Clinton Says He'll Mount 'Crusade' for Education
By John F. Harris and Peter Baker
President Clinton last night declared that "the enemy of our time is inaction," pledging to forge bipartisan agreements on a balanced budget and campaign finance reform within months, and to lead a "national crusade" to improve education by the turn of the century.
Clinton used his annual State of the Union address to sketch in the most detail so far the agenda that will shape his second term. The result was a mix of grand rhetoric about how the country must unite "to make a nation and world better than any we have ever known," combined with a list of small government actions that Clinton said can help "prepare America for the 21st century."
Education, Clinton vowed, would be his "number-one priority for the next four years," and he devoted the longest portion of his address to this. He appealed for "national standards" to improve student performance and pledged to promote such standards with voluntary tests prepared by the federal government.
Under Clinton's plan, starting in spring 1999, all school districts in the country would give their fourth-graders a reading test and their eighth-graders a math test devised by the Education Department.
Most of the ideas Clinton presented last night first appeared as poll-tested proposals in his reelection campaign last fall: expanding the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act to include time off from work for parent-teacher conferences; school curfews; and tax credits and deductions to subsidize college education. But he presented these ideas using more encompassing and urgent language than before.
"We face no imminent threat, but we do have an enemy: The enemy of our time is inaction," Clinton declared at the start of his speech. He finished, as he did in last month's inaugural address, by invoking the symbolism that the nation is about to pass into a new millennium. "We don't have a moment to waste," he said. "Tomorrow, there will be just over 1,000 days until the year 2000. . . . One thousand days to work together."
In the televised Republican response, Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.) took credit on behalf of his party for Clinton's move to the political center yet warned of sacrificing principle on the altar of political comity.
"President Clinton was right on target tonight," Watts said. "He said the people want bipartisanship. They do. But they want the kind of bipartisanship that results in progress. They don't want phony compromise. They don't want the kind of weak, back-scratching, go-along-to-get-along bipartisanship that makes lawmakers feel good but gets bad results."
The annual ritual in the Capitol got underway last night against an extraordinary backdrop that distracted much of the country. Shortly before Clinton arrived in the House chamber, the jury in the O.J. Simpson civil trial reached a verdict, and suspense built as it appeared it would be announced at the same time as the speech.
Clinton appeared unruffled by the last-minute hitch, delivering his hour-long address in a crisp and fluid style. The speech proved shorter than predicted and far more organized and disciplined than some of his previous appearances before Congress. And in a notable break from the past and a sign of the managerial style of new White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles the final draft was completed and copies distributed hours before the appointed hour.
The annual speeches to Congress have served as markers of Clinton's ideological migration. In 1993, he announced that "government must do more" and unveiled a raft of big-government proposals, including a $30 billion "stimulus package" that was vastly more expensive than any single proposal he offered last night. In 1996, he declared "the era of big government is over" and laid down the broad platform for a campaign that gave him a re-election victory but still confronting GOP control of Congress.
Clinton ventured to Capitol Hill enjoying the highest public approval ratings of his presidency. The president, in remarks not in his advance text, said he was prepared to sacrifice some of that popularity on one of the most controversial issues in modern politics controlling the costs of entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. "I really believe one of the reasons the American people gave me a second term was to take the tough decisions in the next four years that will carry our country through the next 50 years," he said.
Echoing his inauguration call for racial harmony, Clinton called diversity "our greatest strength." But, he said, "We still see evidence of a biting bigotry and intolerance in ugly words and awful violence, in burned churches and bombed buildings. We must fight against this in our country and in our hearts."
One of Clinton's goals for the speech was to create an environment in which Republicans would conclude it was in their self-interest to try cooperation in place of their confrontational tactics of 1995 and 1996.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) praised Clinton for taking "a good first step toward cooperation" but added: "Words are nice. We're waiting for the deeds." The test will come in whether Clinton delivers a balanced budget, provides permanent tax cuts and refrains from trying to expand government, he added.
House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) thought Clinton's remarks were more a list than a coherent program. "I think he laid out so many things that I don't quite know what his priorities are. . . . I'm not quite sure what the focus was," Kasich said.
The question of educational standards the centerpiece of his agenda has been problematic for Clinton. The idea of demanding rigorous teaching is appealing in abstract, but anything that hints of replacing local control with a federally imposed curriculum has excited intense opposition from conservatives. Clinton said he was proposing "not federal government standards, but national standards." Administration officials said the reading and math tests would be based on standards set by outside educational experts, not by Education Department bureaucrats.
Clinton will be selling his education program outside the Beltway, flying to Georgia this morning to tout the college tuition tax breaks, followed by more trips to state capitals over the next weeks to talk about national standards.
Three people he met on a similar trip to a suburban Chicago school last month were among those sitting in the gallery with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton last night: teacher Sue Winski and ninth-graders Kristen Tanner and Chris Getsla. Also there was the Rev. Robert Schuller, the conservative television evangelist from California who suggested a biblical passage Clinton used last night and in his inaugural address.
Hoping to shake free of the controversy over Democratic National Committee fund-raising in which he has become embroiled, Clinton said he will push to enact bipartisan reform by a July 4 deadline. "You know and I know that delay will mean the death of reform," he said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a cosponsor of the campaign finance bill Clinton endorsed, said the presidential endorsement is "bound to help" the legislation's prospects. But Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a leading opponent of the bill, said Clinton was cynically trying to "change the subject away from the violations of existing law" committed by his White House and the DNC.
Clinton also said he wants the issue of eliminating annual deficits to be settled once and for all in remarks designed to introduce the budget he will send to Congress Thursday. "Let this Congress be the Congress that finally balances the budget," he said.
But he also cautioned against passing a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, warning that such a requirement "could cripple our country in time of economic crisis" and jeopardize Social Security checks. "Balancing the budget requires only your vote and my signature," he said. "It does not require us to rewrite our Constitution."
Even as he preached the virtues of fiscal restraint, though, Clinton offered several new spending priorities oriented toward more traditional Democratic social goals.
His education plan calls for a 40 percent increase in federal spending by 2002, and he renewed his plea for Congress to restore welfare aid to some legal immigrants who were cut off by last year's overhaul law, saying, "To do otherwise is simply unworthy of a great nation of immigrants." And he proposed providing health care coverage for 5 million poorer children, or roughly half of those in this country without medical insurance.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) praised the tone of the speech but said it appeared to call for "a lot of government for someone who said just a year ago that the era of big government is over." He also faulted Clinton for not reminding Americans that achieving a balanced budget will involve "some shared pain . . . it won't be easy."
Clinton spent more time in this address, aides said, talking about international affairs than he has in the past. He made the case for a vigorous foreign policy anchored in the kind of peacemaking missions he has championed in Haiti, Bosnia and the Middle East. Among the chief goals he outlined for his second term were the expansion of NATO by 1999 while preserving relations with a Russian leadership that opposes such a move and "a deeper dialogue" with China without isolating the last communist giant because of its human rights record.
Clinton implored the Senate to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention before it goes into force April 29, a prospect that is imperiled at the moment because Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) opposes the treaty and is holding it in limbo.
Even so, aside from education, Clinton did not dwell on many topics. In rapid-fire pattern, he touched on virtually every major policy area in the federal government's portfolio and a few that aren't. He pledged to expand Head Start; extend the family and medical leave law; boost spending on space exploration, medical research and technology; mount "a full-scale assault on juvenile crime" including "child safety locks" on handguns; clean up 500 more toxic waste sites; and push for legislation guaranteeing women a 48-hour hospital stay after a mastectomy.
As part of his pitch for more low-tax empowerment zones in urban areas, Clinton made reference to his newfound commitment to rescue the troubled District of Columbia. "Together, we must pledge tonight that we will use this empowerment approach including private-sector tax incentives to renew our capital city, so that Washington is a great place to work and live, and is once again the proud face America shows to the world," he said.
The official GOP response was choreographed to avoid the missteps of a year ago, when soon-to-be presidential nominee Robert J. Dole delivered a badly received speech. This time, the party picked one of its most charismatic rising stars and surrounded him with an audience.
Watts used his celebrated, up-from-the-bootstraps life story as a metaphor for the kind of country the GOP-led Congress wants to build. "Those of us who've been sent to Washington have a moral responsibility to offer more than poll-tested phrases and winning smiles," he said in an implicit shot at the president.
The second-term representative derided the president's targeted tax cuts as inadequate and called his complaints about the balanced budget amendment "just hogwash." And the African American lawmaker suggested Clinton's preaching on race sounded like the "same-old, same-old" belief that government can solve divisions when sometimes it only makes them worse.
Staff writers Helen Dewar and Eric Pianin contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company