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SURVING THE SYSTEM : Cynics Have Only Disdain for Partisan Politics

August 08, 1993|Susan Estrich | Susan Estrich, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a law professor at USC. She served as campaign manager for Michael S. Dukakis in 1988

The only thing more difficult than pushing his economic plan through Congress may be the task that President Bill Clinton has now set for himself: persuading Americans that they should be happy about his narrow victory. What makes this difficult is not only the solid bloc who oppose Clinton's commitment to increase taxes in a recession, but the significant number disgusted by the political games that the President, the Congress and the two parties have been playing.

There are, of course, many Americans who already support the President and the Congress, who give Clinton credit for tackling the deficit and want to give him a chance to succeed. Unfortunately for the Administration, this group does not amount to amajority. That's why Clinton will be out selling.

There are also many Americans who cannot be persuaded by anything the President says or by any of the ads running in target states: They believeincreasing taxes in the midst of a recession is a recipe for disaster--with George Bush and the current recession as a case in point. If they're right, nothing else Clinton says or does may matter, anyway.

Which leaves the President the job of trying to persuade the cynics. The cynics are the people who think that business-as-usual politics is fundamentally corrupt, that everyone is represented except the regular people who foot the bill. From both the left and the right, cynics look at most politicians and ask: How dumb do they think we are?

Clinton won the 1992 election with only 43% of the vote. The difference between him and a working majority for change was the 20% of the electorate so disgusted with the usual partisan politics that they were willing to vote for a sometime-unstable publicity hound who gave voice, often brilliantly, to their anger.

Nothing has changed since then.

The President's approval ratings are up slightly from last month's disastrous lows, but he still must appeal to Perot supporters to build a majority. Doing that, while also getting anything through a Congress that is rightly the focus of so much of the cynics' anger, is no easy task.

It doesn't help, of course, that the President's point man in the House, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), was reduced an "I am not a crook" press conference as speculation built that he will be indicted for converting taxpayer money to stamps and then to personal petty cash.

Moreover, at a time when the country--and certainly the 20% of it that is up for grabs--seems to be turning away from partisan politics in a search for solutions to problems that cross party lines (witness the election of Republican Richard Riordan), the budget process itself turned into the most traditional partisan battle. The Republicans, spared by their loss of the White House of any partisan duty to work with the President, opposed everything; while Democrats, desperate to produce something, searched for the most traditional, least painful route to do it.

The proof of that was in the pudding: The result of all the Sturm und Drang of recent months is so similar to the 1990 deficit reduction package that, for all the talk of new directions, the comparison being drawn by the media is the worst one for the President. Clinton's plan turns out to be Bush's--with more honest numbers. And while that's not entirely true--Clinton's expanded earned-income tax credit for the working poor is a decided difference, though not a popular one--it is true enough to make a cynic shake her head.

What was missing from the process was any effort to re-examine government programs, and get rid of what we don't need and can no longer afford--no matter how strong the particular lobby. The President could not or would not try to convince Republicans and Democrats in Congress to put aside labels, to push aside special interests and to work together in a fundamental restructuring of government. While the income tax increases are retroactive to Jan. 1 (to cover revenue losses from all the last minute deals to woo reluctant Democrats), most spending cuts don't take effect until after the next presidential election. And, as far as I know, not a single government program was eliminated. That, we are told, will come next.

Nor were the special interests shut out of the process. Quite the contrary. The real-estate industry, for example, was rewarded for its support with a $300-million tax break in conference. The big energy companies are quiet now because they already won: The massive effort they launched at the end of last year to scuttle a broad-based energy tax succeeded. Bond traders couldn't be happier.

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