Clinton Calls for a Centrist 'Social Compact'
By Ann Devroy
President Clinton last night presented to a sharply partisan Congress a vision of a "new social compact" between a nation committed to civic responsibility and a centrist government that is cheaper, more effective and less intrusive.
In his longest address as president and one that rang with as many Republican themes as traditionally Democratic ones, Clinton said, "We must forge a new social compact to meet the challenges of the time." That compact, an updated version of his 1992 "new covenant" campaign theme, must be grounded, he said, in the tenets that "opportunity and responsibility . . . go hand in hand; we can't have one without the other, and our national community can't hold together without both."
With House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) looming behind him as a visible reminder of Democratic reversals under his political leadership and as a barometer of GOP support or opposition to his words, Clinton delivered his third and most comprehensive State of the Union address.
He offered no new massive government efforts, like the health care plan that was the foundation of his address from the podium only a year ago.
Instead, Clinton, the first Democratic president since Harry S. Truman to address a Congress controlled by Republicans, bowed to the political imperative of redefining a more centrist, visionary presidency.
Instead of offering new government efforts, the president defended those he implemented, saying he will fight to preserve the ban on assault weapons as well as his economic recovery, childhood immunization, early childhood education and veterans programs.
But when cutting, Clinton said, it should be remembered "that government still has important responsibilities. Our young people hold our future in their hands. We still owe a debt to our veterans. And our senior citizens have made us what we are. Now my budget cuts a lot, but it protects education, veterans, Social Security and Medicare, and I hope you will do the same thing."
Instead of calling for new government regulations, Clinton defended the results of government regulation to date: "I applaud your desire to get rid of costly and unnecessary regulations, but when we deregulate, let's remember what national action in the national interest has given us: Safer food for our families, safer toys for our children, safer nursing homes for our parents, safer cars and highways, and safer workplaces, cleaner air and cleaner water."
Clinton welcomed tax-cutting, regulation-trimming, program-shaving and government-shrinking, all dear to the heart of Republicans and none of his major themes his first two years. William Kristol, the GOP analyst, called the address the "most conservative State of the Union by a Democratic president in history."
While the language was markedly centrist for Clinton, many Republicans were not appeased. They applauded wildly when Clinton hit their political hot buttons: smaller government, tax reductions, less bureaucracy. But they glowered or sat on their hands when he invoked his own gun control; government programs that he believes work; his version of the crime bill, not theirs; his version of welfare reform, not theirs.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) summed up the partisanship when he said, "I have been to 15 of these and I haven't seen an occasion when one party was doing the applauding and the other was sitting on its hands. I think that bodes a very tough year ahead."
If the theme was Clinton's favored "new covenant" updated from his 1992 campaign, the list of ingredients was almost endless, with everything from the Mexican peso to teenage pregnancy to arms control tossed in. The most enduring theme was the acknowledgment actual and implied that the president was changing to a more centrist course and regretted how his first two years progressed.
"I have made my mistakes, and I have learned again the importance of humility in all human endeavor," Clinton said. But he asserted the country is better off than it was two years ago and called on Republicans and Democrats alike to "put aside partisanship and pettiness and pride" to do the business of democracy.
The lesson of the last two elections, he said, was, "We didn't hear America singing. We heard American shouting." To that shouting, he said, "We . . . must say: We hear you. We will work together to earn the jobs you have given us."
And in outlining the problem he said he is set to tackle, he said the nation's "civil life is suffering. . . . Citizens are working together less and shouting at each other more. The common bonds of community which have been the great strength of this country from its beginning are badly frayed." The challenge of democracy, he said, is to repair that.
The president bluntly challenged Republicans to come along with him on political reform he pointedly advised them to simply stop accepting gifts from lobbyists while working on a bill to forbid them. He offered a kinder, gentler version of welfare reform, and vowed to protect Medicare and other programs from cuts to pay for GOP tax reductions.
In the end, his most compelling call was more to the institutions and people of the nation than to the Congress he no longer controls, if he ever did. He challenged a broad range of the country's institutions, from the entertainment industry in Hollywood, to corporate America, to community leaders, to religious leaders to move forward with their freedoms, but to exert more responsibility.
His charge to the television industry, in particular, was greeted with bipartisan roars of approval. He applauded the creativity and success of the entertainment industry but said that "you do have a responsibility to assess the impact of your work and to understand the damage that comes from the incessant, repetitive and mindless violence and irresponsible conduct that permeates our media."
After more than an hour of speech, the president closed with a lyrical tribute to the history of Americans working together for their neighbors, their country or to solve problems beyond their own. "We all gain when we give," he said. "That's at the heart of this New Covenant."
New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who delivered the GOP response from the Statehouse in Trenton, turned traditions by ignoring Democratic proposals and calling, instead, for a Clinton commitment to GOP proposals to reduce taxes, balance the budget, and wrest power from Washington and return it to the states.
Whitman said Clinton "sounded pretty Republican" at times in his address, but she said he had pushed through a large tax increase and opposed the balanced budget amendment. "If he has changed his big government agenda," she said, "we say great. Join us as we change America."
And speaking directly to Clinton, Whitman said the voters in November had "sounded a warning" to Clinton and given a mandate to Republicans to produce a smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation. Republicans, she said, accept that mandate. "President Clinton," she said, "you must accept it as well."
Symbolizing just how much Clinton has had to retrench, the president took up health care reform the central pledge and defining issue of his first two years only at mid-speech, outlining a list of incremental reforms that sound much like the step-by-step proposals Republicans favor, including insurance industry reform, making insurance more portable so it moves with the employee to a new job and expanding coverage for children.
It was only a year ago when Clinton used most of his State of the Union address to outline an audacious and broad reform of the health care system and to hold up sternly his black pen and pledge that no law that did not guarantee coverage to every American would escape his veto.
This year, there were no explicit threats of vetoes, though Clinton pledged to fight for initiatives the GOP has pledged to turn back, such as banning assault weapons and the national service program.
To add visual emphasis to his pledge to fight for national service, which has been denounced by Gingrich, the Clinton White House packed the presidential box at the address with national service volunteers from around the country.
The president's speech was constructed around his call for a new economy to bring the nation into the 21st century, a new government put in place for the new century, and a new national and domestic security system for a post-Cold War world that has no anti-Soviet organizing principle.
Outlining his reformed government, Clinton said, "We cannot ask Americans to be better citizens if we are not better servants." He said he would fight for political reform, including an end to free gifts to Congress from lobbyists, overall lobbying reform and campaign finance reform that would provide free television time for candidates.
In a segment with particular appeal to California and other states with severe immigration problems, the president pledged stronger efforts to stop illegal immigration, listing that area as one of the few in government that will grow. He broadly endorsed recommendations of the commission led by former congresswoman Barbara Jordan, including a controversial proposal to better identify legal workers. But he is expected to move more slowly than Jordan recommended.
In describing the economy, Clinton made a broad pitch for what he calls the "Middle Class Bill of Rights," his proposals to give tax breaks targeted at the middle class, and contrast that with GOP plans that include reductions for the wealthy. He called for an increase in the current $4.25-an-hour minimum wage but specified no amount.
Symbolizing how fearful the White House is of Clinton's being labled a liberal captive of traditional Democratic groups such as organized labor, the president signed off on a proposal to raise the wage to $5 per hour over the next two years but decided to call on Congress only to work with him to find an agreeable increase.
Clinton, pointing out that members of Congress by the end of January will already have made more in 1995 than a minimum-wage worker will make all year, said Congress should work with him to "make a living wage out of the minimum wage."
Many Republicans flatly object to such an increase, arguing it will kill jobs at the entry level. Asked if Clinton lacked the political courage to announce publicly a proposal he signed off on and backs, White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta said yesterday that the lack of specifics was a sign that the president was realistic and would not "posture" with a proposal that had no hope in Congress.
And repeating a constant White House refrain, Clinton challenged the Republican Congress to specify how it would reduce spending or increase taxes to produce the balanced federal budget it wants to require as a constitutional amendment.
© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company