Wages Matter Most

The political book of the year predicts a Progressive revival--and is too easy on Bill Clinton

Why Progressives Will
Dominate the Next
Political Era

Buy They Only Look Dead

"BEHIND our New Deals and New Frontiers and Great Societies you find, with a difference only in power and nerve, the same sort of person who gave the world its Five-Year Plans and Great Leaps Forward--the Soviet and Chinese counterparts."

The person who wrote that, in a book published last year, sees no essential difference between the democratically elected governments led by Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy and the dictatorships of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Not one reader in 10,000 could guess the author's name, though it is easy to conclude that he is a political imbecile. Who else could believe such nonsense? The majority leader of the House of Representatives, that's who: the redoubtable Dick Armey. That Armey holds a Ph.D. says more about the state of American education than all the headline-grabbing studies about teenagers who can't place the Civil War in the right half century. The kids are only dumb pending knowledge; Armey is ignorant by ideology. But let E. J. Dionne take it from here:

This sort of thinking is now so common that it has been forgotten how radically different it is from the tradition on which the United States was founded--a tradition to which contemporary liberals, moderates, conservatives and libertarians all trace their roots.... Free government is different in kind from despotic regimes because its fundamental purpose--to vindicate the rights of individuals--is different.

His citation from a book published to continental indifference and his superbly decisive gloss are typical of Dionne's evidentiary resources and intellectual weight. His Why Americans Hate Politics was by leagues the political book of 1992, cited in news reports, editorials, and columns, and frequently by candidate Bill Clinton, who used Dionne's analysis of how both parties were dominated by ideology-besotted elites to argue for a "third way" of governing between alternatives he called "brain-dead." Parenthetically, something that used to be encouraging about Clinton--his appetite for books--is less so now that he is First Reader and we can see his openness to ideas as an aspect of his unfinished political identity. At all events, They Only Look Dead deserves to be to 1996 what Why Americans Hate Politics was to 1992, not only for its intrinsic qualities but also for the good news announced in its subtitle.

books picture That news is good not just for "Progressives" but also for that much larger group of Americans whom Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich has called "the anxious class"--the sinking middle class, whose real wages have been frozen or falling since the late 1970s. The anxious class elected Bill Clinton in 1992 and then, frustrated by what Dionne calls the "dysfunctional" Democrats, helped to make Armey, Gingrich & Co. the new congressional majority in 1994.

Whether the majority will hold is another question. As Dionne makes clear, the "radicalized conservatism" of the new Republicans has nothing to say to the anxious class except, Work harder and lobby for the return of child labor. The Armey-Gingrich view of virtually any act of government as incipient tyranny--FDR as Stalin, JFK as Mao--rules out help from Washington in making the transition to the new world economy. This leaves the social fate of the anxious class up to the market, which to the Republicans is the sphere of freedom, much as government is the sphere of coercion. But the market, specifically the new world economy and the technological revolution, created the anxious class in the first place. Thus, in the face of the country's overriding problem, the Republican Party is in principled bankruptcy.

That is why Dionne predicts a revival of progressivism--the faith of turn-of-the-century Progressives and their New Deal legatees in the ability of government to expand freedom (think of the GI Bill of Rights) by hindering the hindrances of birth or environment or historical moment which otherwise tend to restrict economic opportunity to the few. "By moving American conservatism toward a rendezvous with nineteenth century laissez-faire doctrines," Dionne writes, "Gingrich and his allies will force their opponents to grapple with the task of constructing the twenty-first-century alternatives to laissez-faire."

"Their opponents" means the Democrats, and Dionne devotes much of his book to the Democrats' still-ramifying failures of intellect, nerve, memory, and political imagination. In his first chapter, "Why Politicians Don't Get Respect Anymore," he shrewdly suggests that the Democrats' fellow-traveling with the anti-government rhetoric of the 1970s and 1980s left them nothing to argue about with Republicans. The "politics of moral annihilation"--the attack ads, the scandal-mongering, the personal vilification, that have driven public faith in politics and government to toxic depths--filled the philosophical void. Dionne rightly says that "the overall impact of the foul atmosphere ... is [to favor] the anti-government right, because the most obvious target of the public's anger (as the Republicans demonstrated in 1994) is the government." Thus the Democrats, by leaving the field of principled argument to the Republicans and by failing to defend their progressive tradition ("their main reason for existence"), robbed that tradition of legitimacy and left uncontested the public impression that government is theft.

"In this climate," Dionne observes, "it's easier to convince voters that your opponent will hurt them than that you will somehow help them." This appears to be the Democrats' strategy in this year's congressional races: morph your opponent into a clone of the immensely unpopular Gingrich and engage in "Mediscare" over Republican "cuts" in Medicare. It is easier to go negative than to meet the new Republican Party in open debate over, for example, progressive alternatives to the Republican surrender of Medicare to for-profit HMOs and big insurance companies--a surrender that an American Academy of Actuaries study predicts could both drive up the cost of traditional Medicare and make doctors even more unwilling to treat Medicare patients.

DIONNE sees today's politicians as "adrift" in a sea of crises they are either unable to address (Republicans) or unwilling to address honestly (Democrats). "The Four Crises of American Politics" form the substance of Dionne's important second chapter. These are:

* The economic crisis made by the new world economy, which "seems to break the link between the success of the affluent and the well-being of everyone else" --notably the growing segment of the anxious class that lines up every morning in "'the global hiring hall,'" in the words of the labor analyst Richard Rothstein, where wage levels are driven down by the desperate masses of the Third World.

* The political crisis created by the economic crisis. Voters still hold government responsible for the economy, but government has never had less control over what is no longer a national economy but is a world one. "For politicians in the democratic countries, this marriage of ever-higher levels of accountability with less actual power is a nightmare."

* A moral crisis manifesting itself in historically unprecedented rates of divorce, family breakup, and illegitimacy.

* A crisis of purpose over America's post-Cold War role in the world, which was exposed in the debates over Clinton's interventions in Haiti and Bosnia.

Dionne skillfully links the first three crises, but his synthetic gifts desert him in his discussion of the fourth, which he treats mainly as an inside-the-Beltway dustup among elites, when more is at stake. Dionne, a columnist for The Washington Post, is too much a man of the Washington establishment to confront basic questions of national strategy in an era when both parties are pledged to balance the budget--questions like Why should U.S. taxpayers forgo social investments, as Dionne calls for in order to help solve the economic crisis created by the new world economy, so that we can defend Europe against ... well, whom? His establishment world view creeps into his discussion of Clinton's foreign policy. Thus he says, "Toward Russia [Clinton] pursued a consistent policy of general sympathy for Boris Yeltsin and sought to avoid moves that might strengthen nationalist feeling in Russia." Though criticized as too soft on Yeltsin, "the policy did seem to prevent the worst from happening." The assumption is that Clinton's words were or could be causal as to events in Russia. That is the kind of pre-Copernican thinking that few still question in Washington and that has led to grand expectations about "the U.S. role in the world," which in turn have led to national hubris, disillusionment, and distraction. Even Bill Clinton, after defeating the "foreign-policy President" on a platform of domestic renewal, has fallen back on foreign policy to display strength. Why can't he display strength over raising American wages? One reason is the Washington foreign-policy establishment's grip on the engines of respectability and its monopoly on the vocabulary of seriousness.

IT was said in criticism of John Galsworthy that his Forsyte Saga was read by every Forsyte in England. Something comparable might be said of Dionne's account of the Clinton Administration. There is little in his emollient pages to deter the First Reader from repeating his recent performance with Ben Wattenberg, whose book Values Matter Most was critical of Clinton, and telephoning Dionne full of praise and rueful agreement with what are less criticisms than extenuations. Dionne includes stimulating chapters on the elections of 1992 and 1994, on the ideological hardening of the post-1992 Republican Party, on the role the press has played in the political crisis, and on the cyber-Darwinian vision of Newt Gingrich, who beneath his Fourth Wave blather is truly a man of '96--1896, that is, to which year of untrammeled rapacity he wants to return the country, limiting the government's power in relation to transnational corporate interests to what it was before Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt. But Dionne's appraisal of Clinton, because it is so smart and sensible and because Dionne's reputation precedes it, will have great currency among political journalists as they assess the Clinton record in the election campaign. For that reason it merits a critical look.

The context made him do it--such at bottom is Dionne's defense of Clinton Reasonable, fair-minded, informed, and insightful, Dionne's case is hard to upend. Yet those who come to his book hoping that Dionne will express some of their disappointment in Clinton will be disappointed.

Administration spokespeople cite low unemployment, low interest rates, and the extremely low inflation rate that reflects flattened wages as evidence of the success of Clinton's economic policies. But, as Dionne points out, Clinton ran against Bush not just on the arithmetic of yesterday's politics but also on sinking wages and living standards. Dionne says that Clinton's inability to deliver in this harder coin--neither wages nor living standards have budged under his Administration--"arose in significant part because the problems were far more easily described than resolved." True. But, as we will see, he verges on being too fair to Clinton, who is only the most powerful man in the world.

Was Clinton unable to fund the robust worker-retraining programs advocated by Robert Reich in these pages in the 1980s? "It cannot be stressed enough how much the budget deficit he inherited from the Reagan-Bush years impeded his ability to govern." Did Clinton as President lose the clarity of vision he displayed as a candidate about the country's big problems? "If Clinton often seemed indecisive, that was, in part, because almost any decision he made carried substantial political risks." Did Clinton succeed in his goal of rehabilitating "the welfare state" in the eyes of middle-class voters who favored a generous version of welfare reform as long as it vindicated work? "Clinton's approach to this problem was more complex than is usually allowed."

Since polls showed strong public support for universal coverage throughout the 1994 debate over health care, why didn't Clinton at least demand a vote on his program, which alone of the alternatives had universality at its heart? "It was a large irony: A program designed to reduce public mistrust of government fell victim to that very mistrust." And why were welfare reform and health-care reform and campaign-finance reform delayed until 1994, when the Republicans were in full wrecking mode, when Clinton had campaigned on these issues in 1992? "President Clinton had a hellish time winning enactment of his 1993 budget because Democrats were divided on both the fundamental issues it raised and the niggling particulars it involved."

By rejecting Paul Tsongas in the primaries, Democrats rejected his argument that the budget deficit was the country's major problem. By electing Bill Clinton, who ranked deficit reduction much lower in his campaign than either George Bush or Ross Perot, the general electorate seemed to agree. So why did Clinton spill all that costly blood in 1993 over a deficit-reduction budget? "Clinton's appointees ... insisted that much of what had been said in the campaign had to go...."

The context--the times, the inherent difficulties, the party divisions, the economic advisers--made him do it. But Clinton appointed the advisers. He tolerated the party divisions. He seemed paralyzed by the difficulties. He let the times shape him rather than trying to shape them. Specifically, he failed to pry Tom Foley and Richard Gephardt away from the ideologically suicidal reliance of the Democratic Congress on special-interest money to finance its empty "politics of incumbency." Instead of holding a Little Rock-style summit on health care, with experts testifying on TV about the pros and cons involved in the several reform plans, Clinton let his wife prepare her justifiably complex plan behind closed doors, so that when finally made public it was an opaque lump. Because they had not been vetted in open discussion, the carefully calibrated tradeoffs looked arbitrary. Since the logic of health-care reform had not been explained, opponents did not have to couch their criticisms in terms of that logic. The policy-wonk culture of liberalism showed its fatal political witlessness. Clinton permitted welfare reform to slip off the agenda so as not to offend party liberals, whose help he needed to pass his health-care bill, which was delayed by Hillary Clinton's wonks. When he finally announced the health-care plan, the most sweeping social program since Social Security, he let "Harry and Louise" have the last word on the substance. Then, instead of taking the issue of "health care that's always there"--which directly addresses one of the main fears of the anxious class --to the country, he let the Republicans nationalize the midterm elections around their back-to-McKinley contract.

To put Clinton's failures as President into perspective, it helps to recall a distinction FDR made between "low politics" and "high politics." Clinton cannot get enough of low politics. He perfected "the permanent campaign" in his Arkansas years, and he is never more himself than when electioneering. Polls, focus groups, advisers, mercenary purveyors of spin (from James Carville to David Gergen to Dick Morris)--sometimes Clinton disappears behind the costly machinery of manipulation. But he has not really tried high politics in the FDR sense--politics as public education, as frank explanatory talk about the challenges facing the country. It is as if he has forgotten how he got to the White House: by talking, explaining, connecting the dots of public discontent into a plausible politics of remedy. To do this, of course, he would have to stand up as President for the Progressive faith in government as an agent of freedom and for an economics that, er, put people first. This would make Clinton enemies among the kind of people who go to his beloved Renaissance Weekends at Hilton Head. The engines of respectability would roar in protest. The bond market would signal its displeasure, and the soft-money contributions from Wall Street would dry up.

Alluding to NAFTA and GATT as well as the 1993 budget, Dionne writes of Clinton, "His largest achievements--free trade and deficit reduction--were, at bottom, conservative achievements. Yet they were conservative achievements that won him no political payoff among conservative constituencies." Had George Bush been re-elected, these would also have been his main achievements. Running against the vision-challenged Bob ("I feel my pain") Dole, Clinton seems at this writing likely to be re-elected. Will he run on Mediscare, Newt, foreign policy, and promiscuous empathy, or will he recover the Progressive voice he sounded in 1992? Will wages, living standards, health care, welfare and political reform--the unfinished agenda of Clinton I--furnish the agenda of Clinton II? The danger for Americans of the anxious class is that Clinton will beat Dole with Dick Morris's "upscale strategy," detaching natural-fiber Republicans from their polyester brethren among the religious right, and then govern with one eye fixed on the dubious laurel of going into history as the President who balanced the budget in the term of his successor. That would kill Dionne's Progressive resurgence in its crib, and the fall of the middle class would continue unabated, driving American politics to a dangerous place.

Illustration by Christophe Vorlet

The Atlantic Monthly; March 1996; Wages Matter Most; Volume 277, No. 3; pages 118-122.