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Who’s Pulling Bill Clinton’s Strings?

What would a Bill Clinton presidency look like?

Bill Clinton, campaigning

Bill Clinton seen here at an Arkansas Travelers game at Ray Winder Field, Little Rock, ARK, 1990

Rogers Photo Archive/Getty

Put aside for the moment all the obvious doubts about Bill Clinton and imagine instead some of the breathtaking headlines that will appear in November if he is elected president. In some ways they are the best reasons to vote for him.

New generation takes charge.
At forty-five, Clinton would be the first president since World War II whose political outlook was not shaped by that conflict. Since Eisenhower, the country has been governed by old soldiers and sailors from that war. Clinton came to maturity in the turmoil of the Sixties – rock & roll, Vietnam, civil rights and all that. If Clinton wins, the boomers would finally have one of their own in power.

Racial healer wins white house
For twenty-five years, the GOP has dominated national elections by skillfully exploiting racial antagonisms. Clinton, as he has already demonstrated, is adroit in the opposite skill – speaking equitably to whites and blacks by concentrating on their mutual interests. “We’re all in this together,” he likes to say. This capacity in a president wouldn’t eradicate racial resentment, but it would be a crucial improvement for the country —– a leader committed to healing racial wounds rather than picking at them for political advantage.

Bush is out.
This alone may be sufficient reason to vote for Clinton: He’s no George Bush. Whatever negative things can be said about Clinton, and I have some to say myself, he is bound to be a big improvement. His political skills are impressive and so is his grasp of complex policy issues. A new, young president is a chance to start again. The country, as everyone senses, needs that chance.

Those are the Clinton headlines. Unfortunately, as appealing as they might be, they do not answer deeper questions buried in the fine print about what kind of president he may be. He’s been pummeled by accusations about “character” —– meaning his private behavior. I am more troubled by questions about his political character –— what does he really believe in terms of public values? And whom would he actually look out for once in the Oval Office?

Candidate Clinton’s success rests on an artful change in complexion on his way to the nomination. Last fall he began as the apostle of a New Covenant, one that would impose “responsibilities” on various recipients of government assistance. Welfare recipients would get job training, but they would also be kicked off welfare if they didn’t find jobs. Students would get college loans, but they might have to repay them with service as teachers, police officers or day-care workers.

Clinton styled himself as “prowork and profamily,” echoing the middle-class values that Ronald Reagan marketed so successfully. And he distanced himself, at least rhetorically, from that despised caricature Republicans love to hate —–– the bleeding-heart, big-government liberal. This sounded like a dynamite combination: a bright young Southern Democrat who would run against welfare. Democratic Reaganism with a friendly y’all.

Clinton’s message was concocted in collaboration with the center-right Southern Democrats of the Democratic Leadership Council, which he founded. The DLC’s frank goal is to pull the party away from its traditional constituencies —–– labor, the poor, blacks —–– and toward the supposed mainstream. That is, toward business interests. The problem is that Reaganism, as in most years, turned out to be the wrong message for winning the Democratic nomination in 1992.

For one thing, Clinton had assumed he would be running against the liberal avatar Mario Cuomo. But Cuomo ducked the race, and Paul Tsongas emerged on Clinton’s right with his scolding talk about “no more Santa Claus.” More to the point, the nation’s economic deterioration became so palpable that the voters weren’t preoccupied, as the DLC said they would be, with conservative solutions to welfare and affirmative action. Voters wanted government to act on the big issues —–– declining wages and lost jobs, corporate rip-offs and a tax code that favors the wealthy and screws the middle class.

Clinton obliged. By deftly shifting his message in midstream, he became the most effective voice in the campaign, promising to defend and restore the high-wage jobs America is losing. In primary after primary, he was rewarded with votes from those who have been most injured in the last decade – working people making less than $30,000 a year, white and black.

Moreover, Clinton was able to change his emphasis without getting ensnared in gross contradictions or rhetorical flip-flops. This is evidence of his great skill as a politician —–– the ability to recognize the reality he encounters and adjust to it. That’s a valuable quality for a president, not one to be disparaged.

Unfortunately, the success of his shift leaves the basic question unanswered: Which Clinton will we get in the White House? No one can answer reliably – not even some of his old friends and admirers whom I talked with, people who are working hard for his election.

Strategic friendships are Clinton’s trademark. Over the years he has collected diverse political allies and kept in touch with them —–– from McGovern campaigners to Washington’s establishment lawyers, from Arkansas bankers to aging New Left radicals. That’s an important asset, because he evidently listens to all of them and at least leaves the impression that their ideas are incorporated in the mix of his thinking.

Derek Shearer, a left-liberal political scientist and writer from Los Angeles, touts his old friend’s brilliance. But so does Stuart Eizenstat, a Washington lawyer-lobbyist with heavyweight corporate clients. Harold Ickes, a New York labor lawyer who worked for Jesse Jackson in 1988, is for Clinton this time. But then so is Roger Altman, an investment banker who raised money for Michael Dukakis four years ago. These people see the basic economic issues in drastically different terms, and as president, Clinton could not possibly make all of them happy.

So which side is he on? His campaign money may provide a clue. Early on, Clinton raised far more money than any other Democrat –—– a crucial factor in his bedazzling of the press and in his early victories. But he didn’t get his money from the folks, the outsiders he claims to represent. It came mainly from the constellation of investment bankers and lawyer-lobbyists that dominates the Democratic party at its uppermost reaches.

The corporate lobbyists whose offices line K Street in the nation’s capital contributed roughly one-fourth of Clinton’s money, according to John Judis, Washington correspondent for the weekly In These Times.They’re the same people who finance the DLC’s conservative message; on the whole, they represent Republican clients in business and finance (some of them are Republicans themselves) while they exert inordinate influence over the Democratic party. Another quarter of Clinton’s money, and perhaps as much as a third, Judis estimates, came from Wall Street —–– led by Goldman Sachs and the Blackstone Group, headed by the Republican financier Pete Peterson.

Thus, half or more of Clinton’s funding came from conservative corporate interests. Robert Borosage of the Institute for Policy Studies described the insider connections in indelicate but accurate terms: “All the assholes are sticking themselves to Clinton like Velcro.”

What would these people want from Clinton? We may reasonably assume they are not investing in him in order to secure higher wages for working people. We know for sure they don’t want re-regulation of the financial system or controls on leveraged buyouts or a new approach to the outrageous S & L bailout.

Clinton’s supporters acknowledge the special-interest embrace but point out that he’s also attracting supporters from the other side of these issues, including civic activists and major labor leaders. In order to govern, a president needs to assemble a broad-based alliance —–– including fat cats —–– so Clinton’s skill at fund-raising is counted by friends as another of his virtues. But, as even they acknowledge, Clinton has put himself in the middle of what will become a harsh contest of conflicting promises if he reaches the White House. “The bottom-line question,” one old friend says, “is this: Who are you going to defend when the door is closed? It’s a very unresolved question with him.”

Clinton’s record as governor is not reassuring on this matter. He’s governed Arkansas for a dozen years in a most permissive manner —–– lenient with business but not with welfare mothers. He bestowed tax giveaways on companies to create jobs and looked the other way when they violated environmental laws and wage-and-safety standards.

The environmental standards of Arkansas are the worst in the nation, according to a detailed survey by the Institute for Southern Studies. Clinton loaded the state’s environmental commission with representatives from the same chemical, poultry and paper industries that are the worst polluters. Last year, as he prepared to run for president, Clinton tried to clean up his image with new reform legislation that environmentalists generally applauded. But will the laws be enforced?

His wife, Hillary, brilliant in her own right, sits on the board of Wal-Mart, a notoriously anti-union retailer whose billionaire founder, Sam Walton, based his success partly on low-wage jobs. “Sam has made a fortune creating the kind of jobs where if you hold three of them, you still can’t pay the rent,” says Tom Mc-Nutt of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. “Our country was first in wages in 1981; now we’re tenth. Sam Walton is one of the reasons.”

In fairness, Arkansas is a very poor state, and Clinton has done what most governors in the South have done – bent over backward to lure employers and jobs, any kind of jobs. Like other Southern governors, from Jimmy Carter to George Wallace, Clinton has focused his reform energies on improving an abysmal school system. And in this area he’s made progress, notably by instituting state testing for teachers and raising their pay.

But Arkansas isn’t America. Power relationships at the national level —–– and the awesome economic problems –—– are utterly different. If Clinton tries to govern in Washington with the same cozy, accommodating style, he’ll be eaten alive by the special interests that have embraced him, the ones that already dominate the federal government. As smart as he is, it’s not clear he understands this.

In some ways, Clinton’s values are defined most clearly by the way organized labor has reacted to him. The public-employee unions were early and eager enthusiasts. The industrial unions remain unconvinced, if not sullenly hostile. I think both may be accurately reading what kind of president he would make.

Last December, Clinton called on the skeptical board members of AFSCME, the state, county and municipal employees union. He wowed them by explaining in impressive detail why he disagrees with their approach to national health insurance and by showering them with his ideas for new government programs to deal with various social problems.

Meanwhile, members of the United Auto Workers recall how Clinton’s government helped break a strike by lending “development” funds to a company that refused to negotiate with a UAW local. Clinton also stands aloof from labor’s complaints about unfair trade in the global economy —–– the force devouring the country’s industrial base. Improving education isn’t the answer, as the industrial unions know. Their workers already have the skills; it’s the high-wage jobs they can’t find.

To deepen the insult, Clinton employed a Republican slur about “union bosses” and “work rules” in his comments on General Motors’ recent plan to wipe out 74,000 more domestic jobs. In the last decade GM has exported 70,000 jobs to exploit cheap wages and to escape American taxes and environmental laws. If Clinton really thinks that altering work rules will staunch this hemorrhage, he’s truly naive about the economy —–– and a patsy for corporate propaganda.

The labor people, I fear, have it right. Public-employee unions like Clinton because he is idealistic about what he thinks government can do. If elected, Clinton will govern as what I would call a Great Society liberal —–– launching lots of new programs and experiments aimed at various social problems. But since the federal government is broke, he won’t be able to do as much of this as he might like. The declining industrial unions are gloomy about Clinton because they sense that down deep, he is not an old-fashioned economic liberal. He is a younger, more modish version of the business conservatives who dominate the Democratic party in the South. He may tinker around the edges, but he is not likely to confront the fundamental questions of work and wages. He will not use his power to increase the minimum wage or fashion a new social contract governing global trade or confront the irresponsible power of multinational corporations.

What the country needs is not a new and better-managed version of the Great Society. What it needs is a president willing to confront the entrenched powers and force a wrenching debate on how to reverse the nation’s economic decline. Inevitably, this continuing deterioration would engulf Clinton as president, whether he wanted to face it or not.

Some of his old friends believe that in the crucible of the White House, Bill Clinton would have the capacity to attain greatness –—– to learn and to grow and to take on the big questions. Let’s hope they are right. He’s not there yet.

In This Article: Bill Clinton, Coverwall

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