By Robert D. Novak
The president's course on minimum wage had been the center of speculation for weeks preceding the speech, not because it is terribly important but because of what it represents symbolically. A proposed increase would signal that he was seeking a return to the Democratic Party's liberal-labor base. To ignore the issue would mean he was resuming New Democrat moderation in dealing with the Republican-controlled 104th Congress.
Accordingly, President Clinton split the difference Tuesday night. He put forth a proposal that will be ignored by a Congress hellbent on ratifying the Republican "Contract With America," but by stating no dollar figure he tried to open the door for negotiations.
So went the speech that White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, unwisely following the path of President George Bush's aides, had called the most important of Clinton's career. It often sounded more conservative than any pronouncement by a Democratic president in this century, but it was regularly interspersed with liberal caveats.
The result exceeded the worst expectations of Democrats. One party stalwart, who has been at the apex of Democratic politics for a generation, told me: "It was the worst speech ever delivered by a president on a serious occasion."
What the president would do about the minimum wage had been carefully watched by Democrats to show his reaction to last November's Republican tide. To ask for a rise to $5 in the $4.25-an-hour rate last set in 1991 would mean commiseration with organized labor about miserly businessmen.
That is what Labor Secretary Robert Reich has been pressing for months. But the president's New Democrat friends outside the administration had told him that picking a fight with the business community was bad policy and bad politics.
The way Clinton disposed of the issue satisfied nobody and set the tone for the speech. His calls for smaller government and spending cuts smacked of imitation Republicanism and provoked sarcastic cheers from Republicans seated in front of him. But Clinton balanced his conservatism with repeated warnings against cutting education and welfare too deeply.
He clearly chose not to follow the path of the House Democratic leaders, Reps. Richard Gephardt and David Bonior, in waging class warfare against the rich. The president did not lay down the law against reduced capital gains tax rates. On the contrary, his description of what kind of tax cuts he can sign did not exclude that very Republican proposal.
Clinton had been given straightforward advice from a variety of sources: Keep it simple and keep it short three or four ideas and 40 minutes at the most. Instead, he spent an hour and a half posing a minimum of 36 proposals, approximating the laundry list of old-time State of the Union messages.
What the speech lacked in brevity, it did not compensate for in quality. His opening remarks that the "American people certainly voted for change" was a little too self-deprecating. He closed with an embarrassingly overt lift from Ronald Reagan: "Our best days are still to come."
How could this monstrosity be written when White House staffers claimed so much was at stake? The Clinton style is at fault. He takes over speech-writing chores himself, making the decisions of what stays and what goes. Much more stays than goes.
His aides have long complained that his idea of editing is really addition. The problem is that there was nobody at the White House who looked at the finished product and reined in the president. Panetta surely knew it was a turkey, but he did not or could not change it.
The crisp, well-organized Republican response by New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman only emphasized the president's verbosity. Many Democrats mused that it was inconceivable that Vice President Gore, seated behind the president, or House Majority Leader Gephardt, seated in front of him, would have delivered so undisciplined an address. One speech does not a presidency break, but Tuesday night's underlined Bill Clinton's shortcomings.
© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company