Can Clinton Keep His Promises?

By Andrew Sandlin

The present euphoria of the Democratic Party over the election of their first president in 16 years should be tempered by the realization that the job of serving as executive is slightly more difficult than running a successful political campaign. Clinton faces some impediments it will be difficult to overcome.

If presidential campaigns are to be remembered by buzzwords, the verbal motif of Clinton’s successful 1992 campaign will be etched for many years on the minds of Americans: “change.” Fatefully for George Bush, the economy dipped – or was depicted as to have dipped – demonstrably several months after he received an approval rating of 90% at the conclusion of the Gulf War; and on November third he paid the ultimate penalty suffered by any president, from Herbert Hoover to Jimmy Carter, whose policies are perceived as coincident with major economic downturns.

Not surprisingly, Clinton largely avoided other substantive issues in his campaign and hammered away at the need for change, not principally in social policy, foreign affairs or education, but in the economy. He campaigned on an explicitly “Put America First” platform (ironically, not much unlike that of right-wing Republican candidate Pat Buchanan) and consistently stressed “investment in America,” a theme appealing to a large block of labor troubled by the loss of jobs to foreign markets.

Affirmation of this strategy reaped sound political benefits, but its successful implementation is dubious. There is a simple reason for this. Clinton has admitted he will raise taxes on upper income brackets in order to create jobs and, it is asserted, thus rejuvenate the economy. While many voters seemed not to mind this plan, these same voters heard the inimitable Ross Perot incessantly lament the chilling results of our monstrous deficit. Bipartisan support for a balanced budget amendment is mounting, the sort of legislation that would at least begin to reverse the deficit spending that engenders economic problems, and it is not inconceivable that such legislation may be voted into law during the Clinton administration.

This will present an insuperable problem for Clinton’s economic strategy. Savings, individual or government, can occur in only one of two ways: increase income and decrease disbursements. No one would dream of suggesting the impossible and ludicrous idea that by taxation alone we can eliminate the deficit; Clinton’s proposed tax increase certainly doesn’t: it is designed ostensibly to bolster the economy by reducing employment. But income derived from taxation designed to reduce employment does nothing to reduce the deficit, so we’re still left with the need to cut spending if we want to make a dent in the deficit. The spending cuts necessary to reduce the deficit, however, will jeopardize the types of programs Clinton’s support rode into the presidency.

Of course, Clinton could veto a balanced budget amendment, but then he would only alienate a growing number of Americans apprehensive over the future of our country with such a huge (and escalating) spending deficit and fall into the same sort of government “gridlock” (another 1992 buzzword) by which Bush was plagued and which Ross Perot vocalized and exploited in his campaign.

If Clinton implements the taxation he calls his economic “investment” policy he will only compound the deficit woes, but if he supports the reduction of the deficit he cannot fulfill his campaign promises but only expect to suffer a Bush-like “Read My Lips” scenario.

Further, Clinton faces in the legislature a large Republican minority less than thrilled with his campaign promises and unimpressed by his margin of victory. For instance, Senate minority leader Robert Dole has publicly committed himself to advancing on the Senate floor the interests of the “Fifty-seven percent of Americans who … voted against Bill Clinton.” The Republicans retained sufficient seats to filibuster Democratic legislation and Clinton will soon discover the necessity of compromise with an often recalcitrant Congress, the sort of compromise to which Bush grudgingly surrendered and that Clinton exploited in his “Read My Lips” parlance and one that is not likely to endear him to the hearts of the American people.

Moreover, the dispatching of American troops to Somalia and the increasing realization that the conclusion of the Cold War has not solved all international problems, do not bode well for the new president. The embarrassment of Clinton’s war record pales in comparison to the perception among the populace that he is patently inexperienced and possibly unskilled in dealing with foreign affairs.

In the “New World Order” it appears deft diplomacy will be a requisite of the successful president. Clinton shows no indications of such diplomatic deftness. Like other presidents (Reagan, for example) he can gain it by on the job training. And so long as trouble spots around the globe are relatively few and innocuous, Clinton’s almost exclusive commitment to economic change will suffice. It may be found sadly lacking, however, if America is forced to deal with another case of international aggressional that threatens our national interests. One does not get the impression Clinton’s approval rating in an international crisis will match Bush’s recent post war landslide, or perhaps even Clinton’s own election percentage.

Finally, Clinton confronts (and is already feeling) the predicament of a centrist president: he is expected to please too many people. Candidates like Ronald Reagan that run on a more ideological platform find it more difficult to get elected, but when they do, they are less frequently forced to compromise and are largely free to pursue their own agenda. Centrist candidates like Bill Clinton rely on a large and heterogeneous base for election. The dilemma for the centrist is that the same base expects good returns on the investment of their vote. Since ideologues like Reagan build the strong consensus before the election, they don’t need as much compromise afterward. Centrists like Clinton (and for that matter, Bush) learn too late that it is much more difficult to please citizens than to win voters.

The Democrats have been dealt a stacked deck and they will need more than beginner’s luck to expect any substantial winnings.

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