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The Dance of Clintonism

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, January 22, 1999; Page A35


You can view President Clinton's major speeches in two ways. You can say he draws on Republican ideas and weaves a bipartisan web to trap his opponents. You can also say he draws some sharp lines to advance distinctly Democratic ideas.

This week's State of the Union address may be the purest performance ever of the Dance of Clintonism. If you like the choreography, you see a brilliant mind at work. If you dislike the show, you see gimmickry and manipulation. But whatever else he did Tuesday, Clinton made clear he's not about to leave the stage. Take matters issue by issue:

Social Security. Clinton's plan gives the Democrats what they want most: He doesn't carve private accounts out of Social Security. But he bows to Republicans by creating those Universal Savings Accounts (USA). He reserves $2.7 trillion of the budget surplus to shore up Social Security over the next 15 years. He'd invest a quarter of that in the stock market.

Though they're politically more palatable than benefit cuts or tax increases, each of these options is controversial.

Investing some of the Social Security fund in the market makes sense as a way of increasing the return on taxpayers' dollars. It's what pension funds do -- including those controlled by state and local governments. But to most Republicans, and to Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, the idea is dangerous, perhaps even socialistic. "The government becomes an owner of America's private-sector companies," warned House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) Some Democrats think it's risky.

But Clinton can ask opponents of this idea: If they don't want to invest in the market, what benefits would they cut to make up for the revenue they'd forgo?

The savings accounts answer the one good argument made by those who want to privatize part of Social Security. Low- and middle-income Americans have low savings rates. They spend almost all their income to support their families. Shouldn't something be done to increase their capacity to save?

Clinton would give these Americans help by matching their personal retirement savings with government money. He'd put more into the accounts of those with smaller incomes. He thus marries a Republican cause (more savings) with a Democratic wish (wealth redistribution).

Democrats who mistrust Clinton worry he'll bow to Republican efforts to transform his USA accounts into a big tax cut. But that's the drama of a Clinton Dance -- you never know how it will turn out. And by using most of the surplus for Social Security, Medicare and pension savings, Clinton makes it harder for Republicans to offer sweeping tax cuts.

Education. Here's the question: If reforming the schools is an urgent national necessity, shouldn't the federal government provide localities with strong incentives to do the job?

Clinton embraces many of the goals of Republican education reformers: ending social promotion, shutting down failing schools, imposing higher standards for teachers, creating more charter schools. But he uses an un-Republican method: federal sticks and carrots. And he links reform with a federal school construction program Democrats love.

Some Republicans have already rejected Clinton's ideas and retreated into "local control of the schools" rhetoric. But Republicans would do better to embrace Clinton's plan as a starting point and call for tougher standards and more reform.

Child Care. Republicans rejected Clinton's child care proposals last year, arguing that they favored two-income families over those with a stay-at-home parent, usually the mother.

It's true that a family in which one person makes $60,000 a year -- let alone $200,000 -- has it easier than a mother and father who have to go out to earn $30,000 each. Thus, the need for more child care. But middle-income families in which one spouse gives up wages for more time with the children deserve some help, too.

So Clinton links a modest tax credit for stay-at-home parents to his child care plan. One Clinton administration official put it candidly: "This robs the Republicans of their excuse to oppose our program."

The Senate Trial. Republicans want to say that Clinton's transgressions are the most serious matter facing the nation. They also want to say that everything is normal and they're ready to go to work. So some Republicans boycotted Clinton's speech, even though Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) declared that "our country is not in crisis" and "life in America will go on."

But Dunn's view becomes untenable if the Senate proceedings drag on. Simply by showing up on Tuesday, Clinton dramatized the Republicans' choice. They can validate her claim by easing the trial to a rapid close. Or they can go for broke and pursue their long-shot hope that they can drive him from the stage.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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