Clinton’s New Politics BY JAMES RIDGEWAY Washington, D.C. FOR THE FIRST TIME since he entered the national political arena during the New Hampshire primary more than a year ago, Bill Clinton has set forth in concrete terms what he proposes to do with the government. The result, in his State of the Union speech, was a daring, even populist reassertion of the idea of activist government that also laid a foundation for what the United States can look like in the next century. It is one of the most important political statements of our time, breaking ground in much the same way as Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal message did or as Woodrow Wilson’s call for national self-determination and “open covenants openly arrived at.” In tone and style of course, Clinton’s first State of the Union was completely different from the speeches of either of those two presidents. The setting, before a joint session of Congress, was auspicious, the new President opening a new century before an audience of the last. Almost allegorically, the cameras panned across the fat, florid countenances of senators and representatives from rotten boroughs who have sat on Capitol Hill for 20 years the dim bulbs who watched as the country went to hell. The content of the speech was modest, the details in and of themselves relatively inconsequential the economic stimulus small and new taxes modest. But quibbling over the details of the programs as the press has done misses the point. The real political content was in the President’s friendly but firm conversation with the members of Congress. Clinton told these people in the most affable. way possible to give it up. “Our nation needs a new direction,” he declared at the outset. “Tonight I present to you a comprehensive plan to set our nation on that new course. I believe we will find our new direction in the basic old values that brought us here over the last two centuries a commitment to opportunity, to individual responsibility, to community, to work, to family and to the faith. We must now break the habits of both political parties and say there can be no more something for nothing and admit frankly that we are all in this together.” And a few moments later he went on, “I did not seek this office to place blame. James Ridgeway is staff writer for the Village Voice. Additional reporting by Jimmie Briggs Jr. I come here tonight to accept responsibility and I want you to accept responsibility with me. And if we do right by this country, I do not care who gets the credit for it.” Again and again Clinton reminded these deadheads that their time is gone. He told them why he used the figures from the Congressional Budget Office: “Because there were differences over the revenue estimates, you and I know that both parties were given greater elbow room for irresponsibility. This is tightening the rein on the Democrats as well as the Republicans. Let’s at least argue about the same set of numbers so the American people will think we’re keeping straight with them.” And he suggested that should they change their ways and move along future historians might treat them kindly. Until now, his real program has been enveloped in a fog of post-election contradictions that reinforced the campaign view that Clinton was, as his hometown paper had dubbed him, “Slick Willie,” saying one thing but often doing another. During the campaign, his plan for the economy never was a plan at all; the guidebook for the new administration, the Progressive Police Institute’s Mandate for Change, was more of the same, a maundering trial of non-ideas and political poses no more sure of their ultimate policy meaning than cyber-punk. The economic summit in Little Rock, while it made good TV, was embarrassing drivel. The inaugural speech was unremarkable. The President’s penchant for personal growth Renaissance get-togethers, having the first Cabinet meeting orchestrated by a professional “facilitator,” telling a President to tell a revealing anecdote about how when he was a fat little boy people used to make fun of him all reinforce the idea that Bill Clinton has a postmodern process, not a program. But in one week all that was blown away in an instant. Forget the pundits. In his speech, delivered in a conversational tone, Clinton set out new directions for government in social policy, ethics, the reform of America’s industrial base, and the reorganization of society through education. It is his chart for the future, not the diddling with the tax code, that is the reason to embrace this vision. Clinton’s program, which is backed up by a thick book of facts and figures a sort of minibudget put together within a month of taking office is, at one level, virtually inconsequential. In terms of dollars, the stimulus program is tiny $30 billion in a $5 trillion economy. Health care, the giant elephant in the room that everybody is afraid to talk about, is put off until this spring. But while the new administration studies health care, it is moving immediately toward price controls on Medicare, and Clinton has already directly confronted the drug companies over their prices for vaccines. Any kind of decent health care system would entail a complete rebuilding of the country’s dilapidated public health system, which is symbolized by the reemergence of TB as a virulent disease of the masses. But tucked away into the heart of the program are the microchips that will drive the new government. Their truly revolutionary impact will be seen not so much in huge new budgets for new social services as in the revitalizing of old programs and the provision of a new sense of purposefulness for government projects everywhere. Nothing illustrates this better than Clinton’s plans for prenatal and childhood health care. During the late 1960s, a growing body of evidence suggested that women who had bad diets during pregnancy had a higher risk of miscarriages and other health problems than well-fed mothers. Infants without adequate nutrition during their mother’s pregnancy were found to suffer from lower birth weights, stunted growth, and smaller head circumferences all indicators of future health problems. In 1968 the Johnson Administration set up a special program to provide additional foods to pregnant and nursing women and their young children. The U.S. Department of Agriculture supplied free food to children under 6 and mothers eligible for the program. This program grew and in 1972 Congress authorized the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and basis and later as a permanent program. The WIC program is an example of what government can do with very little money to improve the lives of people. It has demonstrably helped to reduce fetal deaths and lowered overall infant mortality rates. It has reduced low birth-weight rates and increased the duration of pregnancies, and it has helped improve the growth rates of at-risk infants and children. Youngsters on WIC are more apt to have medical care and get immunized than are poor children outside the program. They have better diets and are are better prepared to start school. Not only is WIC cheap, but it’s the sort of public health program that dramatically 14 MARCH 12, 1993
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