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International Socialist Review, Spring 1998

Notes of the Quarter

Republicans in a box

From International Socialist Review, Issue 4, Spring 1998.
Copied with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

WHITEWATER SPECIAL Prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s best efforts to keep the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal alive failed to cut into President Clinton’s high standing in the polls. In fact, in a period the press proclaimed the “most dangerous” of his presidency, Clinton enjoyed his highest popularity ratings ever.

About two-thirds of Americans polled say they approve of Clinton’s job performance, even while majorities say they don’t believe his denials of an affair with Lewinsky and other alleged White House sexual escapades.

In a February meeting with congressional Democrats, Clinton proposed an explanation for his popularity.

“I defy you to find a time in the last 20 years when more Democratic ideas have made their way into the lifeblood of America than they have through the balanced budget, raising the minimum wage and other things that were done,” Clinton said.

Clinton’s was a telling statement in two ways. First, he acknowledged the obvious: proposing to spend money on education, child care and “saving” Social Security – all key parts of his January State of the Union message – is widely popular.

The deficit-driven politics of austerity of most of the 1990s is giving way to a debate by politicians about how to spend projected budget surpluses. Even the Republicans can’t use the excuse that “there’s no money” – since they’re offering to spend $218 billion on roads and public works. For this reason, Clinton’s recent rhetoric has sounded closer to the old-time Democratic religion than at any other time in his presidency.

This is a far cry from 1995, when the GOP “revolutionaries” swept into Congress and set the pace for mainstream politics over the next two years. In 1998, Clinton and the Democrats have seized the initiative. “[Clinton’s plan has] got Republicans in a box. It really does. And they don’t like it. It leaves it to Republicans to explain that, in fact, you cannot do what [Clinton] seeks to do,” a GOP consultant told Congressional Quarterly. The “Republican revolution” has been reduced to a massive pothole-filling operation.

But while Clinton raised a more liberal agenda, he also claimed credit for balancing the budget – a longtime conservative Republican obsession. Clinton crowed about his success in repackaging Republican politics as “Democratic ideas.”

All of this left the Republicans and the rest of the right in disarray. After the State of the Union address, GOP congressional leaders hauled out all the Reaganite rhetoric about “big government” and “tax and spend” policies to attack Clinton. When that didn’t work, they had very little else but the sex scandals to bash Clinton with.

Yet Clinton’s record is one of big talk and little action when it comes to initiatives to improve working people’s lives. His recent budget is no different. Despite the big promises, Clinton’s spending initiatives would increase the budget by an average of only 1.2 percent a year over the next five years. This hardly makes up for the massive cuts in social spending that Clinton has pushed through over the last several years to “end welfare as we know it.”

“These increases are really very, very small in comparison to the overall size of the budget; however, it’s in both parties’ interest to exaggerate their size,” said former Congressional Budget Office Director Robert D. Reischauer, now a budget analyst at the Brookings Institution. “The president can’t really come out and say these are really a drop in the bucket ... and the Republicans can’t frontally assault these proposals, because they are very popular with the American people, so their attack has to be that this is the return of the big government monster.”

The majority of “new” spending in Clinton’s budget goes to the Pentagon. Military spending would rise from $265 billion in fiscal 1998 to $289 billion in 2003. Domestic discretionary spending would rise from $269 billion to $287 billion over the same period, according to Clinton administration projections. And his plan to “save Social Security first” offers a politically popular way to plow money into reducing the government debt. One Democratic congressional aide told Congressional Quarterly that Clinton’s Social Security policy made paying down the government debt “sound sexy.”

However meager, a program of expansion of education, health care and child care certainly fits with the public mood. After Judge Susan Webber Wright’s April “boys will be boys” dismissal of Paula Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton, the White House pressed the advantage against the GOP.

This sea change since 1995 has raised the possibility that the Democrats could recapture the House of Representatives in the 1998 elections. An April Pew Research Center poll showed that 52 percent of registered voters were inclined to vote for Democratic congressional candidates, compared to 40 percent for Republican candidates.

While the political picture today doesn’t guarantee a Democratic sweep in November, it does raise questions about the underlying sources of this support. Clinton and the Democrats are raising working people’s expectations. The gap between what people want from Washington and what Washington is planning to deliver is wide. Working people have to organize to force the politicians to deliver.

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