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Surrendering His Way to Strength

By George F. Will
Thursday, January 25, 1996; Page A25


President Clinton struck the requisite tone of ambivalence Tuesday night. Any president entering the fourth year of his first term paints a picture of fragile grandeur: The state of the union is amazingly improved, thanks to his three years, but all gains could crumble if he is not retained.

Clinton's protracted musings on our current condition (was his speech the sort of thing the Founders hoped for from the Constitution's provision that the president shall give Congress "information" concerning the state of the union?) will deserve at least a footnote in any history of American political flapdoodle, if only for his heroic amnesia concerning his preoccupations until now.

Three years ago he asked the national legislators, a majority of whom were Democrats, for enlarged government in the form of spending, called "investment," for economic "stimulus." Congress balked. Two years ago he asked the Democratic-controlled Congress to enlarge government by expanding its control of the one-seventh of the economy concerned with health care. His program would have been the largest and most intrusive permanent (that is, not counting Nixon's wage and price controls) peacetime expansion of government in American history.

Now, blithely proclaiming that "the era of big government is over," he embraces, or at least espouses, three of the central tenets of contemporary conservatism: Government spending must grow significantly slower than even the last Republican administration planned for it to grow. The budget must be balanced by a date certain. And the balance must be achieved entirely by cuts in spending, by new controls on the growth of entitlement programs that until recently were referred to as "uncontrollables," and the balance must be achieved with a simultaneous tax cut.

As a result, Republicans worry that he may have surrendered his way to a position of political strength and to the brink of reelection. That worry is premature and probably mistaken. But to the extent that it is plausible, it merely represents the working of the sort of political dialectic that brought the Democratic Party to tribulation.

The Democratic Party, the party of energetic government, was the prime mover behind government measures, such as the GI Bill and subsidized home mortgages, that made millions of Americans feel equipped for self-reliance, and thus less inclined to rely on the party of energetic government. Republicans, who respect markets, should not be amazed or dismayed by the fact that the political market works. They have persuaded the electorate to demand conservatism, and the president, who is nothing if not a believer in market research, wants to be seen to be a supplier. So he stocked the start of his speech with homilies, large scoops of cultural conservatism expressed in pastoral counseling about spanking Hollywood (Bob Dole could sue for copyright infringement concerning his Hollywood speech), turning off television, visiting your children's schools and so on.

He has gone from "It's the economy, stupid" to "Come to think about it, it's the culture." He seems to have embraced the Barone Doctrine about the primacy of cultural questions. In "The Almanac of American Politics 1996," Michael Barone writes:

"When Americans were voting Republican in 1994, they were not voting against the economic elite, which was voting Republican also; they were voting against the educational elite, which was voting Democratic. That educational elite propagates ideas spread on a national basis, ideas which on their own could not win majority endorsement in the overwhelming majority of constituencies. . . . {P}ropagators of liberal cultural values have used government to impose them in every segment of American life. . . . In a country where politics has divided voters less often on economic lines than on cultural lines – along lines of race, region, religion, ethnic group and cultural values -- this is the norm, and is the kind of politics we should expect in the future."

November's election will turn on two questions: If Bill Clinton believes what he now says, when did he stop believing what he used to say? And how perishable are his latest beliefs?

In 1988 Michael Dukakis said the election was about "competence, not ideology," hoping to sneak the ideology of Massachusetts's political culture past the electorate. In 1992 Clinton ran on pledges that, once in office, he ran away from: radical welfare reform, a balanced budget in five years, a large middle-class tax cut. Clinton's performance Tuesday night may have been the beginning of the Democratic Party's third consecutive campaign of concealment.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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