The Washington press corps suddenly has noticed that the President is up to more than practicing his golf swing and playing with his dog. Reporters seemed stunned to learn that Bill Clinton, a man obsessed with his political legacy, has prepared a series of initiatives from health insurance and child care to another increase in the minimum wage and beyond. In perfect ignorance, they apparently assumed he would be content to coast through his historic second term.
“Well, that was wrong,” admitted a White House radio correspondent the other day. Wrong indeed-because Mr. Clinton and his Administration are working toward the ambitious conception of a “new social contract” for the future that the President intends to promote in his State of the Union address on Jan. 27. The era of big government wasn’t over for long; what seems to be over now is the era of small-change government, as personified by Dick Morris. School uniforms are about to be replaced by school reconstruction.
Preoccupied with the dog and the golf clubs, not to mention the ever-distracting “scandals,” it’s easy to forget how all this came to be. But the only thing needed to subvert the phony narrative of conservatism is an adequate memory.
When Mr. Clinton entered the Oval Office, what he found was a file cabinet full of unpaid bills left by his Republican predecessors. Hundreds of billions in annual deficits, the leftovers of a tax-cutting and defense-spending orgy, were expected to burden the country for decades to come. And the creation of those deficits was no accident, regardless of the idiotic predictions about lower taxes bringing huge revenues. The Republican fiscal policy was, as Ronald Reagan’s budget director David Stockman once confessed, a scheme designed not only to enrich the already wealthy but to curtail Federal action on behalf of the rest of society through virtual bankruptcy.
The end of that vicious cycle began in 1993 with Mr. Clinton’s substantial tax increase on the wealthy. He knew that, aside from lowering interest rates, closing the deficit would be the prerequisite for activist government. So his “conservative” pursuit of deficit reduction has created the economic conditions that now will underwrite progressive programs.
For the Republicans, with their nostalgic worship of fiscal responsibility, Mr. Clinton’s budget-balancing laid a trap they were incapable of evading. They still have not entirely grasped what he has done, but in their dim understanding, they know he has beaten them and they are bent on revenge. Revenge, in fact, is the sum of their legislative agenda (except for the same old tax cuts for the rich that one Presidential aide calls “déjà voodoo economics”).
In planning for the 1998 session, Newt Gingrich has decided that at least half of the 20 committees in the House of Representatives will conduct investigations of the Clinton Administration and the Democratic Party. The Speaker has decreed that Congress mostly will devote its time to such cosmic issues as the burial of Ambassador Larry Lawrence in Arlington Cemetery, a minor personal fraud that was resolved with his exhumation, and whether the Democrats have reimbursed every penny spent on partisan events at the White House, a question that could easily be answered by the General Accounting Office.
Mr. Gingrich’s agenda of harassment might seem at first like an imitation of his colleagues in the Senate, who were recently revealed to have spent nearly $200 million to probe the supposed sins of the Democrats over the past few years. Actually, however, the plan to destroy the Clinton Administration through misuse of subpoena power dates back to 1994, when Mr. Gingrich told a meeting of lobbyists that as Speaker he would portray Clinton Democrats as “the enemy of normal Americans.” A strategy memo from that period quotes him as foreseeing as many as 20 simultaneous investigations of the Administration in a Congress he controlled.
By April 1996, as the new House leadership faced the Presidential election and its own first test at the polls, it had issued a secret, urgent memo to House committee and subcommittee chairs, seeking information on “waste, fraud and abuse” and “dishonesty or ethical lapses” in the Clinton Administration, with the explicit aim of creating a Congressional smear program.
The purpose of these endless exercises is, of course, political rather than moral. Mr. Gingrich and his associates are not exposing Democratic excesses because they want to make a case for campaign finance reform. Dan Burton, the chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee who is the spearhead of the campaign finance probe, admitted as much rather exultantly last year. In an Esquire article, writer David Brock quoted Mr. Burton telling a crowd of G.O.P. donors that “the fund-raising scandal will turn out to be the Democrats’ Watergate,” ensuring a net gain for Republicans in the midterm elections next November of up to 24 seats.
Lately, Mr. Gingrich has gone so far as to encourage preliminary hearings in the House Rules Committee on a resolution to impeach Mr. Clinton. Somewhere deep down, he must know that this is madness, but these days the Speaker can’t seem to think of anything else to do.
Maybe he should get a dog.