The Way It Wasn’t

An alternative history of the Clinton Administration

Indulge me in this alternative history of the Clinton Administration. The day after his Inauguration, in January of 1993, President Bill Clinton invited the Democratic leaders of the House and the Senate to the White House for a meeting among whose consequences, historians would later reflect, was the emergence of a new Democratic majority to rival the New Deal coalition put together by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s. The cement of the Clinton coalition, like that of its New Deal predecessor, was the idea of security—this time against ill health, untended illness, and medical indigence. Providing health-care security was not a species of social work: economists would judge it to have enhanced career choices and flexibility, because workers could risk leaving unchallenging jobs for invigorating ones or for retraining or for entrepreneurial ventures without fear of losing their health-care coverage. Longevity increased and public health generally improved as millions of the uninsured turned from traumatic to preventive care, more cost-effective by far. Efficiency marched with fairness.

"Folks," Clinton began at that White House meeting, "we control the House, the Senate, and the presidency. We've got to deliver. What and to whom is the question. The November election results gave us the answer. Let's call it the belt-and-suspenders strategy.

"Ross Perot won nineteen percent of the presidential vote, in the largest third-party turnout since 1924. Consider the Perot voters the belt. The results also showed that nearly 85 million eligible voters stayed home. They are the suspenders. Who needs them? you're thinking. We won without them. Well, I did not reach a majority without them. I got a lower percentage of the popular vote in winning than Mike Dukakis did in losing, and no Democrat has won more than a swing vote or two north of fifty percent since LBJ in 1964. Sure, Perot winnowed my numbers, but what do we say about the Democratic candidates—Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis—of the sixties, seventies, and eighties? The Republicans through these years usually won with more than fifty percent, sometimes in landslides.

"So what's wrong with us? This: The electorate as it is tilts Republican. Two thirds of those with household incomes above fifty thousand dollars vote; two thirds of those with household incomes of fifteen thousand or below abstain. To become a majority party again, to re-elect me in 1996, to elect Al Gore in 2000, to keep the House and the Senate, we've got to expand the electorate. It will take something big—this generation's equivalent of Social Security—to bind the voters to us. Policy must serve this politics. Perot campaigned on two issues: the deficit and campaign-finance reform. We could try to woo his voters with deficit reduction, but we'd do it at the expense of the suspenders—because securing the suspenders will take money. So campaign-finance reform will be our strategy for the belt. This election cost millions; estimates are that the 2000 elections will cost three billion dollars. The people want reform. We will give it to them—fast, before K Street buys off the zeal.

"Reform delivers not only the belt but also the suspenders. We can't make the policy changes needed to land them, or enough of them, when the Big Money is still paying for our campaigns. We've got a conflict between our funders and our natural base that is keeping us from forging a new majority. Reform now will make 1994 a clean (okay—cleaner) election. That means your members can cast tough votes in this Congress without worrying about being swept away by a retaliatory avalanche of soft money.

"Their toughest vote will be on universal health insurance, which I campaigned on, promising legislation within my first hundred days. We'll put it in the budget bill, which needs only a majority to pass, making health care filibuster-proof in the Senate. Need I state the obvious? Very few of the suspenders have health insurance. Overnight we will eliminate their main worry in life: what happens if they or their kids get seriously ill. They will be grateful. And so will anyone who gets laid off or switches jobs—an elastic category in a dynamic economy, and a factor in its dynamism. Bill Kristol, Dan Quayle's late brain, says 'health care that's always there' will moor the middle class in the Democratic Party. 'It will re-legitimize middle-class dependence for "security" on government spending and regulation. It will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates ... as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government.' Ah, the clarity of the moment before the blade falls.

Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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