistake of politicians and the media over the past year has been to underestimate an unexpected shift towards radicalism among the American public. It started in Pennsylvania a year ago, when Harris Wofford, campaigning for health insurance alone, surprisingly defeated Dick Thornburgh, Mr Bush's attorney- general. Mr Clinton copied the economic populism of Jerry Brown, the former governor of California, when his staff discovered voters in the spring primaries liked it. Given that the Arkansas Governor is ambitious to hold power, the direction of his presidency will depend on how long this mood continues.

(Photograph omitted)