Atlantic Unbound

NPR Commentary -- November 10, 1994
by James Fallows

Clinton and the New Congress

At his press conference yesterday, President Clinton said that Republicans should celebrate, Democrats should get some sleep, and everyone should take a break before reacting to the political news. Yet what he said and didn't say at the conference indicated that the president is already working out a strategy for surviving a Republican Congress.

I would sum up this strategy as "Play Offense on the Economy, Play Defense on Values."

Playing offense on the economy means that the President would keep advancing the argument that basic trends in the American economy are dangerous, and should be changed. In the early 1990s, the economy was in a cyclical recession. Now the cycle has improved. Yet the patterns that have most worried economists - and people - through the last two decades have not gotten better. Extremes of wealth and income have grown. Though profits and stock values are up, median family income has not risen for years - which means that what is good for America has not been good for most Americans.

Unlike Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton never claimed that the federal government could remake the economy. But his campaign was based on the idea that Republican policies had made these problems worse and that his own strategy, covering everything from schools to trade policy, would restore the foundations for sound growth. At his conference yesterday, the president didn't back off a single economic proposal -- suggesting that he's willing to play offense on these themes now and, if necessary, to run on them in 1996.

But the president also played defense on values, which really means admitting his party's negligence since the 1960s on issues of family, morality, individual responsibility. Many people obviously hate the idea that Bill Clinton would even dare speak about "duty" or "family values." But during the campaign such themes were crucial to his identity as a "New Democrat" and to his party's attempt to escape its ruinous image of permissiveness. Each time the president mentions his welfare-reform bill, as he did many times yesterday, or gives speeches about moral purpose to religious audiences, as he has done with great success, he is trying to play defense against Republican values attacks.

Harry Truman, the last Democrat to face a Republican congress, rose to the challenge and came back from heavy off-year election losses to win a second term. We don't know whether Bill Clinton can do the same. But we're beginning to see how he'll try.

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