Jogger without a road map: Lacking a coherent set of beliefs, Bill Clinton will soon fall prey to competing interests, predicts Fred Barnes

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Bill Clinton is the most charming and likeable American president since John F Kennedy. He's the most politically clever president since Lyndon Johnson, without Johnson's ruthless streak. And he's the most knowledgeable about the nuts and bolts of domestic policy since Jimmy Carter, who once tried to read the United States Tax Code, thousands of pages long.

All that is not enough. What was said about Carter is all the more true of Clinton: he believes in 50 things, but no one thing. Sure, he has a painstakingly thought-out position on the government subsidy for raising honey-bees (he's against it). But he lacks a rudder, a coherent set of beliefs to guide policy-making. He's an empty suit. As a result, he's at the mercy of Washington pressure groups, Congress and the polls. He'll soon be in trouble.

The absence of an ideology helped make Clinton an adroit campaigner. He claimed to be 'a different kind of Democrat', neither liberal nor conservative but the advocate of a 'third way'.

As the third way was ill-defined, Clinton had maximum flexibility as a candidate. He wooed liberals by calling for national health insurance, moderates by pledging to hire another 100,000 police officers, conservatives by vowing to cut off benefits to anyone who stayed on welfare for two years. Normally voters are sceptical of politicians promising something for everyone, but Clinton was running against an ineffable incumbent, George Bush, and a paranoid megalomaniac, Ross Perot. He shone in comparison.

Governing is different from campaigning. A successful president sets a clear course for the country, but Clinton can't decide on one. Perhaps his most frequently repeated promise was that he'd be ready to govern 'from Day One'. He's not. He dawdled during the transition - he found time to jog but was chronically late to meetings - and thus won't be able to take full advantage of the early months of his presidency, when his popularity is greatest and Congress most inclined to approve his programmes.

Clinton made matters worse by picking an internally inconsistent cabinet. He professes to be a free trader, but his chief White House economist, Laura Tyson, is an avowed protectionist. He says he backs most of the legislative agenda of trade unions, but he picked as labor secretary a Harvard University professor, Robert Reich, whom union leaders detest. Clinton insists he'll push for welfare reform, but he named as secretary of health, education and welfare an educator, Donna Shalala, who's indifferent to it.

The worst built-in conflicts, however, are in foreign and economic policy-making. Clinton installed Les Aspin, a former Congressman, as defense secretary - a brilliant choice. Aspin, more than any other Democrat, has devoted the last decade to drawing the Democratic Party away from its reflexive opposition to the use of military force. He achieved partial success: roughly one-third of congressional Democrats backed the Gulf war.

But he's paired in the cabinet with a secretary of state, Warren Christopher, who recoils at the thought of using force. Christopher wrote a monograph entitled Diplomacy: the Neglected Imperative. It advised against even the threat of force.

An Aspin-Christopher duel, all but inevitable, isn't a recipe for a coherent American foreign policy in the post-Cold War world. When should the US intervene militarily and when not? What Clinton will decide will depend on who has his ear, Aspin or Christopher.

While running for office, Clinton said his top goal was spurring economic growth, and he proposed a middle-class tax cut as one way of doing it. Fine. But then he chose Leon Panetta - the chief critic in Congress of his economic scheme - as his budget director. As Panetta's assistant, Clinton chose the economist Alice Rivlin, who's even more scornful of his economic ideas, especially the middle-class tax cut. Impressionable to a fault, Clinton instantly abandoned the tax cut in favour of deficit reduction through tax hikes and spending restraint, a policy that failed three times in the past eight years to narrow the deficit.

In picking his cabinet, Clinton also showed he's super-susceptible to political pressure. Feminists complained that too few women had been tapped, so he set aside the job of attorney-general. Environmentalists disliked his initial choices for White House economic adviser, the World Bank economist Larry Summers, and interior secretary, Congressman Bill Richardson, so he jettisoned both. Hispanics demanded a second cabinet post, so he tossed overboard the man he'd selected as transportation secretary, Bill Daley, and installed a Hispanic.

This whetted the appetites of the liberal special interests: unions, bureaucrats, homosexuals, big-city mayors, groups with racial and gender grievances, the green lobby, and various spending constituencies. These folks agree on one thing: Washington must spend more. (Federal spending is currently a quarter of the US gross national product, the highest proportion in history). Clinton promised dollars 220bn ( pounds 142bn) in new spending, but that's a drop in the bucket against what they want.

They have allies. Democrats in Congress regard the dozen years of Republican rule as an era of austerity. Spending doubled but they weren't satisfied. And then there's the First Lady, Hillary Clinton, pal of liberal activists and one who sees government as the solution for every fleeting human want. She's the most influential adviser in the White House.

Clinton could simply say no to Hillary and the rest. But he's not the type. He aims to please everyone at once. The way to do that is forget about spending restraint, then raise taxes to cover the shortfall, especially taxes that don't hit voters directly. With the economy on the upswing, the deficit may shrink in the short run. Clinton will think he's mastered Washington. It will be a mirage. After a year, two at most, the burst of new spending, plus re-regulation, will take its toll. Inflation will soar, the deficit will grow, and the economy will go sour.

Presidents who succeed, liberal or conservative, have a road map. It points the administration in a clear direction. They make events happen. They lead rather than follow. I have presidents such as Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman in mind. Clinton, sorry to say, is more like Jimmy Carter and George Bush: well-intentioned but bound to fail.

The author is a senior editor of the US magazine 'The New Republic'.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments