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Silver-Tongued Presidency

By Charles Krauthammer
Friday, January 28, 1994; Page A23

"Ronald Reagan may have forgotten names, but never his goals. He was a great communicator, not simply because of his personality or his teleprompter – but mostly because he had something to communicate." And "it would be foolish to deny that his success was fundamentally rooted in a command of public ideas."

So said a leading senator in a 1989 Yale University speech titled "Politics and the Power of Ideas." Bob Dole? Phil Gramm? No. Ted Kennedy. Unlike many on the left who patronized Reagan intellectually because they went to Harvard and he went to Eureka, Kennedy understood that Reagan's success was not a matter of illusion but of ideas.

Conservatives might learn from Kennedy's realism. They patronize Clinton's character the way liberals once patronized Reagan's intellect. Clinton can be weak and wobbly, easily rolled. Yes, but he is passionate, and passion can move a country. To watch what Clinton did with his State of the Union address, a hopeless jumble brought to life with fluency and emotional power, is to see a man who ranks with Reagan and John Kennedy as the great rhetorical presidents of the postwar era.

Moreover, Reagan's core idea – government does not work, free individuals can do a better job – was easier to sell. Clinton's idea that government can solve all manner of social problems is far more counterintuitive. Yet Clinton delivers his core idea with such obvious conviction that, however wobbly he gets on implementation, the message gets through. A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll taken immediately after the speech found 84 percent think Clinton is leading the country in the right direction.

On health care, for example, Bob Dole, who gave the Republican response to the State of the Union, had the far better brief. He had the chart and facts to show that the president's plan, a Rube Goldberg device of staggering complexity and suffocating bureaucracy, is a disaster in the making.

Yet Dole, with his chart and his boxes, appeared the nitpicker and the naysayer. His declaration that there is no health care crisis (meaning that the problems of the system are not such as to warrant its reinvention), a position heavily supported by the facts, appeared cold and insensitive beside Clinton's passionate recital of individual suffering under the current system.

Dole had the facts, Clinton the anecdote of a family driven into bankruptcy by medical bills. The anecdote is an argument for a modest reform: making health insurance portable. It is by no logic a rationale for a total overhaul of the system.

But Clinton's power is not logic. His claim that "we're paying more and more money for less and less care" is nonsense. Americans are paying more and more money, yes. But for better and better care, the best medicine ever delivered at any time or place in human history.

But Clinton has passion and, on his core issues, obvious conviction. And he knows how to shape the debate. On its merits, the Clinton plan should have been dead on arrival. (See, for example, the Feb. 7 New Republic's devastating cover story on what the plan would do to health care choice and quality.) Yet it is the axis around which the entire national debate will revolve.

Clinton has shaped the welfare debate with equal skill, putting the focus on getting people off welfare, when the real issue, the only way to really break the welfare cycle, is keeping them from getting on in the first place. Even the most successful training programs have only a marginal effect on moving people off welfare once they are on. The real issue is the culture of entitlement in which having a child out of wedlock automatically gets you on the dole. Government then has to spend years and dangle huge inducements – free child care, education, job training, medical care – to get you off.

So we will now have a debate about whether it should be two years and out or one year and out; whether, when your time is up, the government owes you a job or whether finding a livelihood should be your responsibility, as it is for everyone else. Neatly sidestepped is the basic question of why people who wantonly start families they cannot support have a claim on the Treasury purely by dint of their irresponsibility.

On crime, too, historically another Democratic weak point, Clinton's passion and forcefulness have taken control of the debate. For the first time in a long time, polls show that people trust Democrats more than Republicans to deal with crime.

The president's performance Tuesday night tells you why. He talked tough. He showed anguish with just the right mix of anger. He brandished the living prop: a New York City beat cop who stood up and took a bow for his president's commitment to fighting crime. Corny but, as it was for Reagan (who invented this shtick), effective. The CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll taken after the speech found that 61 percent rated Clinton's crime proposals favorably. CBS asked, "Do you think Bill Clinton will be tough enough on crime?" Fifty-eight percent said yes.

Phil Gramm can complain that Clinton's budget last year "actually cut prison construction by $580 million." But complaints of this sort fade beside a president who speaks movingly and with power, exploiting to the full the office and the occasion. Little wonder he's won six elections in a row.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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