President Clinton came here today to talk about preserving America's prosperity by modernizing its aging schools and hiring more classroom teachers. But he had little to say about the most pressing economic issue in Iowa right now, a deepening farm crisis.
Low commodity and livestock prices and the prospect of another bumper crop have put many farmers in peril this year, and virtually every candidate seeking to succeed Clinton as president -- many of them crisscrossing Iowa this week -- has been offering some way to ease the crisis.
Clinton met privately with a group of farmers after a public event at a middle school this afternoon. But in his remarks at the school, the president grazed past the farm issue to implore his audience to help put pressure on Congress to pass his school construction proposal. "I implore you, help us to get this done this year," Clinton said.
The president first offered the school construction plan in 1998. The proposal would make available about $25 billion in tax credit bonds over two years to repair more than 6,000 classrooms.
But the Republican-controlled Congress has balked at Clinton's proposal. In May, the Senate Finance Committee again rejected Clinton's plan in favor of educational savings accounts for families -- a measure Clinton vetoed last year.
Clinton deplored the partisan fight that has smothered his school construction proposal but fired several partisan shots at his GOP opponents in Congress for failing to approve a patients' bill of rights and for backpedaling on the hiring of 100,000 new teachers, which Congress approved last year. He also warned that the GOP-proposed tax cut would harm the economy in the long run and leave education underfunded.
"We cannot pretend that there are no consequences to proposing a tax cut that will cut education and prevent us from saving Social Security and Medicare and mean we can't pay off the debt," Clinton said.
In his public comments, Clinton blamed the farm crisis on four years of record worldwide harvests and a shrunken market brought on by the Asian economic slump. He also said the Republican-sponsored Freedom to Farm Act, approved in 1996, had left farmers vulnerable to swings in the market. But he offered no concrete pledges of action, saying only, "We're working on it."
Clinton's session with farmers was described by a White House official as mostly a listening session. But later, Clinton told a fund-raising audience "we have to act there, and we will."
Clinton's visit came during a week when Iowa was awash with presidential candidates from both parties. Hours before Clinton arrived here in Des Moines, Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) was flipping pancakes and shaking hands in a city park before leaving for events in three other Iowa cities.
On Wednesday, Clinton challenged Bush's philosophy of "compassionate conservatism" at a speech in Baltimore. On Thursday, Bush challenged Clinton to address the farm crisis on his visit here. Today, Bush said he welcomed the high-level attention he has been receiving.
"I'm frankly flattered, Mr. President, that I should keep popping up on your radar screen to the point that you feel you need to talk publicly about my candidacy," he said.
Clinton remarked on all the political activity during his appearance at the middle school. "You know, you folks should be glad to see me in Iowa," he joked. "I'm the only guy that's been here in weeks that's not running for anything."
But Clinton came for political business as well, attending two evening fund-raisers for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Harkin, who will not face reelection until 2002, was one of Clinton's most vigorous defenders during the Senate impeachment trial earlier this year.