New Deal Redux or Great Society II?

Bill Clinton hopes to make the Nineties an era of reform. But which will his administration emulate – the New Deal or the Great Society?

Bill Clinton in 1993. Credit: Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images

The empty space between Bill Clinton's election and his first appointments was a time for nervous fluttering among important Washington types. In the absence of any visible action, speculation ran rampant. Desperate for hard news, reporters began producing silly stories about the reclusive president-elect. Even Clinton's putative friends gossiped about his "indecisiveness." His enemies, meanwhile, blanketed the airwaves with dire warnings about what would happen if President Clinton actually does what candidate Clinton promised to do.

From time to time, the man himself emerged to deflate the second-guessing. Nine days after victory he held his first press conference. Was he shrinking before the awesome task of the presidency?

"No, I'm having a wonderful time," Clinton said with a cheerful demeanor that confirmed his statement. "I mean, it is an enormous responsibility, but I asked for it, and I don't feel overwhelmed by it."

Bill Clinton looks and sounds like a man ready to govern. Until we learn more about his program and who will serve in key positions (not yet known as I write), we have to rely on such signals to sustain high hopes. For me, it's enough. Clinton was a superb campaigner, and he's now conveying the same strong qualities that won him the election –– self-confidence, openness, even patience in the presence of so many complex problems.

Yes, he acknowledged, the work might seem overwhelming. "But it's in the nature of democratic government that most people can do most jobs if they summon their best effort," he said. "And I will give you my best effort every day."

That comment has a wonderful egalitarian spirit that resonates with the popular upheavals of 1992 –– a sense of summoning people everywhere to join in the democratic task ahead. The president-elect isn't intimidated by the barnacled presence of the status quo; he urges others to share his optimism and get to work.

For better or worse, a president educates the nation even as he governs, and Clinton has already begun to teach some new lessons. The press kept badgering him about gays in the military. Does he really intend to change the rules? The question was asked three or four times, and each time, Clinton patiently answered yes. Well, what about Hillary? The day after Clinton met with Democratic congressional leaders, the following exchange occurred with the press:

Q: Was Mrs. Clinton at the table with you last night?
A: She was.

Q: Stayed the whole time?
A: Stayed the whole time. Talked a lot. Knew more than we did about some things. I think [the congressional leaders] would agree with that.

His implicit message was, back off. Hillary Clinton will be an important policy voice in the next White House, and if that offends traditional notions, reporters better get used to it. The statement said a lot about her character but also something important about his. Clinton is a new kind of Democrat and, indeed, a new kind of president, more in touch with social reality than recent actors on the White House stage.

Because Clinton is so adept at these personal gestures, my sense is that governing elites will put aside their doubts and swiftly fall in love. Older Democrats are already detecting a hint of Kennedy's Camelot in the air. Clinton's Southern accent leads Republicans, meanwhile, to hope for another Jimmy Carter.

Alas, the presidency is more than symbolism. Camelot has always been an illusion of memory, not the actual reality of JFK's brief, tragic presidency. Clinton can help himself –– and also the nation –– with his skillful use of presidential gestures. But ultimately he is up against a much harder question about the tangible nature of government: What kind of new Democrat does he really intend to be?

The ghosts that cast a large shadow across Clinton's path are not those of Kennedy and Carter but of two other Democratic presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both men presided over eras of great reform, just as Clinton hopes to, and both produced important breakthroughs toward greater equity. But they governed in very different ways and produced dramatically different results. Clinton will have to choose between these two models.

Johnson's Great Society was born in the liberal hubris of the Sixties (the same reckless arrogance that led the United States into war in Indochina) and is remembered now mainly as a grandiose promise that ended in abject failure. LBJ declared war on poverty, and as P.J. O'Rourke might put it, poverty won. The government is still littered with the wreckage. Numerous schemes, from the Job Corps to "model cities," were legislated in a heady whirlwind of hope, but most were either poorly conceived or significantly underfunded –– or both.

The actual record of the Great Society is somewhat better than its reputation. It did produce some enduring reforms –– Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start among them. But the legacy has gravely damaged the Democratic party for a generation. It was not just that LBJ's government made promises it couldn't keep, undermining public confidence in an activist liberal government. The Great Society also fostered bitter resentments because its narrow, categorical programs seemed to benefit only specific groups.

Working people –– the folks who pay their taxes and don't usually qualify for direct government aid –– began to sense they were footing the bill for all those who don't work. In good times, most Americans feel generous toward the disadvantaged, but when they feel the squeeze themselves, they naturally begin to wonder why assistance always skips them. Encouraged by GOP propaganda, a poisonous idea took hold among the public: Democrats were devoted slavishly to certain 'special interests' –– that is, to the indolent poor and especially to black people, who are disproportionately poor.

From Nixon to Reagan and Bush, a generation of Republicans exploited this grievance tinged with racial overtones. The reality, of course, was always quite different. Because of underfunding, most poor people, white and black, never see the promised benefits. Head Start, both popular and demonstrably effective, is funded so meagerly that only one in five eligible poor children can enroll. Even despised welfare checks are received by only 40 percent of families below the official poverty line. The anger persists, nevertheless, as a real obstacle to genuine reform.

The good news about Clinton is that he seems to understand all this. As a candidate, he repeatedly spoke in broad terms about how government can intervene to correct social problems only if it will spread eligibility beyond narrow categories. That is why he talked endlessly and vaguely about addressing the problems of the middle class. Many interpreted Clinton's rhetoric as turning his back on the poor and on blacks, but I think he intends something quite different: to recast aid whenever possible in universal terms.

One example from among Clinton's many proposals is his call for national service –– a voluntary program in which young people could do community service for subsistence wages in exchange for a voucher that helps pay for their college education. Anyone could sign up, including the children of middle-class families, which are overwhelmed by the rising costs of tuition. Likewise, kids who aren't headed to college could be assisted with training for skilled trades.

Everyone in. The model for this style of governing is found in that other great era of Democratic reform –– FDR's New Deal –– and the best example is Social Security. The principle is straightforward: Unlike various welfare programs, everyone pays into Social Security and everybody is entitled to benefits, regardless of income. This approach produces inequities of its own, to be sure, but it also protects the program from being disparaged as "welfare." The reason Social Security has survived, despite two generations of Republican attacks, is that everyone is included.

The same logic was central to Clinton's victory –– the way in which he persuaded many disaffected Reagan Democrats to rejoin the party of liberal reform. Pollster Stanley Greenberg, one of Clinton's key strategists, explained: "You couldn't persuade people to believe government can do things for them if you don't first convince them that Clinton is a leader who will fight for all people –– that he is not driven by the traditional Democratic special-interest politics."

Throughout the campaign, the press kept nagging Clinton to endorse means testing for entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare –– that is, restrict them to those without higher incomes. Clinton refused, said Greenberg, because he understood that that would violate the universal nature of those programs –– and, in effect, convert them into welfare for the needy. That would be the first step toward subverting their political viability, as Republican critics know well.

Clinton thus offers a new understanding for how to achieve social justice –– or at least he wants to revive the New Deal understanding. Greenberg outlined a new reality that many latter-day liberals find difficult to accept: "You can't forge a political majority for social-justice claims unless you propose universal solutions –– whether it's health care or college education."

But here's the bad news: Clinton has also inherited (and even encouraged) the Great Society's flawed approach. That's reflected in his own campaign book, Putting People First, which reads like an overripe catalog of narrow programs targeted to specific recipients –– from prenatal care for moms to cheaper drugs for old folks, from a Youth Opportunity Corps for dropouts to a Housing and Homelessness Summit for the dispossessed.

These proposals typify the burgeoning liberal wish list accumulated during 12 years of do-nothing conservative government. Many are undoubtedly good ideas; they might even work. But they cannot all be pursued without producing the same kind of half-baked results that the Great Society produced. Clinton surely knows this, but he may be pushed in this direction anyway.

Why? For one thing the government is broke and can't afford too much expensive fundamental innovation. So the new president will be tempted again and again to legislate piecemeal "experiments" and "model programs" on the cheap –– responses that speak to specific grievances and produce lots of symbolic action but are guaranteed to yield meager consequences.

Clinton's presidency will be fought along this fault line. The dilemma will test his character. Will he have the discipline to stick to the few large things that are inclusive and might make a real difference? Is he tough enough to resist the predictable clamor for symbolic gestures in countless areas of distress? This is an instance where he needs to put aside the laundry list of small-bore campaign promises and concentrate on his big ones.

If Clinton emerges as a true descendant of Roosevelt, he will face a second, larger question about how to govern. The common memory of the New Deal mushes everything together, but the actual history is more complicated: FDR began in 1933 with one agenda for reviving prosperity and, on the whole, failed. After a few frustrating years, he gravitated toward a second and more radical agenda. That one worked, more or less. At the least it produced many of the landmarks that remain in place today –– from labor-rights legislation to Social Security, from unemployment compensation to the operating principles of Keynesian economics.

The striking parallel with today is that Clinton's own agenda resonates with the outlines of Roosevelt's first New Deal, not the second. Clinton even uses some of the same ideas and language FDR employed early on. Clinton wants to pour a lot of concrete –– building highways, bridges and so forth –– in order to create jobs. So did the early Roosevelt. Clinton proposes a top-down industrial policy, based on government-business-labor cooperation, to restore the economic base. FDR tried that, too. At best, Roosevelt's first plan produced weak results. At worst, it created cozy, government-sponsored cartels that comforted some business sectors but did not revive growth.

The danger for Clinton is that he will spend a few years pursuing a version of FDR's first New Deal when he ought to go directly to the more radical plan. The second New Deal concentrated more directly on working conditions and wages and personal well-being of everyone, from poor children to factory workers to the elderly. It defined the elements of economic security we now take for granted –– the "safety net," worker rights and progressive income tax, which were all so badly battered during the Reagan-Bush years.

Roosevelt's second agenda challenged existing power; Clinton still hopes to cooperate with it. FDR altered the fundamental terms by which the nation's income is distributed; Clinton merely hopes to increase the income. In fairness, the president-elect may lack the momentum at this moment to advance a more radical program –– a shorter work week, a federal jobs program or other such measures.

The nation's deteriorating prosperity has not as yet produced the kind of popular unrest that encouraged FDR to advance a bolder agenda. We may or may not see those conditions during Clinton's first term. But if we do, he had better respond smartly. He may not get the second chance that Roosevelt had.