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.

"We'll turn the media into the press agents of universal care. Hillary will hold weeks of public meetings to plumb the intricacies of health-care reform. Instead of reporting backstage leaks, the press will have its hands full explaining 'managed care,' 'competition within a budget,' and 'community rating.' When tradeoffs have to be made, the public will hear the arguments. Cokie Roberts will do her worst to take the mind out of this. Some subjects are necessarily so complex, however, as to repel vacuity. I can imagine members' saying the belt is enough—going for the suspenders is too risky. Tell them you can't build a new majority on dust. Perot voters, viscerally anti-political, are always liable to blow to a candidate who promises to end the 'partisan bickering' in Washington and 'bring the parties together'—as if the parties did not properly represent 'distinct interests in society,' to quote Madison, who said 'the regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation,' one involving 'the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.' Politics is the sun of government.

"All other issues are secondary to belts and suspenders. 'We have five million to spend,' Lane Kirkland told me at the Inauguration. 'We can spend it either supporting health care or fighting NAFTA.' That's an easy call. Postpone a vote on NAFTA till next year, when the Republicans, hungry to deliver for their interests, will help me pass it. NAFTA will take some of the ideological sting out of health-care reform. The Republicans can't paint me as anti-business if I do free trade. Labor wants health care instead of NAFTA, but the best we can do is health care before NAFTA. Am I saying take their money and run? Certainly not. They'll get something for it. Universal health insurance is part of the social infrastructure of free trade. 'You might lose your job to a Mexican peasant, but you will still have health insurance.' That's enough of an argument to keep labor on board. And besides, they have nowhere else to go. Ditto the liberals on welfare reform. Health care first—then I'll use Republican votes to pass welfare reform, robbing them of that wedge issue forever. Remember what Lenin said about the capitalists furnishing the rope.

"What about the deficit? I'm spending no political capital on that. The economy is already recovering. We will grow our way out of the deficit. A high-tech boom is aborning. What's that thing Al Gore invented? The Internet. It could be to our time what the railroad was to the late nineteenth century. The top five percent will make fortunes off Wall Street's romance with this stuff, the superflux falling on the deficit. Taxes paid overwhelmingly by Republicans will turn the Democrats into the party of fiscal responsibility.

"Is this a great country, or what?"

Jack Beatty is a senior editor of The Atlantic.