A Visit with Bill Clinton

The conflict between the "A student" and the "pol"

During the Democratic primary campaign Governor Bill Clinton's verbosity became a strange part of his "character problem." To the average voter, his endlessly detailed answers sounded confusing and therefore deceptive. Among journalists they raised the suspicion that he was trying to placate every interest group--point two will reassure the feminists, point three will appeal to blacks--rather than projecting consistent, principled views. The economic plan that Clinton released in June intensified this problem. It listed a huge variety of positions but did not resolve contradictions among them or say which were the more important. For instance, the plan called for big increases in public investment, which sounds good--but proposed to pay for them mainly through unspecified defense cutbacks and the ever-elusive "administrative reforms."

This was sensible politics--being only as specific as absolutely necessary. The trick during a campaign is to find that narrow zone in which your positions are not so hazy that they're laughable but are still vague enough that most people can agree with them. "We can do better" always fits right in the zone, as do recommendations for "change" and much of the Clinton plan.

In an effort to ask Clinton about what lies behind the six-point checklists with which he answers questions whenever he can, several representatives of The Atlantic went to Little Rock to interview him. We also hoped to see at close range how well he was bearing up under the rigors of the campaign. Part of the "convention bounce" he enjoyed may have been the subliminal recognition of how much sheer wear and tear he had survived. Paul Tsongas could not have withstood the physical demands of a full campaign; George Bush probably couldn't if he didn't have the White House apparatus to prop him up. Ross Perot quit when the press coverage went mildly sour. Bill Clinton kept on plugging.

Clinton has resisted the vindictiveness that comes naturally in political campaigns. As a law of nature, politicians hate the press. Most end up thinking that there's some special reason the press discriminates against them. Mario Cuomo is notably touchy about anti-Italian stereotypes, Lyndon Johnson was ruined by the suspicion that the Ivy Leaguers were looking down on him, Patricia Schroeder thinks she's not taken seriously because she's a woman, Richard Nixon knew that the liberal Jewish media establishment was after him. Clinton has actually been the victim of anti-southern "Bubba" prejudice, especially during the New York primary. But if it bothers him, it doesn't show.

Clinton was affable, though understandably tired-looking, when we met him in the governor's mansion. He is bigger and bulkier than he looks on TV. Before the Democratic convention Clinton's national TV exposure was mainly through call-in shows and televised debates, rather than the rallies and speeches of the general-election campaign. During these early appearances he sometimes seemed to smile too much and too insincerely, like a game-show host. In person he had the natural charm of the born politician, along with a wryness that does not always come through on TV. By this stage in a presidential campaign a candidate has heard almost every question and can rattle off answers automatically. But a number of times Clinton paused for ten or fifteen seconds before answering a question, and he usually made a good-faith effort to address exactly the question we had raised.

Clinton covered a wide variety of topics comfortably and lucidly. In the few areas in which he hadn't yet worked out a policy--for example, immigration--he said so, and in most other areas he clearly laid out his position, listed the supporting arguments, and dealt with the main objections. In most of the interview we didn't lay a glove on him, and we left with no doubt about his intelligence or detailed operating knowledge of government. But we tried to explore the apparent contradictions in two parts of his economic policy: his plan for dealing with the budget deficit, and his strategy for international trade.

When talking about economics, Clinton seemed to be juggling two styles of thought, which was not true when the subject was race or abortion. His economic views, in his policy statements as well as in our discussion, switch between those of the A student and those of the pol. The A student recommends the respectable, well-thought-out policies that will be praised in universities and on editorial pages. The pol is concerned about getting elected and holding coalitions together. For instance: Every A student knows that America should have a much higher gasoline tax. The pol knows that people hate the sound of a gasoline tax, and they'll resist it unless you can tell them that the money will be used for some purpose they approve of, such as repairing roads.

The contrast between the two personalities is not the contrast between good and evil--between doing the right thing and merely "being political." It's a matter of proportion. Someone who is just an A student, like Michael Dukakis or John Anderson, won't become President--and if he slips through, the way Jimmy Carter did, he'll have a hard time getting politicians to do anything for him. Someone who seems to be just a pol, like George Bush, will be concerned only about holding the coalition together and won't care in what direction it goes. Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were fundamentally pols, but they had enough interest in policy to keep their coalitions heading in a certain direction. Bill Clinton's answers to us indicated a similar internal balance.

The most pol-like thing Clinton did during the primary campaign was to attack Paul Tsongas, in Florida, as an enemy of Social Security. Tsongas had mentioned in his pamphlet-sized "book" that it might be sensible to hold down the cost-of-living adjustment for entitlement programs. Every A student who has thought about the federal budget knows that if you don't find some way to limit Social Security and Medicare, you will never, ever reduce the budget deficit. Every pol knows that you want your opponent to raise this issue, because no matter how limited and reasonable his proposal may be, you can make it sound like an assault on the entire system. The politics of this issue is maddening to A students, because it has created a welfare mentality in the population at large. Most retirees are now getting much more back from the Social Security system than they have "earned," in actuarial terms. But politicians and the American Association of Retired Persons have encouraged the view that not a penny can be touched--not even if it's for the elderly rich, the Ross Perot of a few years hence who will be fully entitled to his pension and Medicare. As a result, working families pay a regressive and steadily rising Social Security tax to transfer benefits to retirees who are on average richer than their children's generation. One paragraph in Tsongas's book referred to this issue without the usual hedging comments, and the Clinton campaign used it in ads portraying Tsongas as a threat to the elderly in general.

We asked Clinton whether he regretted doing this, and what he intended to do about entitlement costs. Here he was clearly aware of the A-student position, which is that the Social Security problem represents the conflict of two American ideals. Universal-benefit programs, from public schools to Social Security, are better than targeted programs like welfare, because it's not humiliating to take part in them and because all taxpayers get something for their money; but universal benefits can be unfair when poor people pay taxes to support benefits for the rich. One American ideal is to keep everyone in the same boat; the other is to give help only to those who need it. Today's entitlement system tries to do both.

"What I explicitly said," the governor told us, "was that I thought the way to reform the entitlements was to make upper-income recipients pay more of their load, but that I thought the universality of the entitlement programs was important. It may be an important symbolic issue of fairness to ask older people with higher incomes to pay more for Medicare and to subject most or all of their income from Social Security to taxation. I think you can make that case pretty plainly, that it's important symbolically. But more than that is getting control of health-care costs."

With that we were off on an A-student alternative: Clinton's argument that we shouldn't waste our time on Social Security, since the only entitlement costs that really matter are the costs of the health-care programs, mainly Medicare. He said, "The major entitlement reform that swamps everything else--nothing else is even close--is doing what it takes to get health costs into line with inflation." The real reason for this approach must be Clinton's calculation, as a pol, that Social Security is a minefield. But Clinton made an extended A-student case for emphasizing medical costs.

"You know that the insurance companies, the health-care administrative costs, and the providers are doing very well in this system, and we have no system for controlling health-care costs," he said. "Health-care costs are going up eleven to twelve percent per annum, while revenues are going up five percent, four and a half. That's basically where the entitlement choke is. So I say, let's go after health-insurance costs, where the big bucks are, reduce poverty with earned-income tax credits and other strategies, and make the wealthy pay more of their fair share of Medicare."

Is it possible to limit these costs without limiting care--itself as difficult an issue as limiting Social Security?

"That depends on whether we have the courage to reform the system. But the answer has to be yes, if you analyze where the dollars are going in the American system as compared with any other. We spend thirty percent more than any other country and do less with it in terms of basic coverage. It makes you say, Where are the dollars going here that they're not going in other places? It's not so much exotic surgery but prolonged care for people in the last weeks of their life. We do spend more on that than other people do; the problem is, it's hard to know when the last week of your life is.

"But the real dollars are in insurance and administrative costs, where we're sixty or seventy billion dollars out of line with any other country with a comprehensive system. Doctor fees are not so much the problem as the repetition of services is--and the lack of a network of primary and preventive care, which leads too many people to get care only when it's too late and too expensive and at the emergency room, on somebody else's nickel. So if you were to reform those central elements, there's no doubt in my mind that within a matter of just a very few years you could bring health-care costs down in line with inflation." This sounds clean and logical, and it may suffice for the campaign. But Clinton must know that such reforms will be very hard to enact and at best will reduce, rather than solve, the medical-financing problem. And the minefield of Social Security will remain.

The other unresolved issue in Clinton's economic policy concerns international competition and trade. His plan, which takes its name from his slogan "Putting People First," says that America must be robustly committed to the principle of free trade. But if other nations don't play by these rules, then "we'll play by theirs." This is like saying "We believe in peace, but if we have to, we'll use the F-15s." It leaves out all the details about where and why you would fight.

On this issue the difference between A students and pols is clear-cut. "We'll play by their rules" implies protectionism, and for A students protectionism is always wrong. No respectable national-newspaper editorialist, and almost no academic, will praise a candidate for suggesting protectionist measures--ask Richard Gephardt after his campaign in 1988. The term "protectionist" is less damning than "racist," but it is similar in suggesting a benighted view. In fact every nation practices protectionism of some sort. (The only obvious exception is Hong Kong, and it's not really a country.) Nations vary in how deliberately they plan the policies and which industries they protect, but they all do something. Pols instinctively realize this and know that protectionism can be popular in us-versus-them terms: Who's going to have those jobs in steel mills, the Koreans or us?

Two conflicting world views shape current discussions of trade policy. One might be called the Field of Dreams concept: If we improve it, they will come. The "it" is America's productive infrastructure--schools, research facilities, roads, fiber-optic networks, and the other things that make factories comfortable. "They" are the global corporations that, according to this theory, are no longer attached to any nation but flow rapidly from site to site in the now borderless world. If we prepare properly, the investment will arrive--and it won't matter if it's from Daimler-Benz, Ford, or Toyota, because they're all stateless capitalists now. The other concept, which might be called The World As We Know It, assumes that the borderless future is not quite at hand. Other countries take active steps to promote their own industries--which they continue to think of as their own. In this view the welfare of American workers is tied to the strength of American companies, so in addition to building the schools and fiber-optic systems, the government should care how Ford, Boeing, and Motorola fare. In practice, the difference between these outlooks boils down to the question of whether the government should discriminate in favor of U.S.-based companies, preferring them over foreign competitors when granting contracts, supporting technology, or imposing tariffs.

Probably the strongest case against the Field of Dreams outlook is exemplified by the U.S. semiconductor industry. Every Field of Dreams reform you can think of for, say, Chrysler had already been applied in Silicon Valley in 1980. Employees were happy and well trained. Companies were run by engineers, not evil financiers. They invested for the long haul, and they had a good infrastructure. Labor relations was not really an issue, because most companies didn't classify the employees as "labor." And over the next five years the industry caved in more rapidly than the steel and auto industries had.

Its successful rivals--first in Japan, then in Korea--were coordinated by their respective governments. Without exception, countries that now have semiconductor industries got their start with government guidance and help. When the American semiconductor industry began, in the 1950s, the U.S. government--specifically the Defense Department and the space program--was for several crucial years the major and sometimes the only customer for its products. When the industry revived in the late 1980s, it did so, yes, because of its own efforts--plus government intervention, in the form of new trade treaties and research consortia.

The conflict between the two views is built into Clinton's campaign. Robert Reich, a prominent exponent of the Field of Dreams concept, is one of his close advisers. But another is Ira Magaziner, a champion of the real-world view. (Lester Thurow, another prominent academic in the real-world camp, is not connected with the Clinton campaign.) The first camp is the A-student position; the second is for pols. In most of his campaign statements Clinton has sounded like an A student, emphasizing the mobility of capital in a borderless age. We asked Clinton which side he was on. He said that his policy would depend on where he was sitting --in the governor's mansion of a small state or in the White House.

"As a governor, I have to deal with the realities of the global economy--factories moving to Mexico, the acquisition of foreign investment as well as domestic investment. Having lived through this, the conclusion I have drawn is as follows: Money, management, and production are by and large mobile and will become increasingly so. What they can't take away from you are the skills of your people, the quality of your infrastructure, the care and feeding of your natural resources, the work that you do in your own country on research and development and turning your ideas into jobs at home. Those are the core things.

"Nonetheless, it is still true that it matters who owns significant chunks of your economy. You need a manufacturing base in your own country. That requires domestic policies which reward the companies that are here in research and development and don't subsidize the flight of those jobs overseas.

"I'll give you an example, a good-news bad-news thing. Bridgestone Tires in Japan buys Firestone in America. For Arkansas it's a blessing, because Firestone had two plants here; they were in some trouble. Bridgestone had plenty of money. They came in here, spent thirty million dollars modernizing these plants, retrained the workers, gave them the benefit of modern management, and expanded the work force. It's a good thing. On the other hand, over the long run there will be relatively more upscale R&D work done by that company in Japan than would be the case if it were an American company."

Clinton didn't say how he would resolve the issue, but he showed that he clearly understands the arguments on both sides. (Imagine discussing this with George Bush.) The pol side of this issue probably reflects his true instinct. When Clinton talks about the "middle class," it seems that what he really means is something fairly close to a post-industrial working class (whose members, he knows, would hate being labeled in that way). Several times in our interview he mentioned the working poor, although we didn't ask him about that group; he had just rearranged his economic plan to direct its tax benefits downward on the economic scale. If it's fair to say that every President governs with the welfare of one group particularly in mind, for Clinton that group would be middle-class suburbanites--but from suburbs like Mount Vernon and Torrance, not Greenwich and Beverly Hills, with jobs like secretary and deliveryman, not doctor and stockbroker. Because these people don't consider themselves to be part of a permanent "class" in the Marxian sense, what they would look for from government would be opportunity more than equality: jobs for themselves, and education--especially college--for their kids, much more than tax relief. Presumably that would fit with an expanded and aggressive domestic role for government, rather than the (mostly theoretical) grand scaling-back of the federal government which we've had since 1981.

When he discussed subjects other than economics, Clinton displayed much less of the A-student-pol division. He spoke at length about race, and his positions seemed for the most part to coincide with what he had learned firsthand.

We began by asking him what, in his view, were the most dishonest things that blacks and whites say and think about each other.

"I think whites tend to be, on the subconscious level, too willing to believe that there are inherent racial differences, which does not take account of some of the terrible conditions in which blacks and other minorities live in this country. I think that too many whites have underestimated the crushing impact of economic decline and family decline that a lot of black families have been subject to, that would have produced similar results had they occurred among people of any race. And on the other hand, others, including [white] liberals, tend to have expectations that are too low for people, based on their race, so they feel uncomfortable challenging people to do better and disagreeing with them on the basis of ideas.

"It is difficult to generalize about blacks and how they feel, but I think there are too many blacks who blame other people for problems that people can only solve themselves--on occasion. But that is difficult to generalize, because the black church and black community leaders are more and more adopting a kind of dual strategy, which I think is very good. [They say,] 'You know, we've got to make this system work for us. But we've also got to do our part. We've got to change ourselves.'"

And what about whites' understanding of their own racial views? How honest and accurate is it?

"I think at one level most whites think they are free of prejudice. But I don't think that most people have thought through the enormity of the dimensions of the problem, and what kind of action ought to be taken by us as a nation to deal with it. And so I think that a lot of whites have sort of let themselves off the hook--you know, 'I don't wake up every morning consumed with racial hatred. I am, therefore, not prejudiced. Therefore there's nothing for me to do or feel or say.'"

When Clinton was a boy, the race problem was defined as a southern issue, one that centered on an apartheidlike system of separation and denial of legal rights. Now race is clearly a national, not a regional, problem--and we asked Clinton to define exactly what the problem is. "What's wrong," he said, "is that objectively blacks, and to a lesser degree Hispanics, are--profoundly are--worse off than the rest of the country, more likely to suffer from economic and social difficulties that are profound and that make the good life much more difficult."

What, if anything, can a President do about this? Clinton specifically rejected using quotas to enforce "equality as a result," as Lyndon Johnson proposed in his famous Howard University speech in 1965, or expanding civil-rights law, so that disadvantaged groups can more easily use the courts to defend their economic interests.

"I don't think the government in this society is capable of mandating equality of result . . . that the American people should try to mandate a quota system on our society. [As for civil rights laws,] I don't think they are irrelevant. As long as there is a disproportionate impact by race or gender on the difficulties we face, they're not irrelevant. But I think a lot of what we do doesn't have to be race-based. I mean, Social Security wasn't a constitutional right. It was a political decision. We ought to have an election and a political debate in which we say there are several ways in which we are diminishing the capacities of our people and weakening our country."

As solutions Clinton emphasized economic growth--with reminders that this is connected to education and trade and infrastructure projects and everything else--and an attempt to change personal values. In the past generation, he said, the government has clearly helped shift attitudes about smoking. Something similar is possible with attitudes toward work and family. Does this mean the kind of "values" speeches that Vice President Dan Quayle was giving in the spring?

"It's okay to talk about values. It is critically important to try to imbue within people a value structure that will change their behavior. But if all you do is talk about values while you pursue policies"--such as, we assumed, tax changes that hurt the working poor--"that you know will aggravate the very conditions you are railing against, then you're being hypocritical. That's my problem with Quayle and Bush. It would suit me fine if they had a minister I admired to the White House once a month, and let him or her talk about values. But the problem is that their behavior is inconsistent with the real world, which requires us to do more than preach about values. It's 'values plus'--it's not only values, it's values plus action that supports those values. And from my point of view, they're 'values minus.' I think the Democrats, or anybody else, would make a great mistake to minimize the impact of this values appeal, but it rings hollow if your policies are inconsistent with the values you espouse."

The racial matter of which Clinton seemed to lack an instinctive grasp was the question of what to do about the problems of the big inner-city ghettos --problems that exist in Arkansas but that are an overwhelming issue in Los Angeles and New York and Chicago. He repeatedly cited William Julius Wilson's 1987 book The Truly Disadvantaged, which says that today's ghetto social problems, such as crime, welfare dependency, and family disintegration, are primarily the result of the loss of good manufacturing jobs. Clinton seemed to be using Wilson's book as a kind of talisman, in a way he wouldn't have done with a book about an issue with which he was personally more familiar. For example, he told us that according to Wilson, at the end of the Second World War, when the economies of New York and Detroit and Chicago were strong, the black and white rates for out-of-wedlock birth were about the same. "This is all a phenomenon of my lifetime," Clinton said. In fact Wilson doesn't use this particular statistic; he couldn't, because at the end of the Second World War the percentage of births out of wedlock was eight times as high for blacks as for whites. But Clinton seems to have filed away in his mind a sound-bite-like statement along the lines of "the ghetto underclass was created by deindustrialization."

If Clinton truly took on the underclass as President, he'd surely find, as the past few Democratic Presidents have found, that the ghettos are surprisingly resistant to the good old Democratic medicine of economic growth and low unemployment. A different approach would be to assume that the ghettos' problems are primarily cultural, and focus mostly on social acculturation programs targeted on high-poverty areas. Pols always want to do some of each--especially Clinton, who seemingly hates having to endorse either side of any complicated issue.

Still, that you can even worry about how Clinton would deepen his understanding of such subjects makes him unusual. He obviously views racial healing as one of the most important jobs for the next President. He also seems to have a sure, centrist sense of the political perils of the issue. In the 1960s, liberals helped destroy the tenuous public support for Great Society anti-poverty programs by making grants to the likes of the Blackstone Rangers, a Chicago gang. Clinton emphasized the need to sustain broad political support:

"I think that upper-middle-class people are ready to be challenged to help people in the cities help themselves. That's why welfare reform has such a powerful resonance in the suburbs. It is not because people want to punish poor people. It's because the experience of people living in the suburbs is that they helped themselves into the suburbs. You speak to the suburbs [and recommend] not maintaining dependence but creating independence. I think that has a powerful resonance, because it makes what you want to do with poor folks consistent with the life experience of middle- and upper-middle-class America."

The most personally revealing answer Clinton gave during our visit concerned Vietnam. First he presented a dull but worthy discourse on the lessons the United States should and shouldn't draw. (We can't fight someone else's war, but we have to be ready to fight some wars.) Then he was asked, "Do you now wish you'd gone?" He paused for a quite a while before answering.

"I can't say that. You know, I was raised in the post-World War Two generation. I always kind of wanted to be in the military. I always liked and admired it. And it's something that I missed in a way--that I missed. But to say that I wished I'd gone would require me to rewrite history to an extraordinary extent. "I had an opportunity that few people of my generation had, because I worked on the Foreign Relations Committee. I had a security clearance. I read six newspapers a day. I sat there through all those hearings. I knew more than most people did--that we weren't being told the truth about how we were doing and what we were doing and what our objectives were. I've often wondered whether I should wish that at that age I didn't know what I knew. But I believe now, just as strongly as I believed then, that our policy was wrong and misguided and that we would have been better off if we had changed it before we did.

"Because I was a kid from Arkansas, a state with a great patriotic tradition, and because I loved my country, I never wanted to feel that I was not patriotic or that my feelings and actions were dictated by just a desire to stay out of harm's way. But I felt--I mean, the passion of my feelings about it was so deep that I think it would be just rewriting history for me to say [I wish I'd gone]. I wish that I'd had the military experience, because I feel that it's an important part of a country to have a strong defense and an honorable thing to do. But the circumstances of that moment were so difficult and unusual that I can't go back and say that I'd rewrite history."

At the end of the interview we gave Clinton another chance to surmount the Jimmy Carter-like problem of having many positions but no identifiable point of view. "If you had to sum up your message for the fall campaign in three, preferably immortal, sentences, what would they be?"

This time Clinton really sat and thought, and then gave us five, with a distinct pause at the end of each sentence: "Our country is in trouble, losing its way economically and coming apart socially. Our government has failed to work for most Americans, favoring special interests and the wealthiest of us only. We need to rebuild America, and to reunite America with policies that put our people at the center of national life, investing in more jobs, basic health care, and world-class education, and with a commitment to pull people together again. We don't have a person to waste, but the problems today are not nearly as great as our lack of faith that we can overcome them. That's the real obstacle."