Atlantic Unbound

NPR Commentary -- December 19, 1994
by James Fallows

Clinton and the State of the Union

President Clinton doesn't believe that his promised tax cuts makes sense on their merits. If he did, he would have mentioned them sometime before last week. The package was instead his attempt to outmaneuver the Republicans - but considered purely in political terms it may have been a big mistake. There are four reasons why.

First, in proposing tax cuts the president has entered a contest he can't win. The Republicans in Congress, with their "supply-side" economic theory, can always promise more and deeper cuts than the President will. At best, he looks like a tag-along.

Second, this attempt to shore up the president's standing actually undercuts it. The people who do not like Bill Clinton say that he has no core values. This speech, when compared with his dozens of previous warnings about deficits, shows what they mean.

Third, the president has thrown away the very center of his economic argument and his greatest potential source of personal authority. From the beginning of his campaign for president until last week, Bill Clinton didn't say that the distressed middle class needed a few hundred dollars in tax relief. Instead he said that fundamental economic changes were squeezing that class - and that America had to respond in fundamental ways, starting with control of its deficits so it could invest, educate, and build.

"We must say that there can be no more something for nothing," Mr. Clinton said in his first State of the Union address. The president reached his peak of popularity in the afterglow of that speech. Giving it again might not save him at this point, but promising something for nothing now is sure to fail. Recent polls indicate that people are still more worried about long-term deficits than about the immediate tax burden.

Fourth, while history shows that people who stick to their guns sometimes lose politically, those who back off and try to co-opt the other side almost never win. The president's idol, Harry Truman, did not tell his opponents "Hey, maybe you're right," after Republicans took the Congress in 1946. Nor did Ronald Reagan, who was highly unpopular two years into his term.

In that memorable first State of the Union speech, President Clinton said that nations and their leaders must decide how they wish to be thought of, based on "whether they are prepared to rise to the occasions that history presents." Instead of rising to this occasion, the president sank.

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