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CAPITAL POWER STRUGGLE : Proving Government Works Is Still Democrats' Dilemma

November 20, 1994|Suzanne Garment | Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times Books)

WASHINGTON — OK, let's review the bidding. It's 1992. Voters are in a surly mood. Bill Clinton says they should vote for Change. They don't like Big Government. He doesn't like Small Government. He tells people there is a third, smarter way--a "reinvested" government that will perform for the hard-working, law-abiding, tax-paying middle class. He finesses the social issues, trumping them with economic appeals. He wins the presidency.

Two years later, on the long, hung-over day after the Republicans have creamed the Democrats in the midterm elections, the President holds a press conference. He remarks that when he first declared for the presidency, he gave a speech saying government should create opportunity and let citizens take responsibility for making the most of it. "They don't think we've done that yet," he says. He allows that his health-reform plan, as mischaracterized by its opponents, "looked like" it was "restricting the choices of the American people."

It sounds as if Clinton thinks he has a communication problem--to be solved by correcting public misimpressions. But the reason voters think Clintonites haven't "done that yet" is that they haven't. And it is not likely that they'll be able to.

Most critics of the Administration now attribute its non-performance to the incompetence of Clinton himself. He's too vacillating. Too wordy. He should get up off the mat and make a strong turn to the right. Or to the left.

Part of the problem indeed lies in Clinton's nature--but temperaments are hard to change. And the other cause of the Administration's failure is even less under his control. It lies in the nature of the Democratic Party, many of whose members have already started to blame Clinton for all their woes--the way they blamed Jimmy Carter in the run-up to the 1980 presidential election.

The midterm elections were not about "the economy, stupid." They illuminated a more pervasive voter anxiety. We just haven't been the same since the Berlin Wall came down, plowing under both the battered consensus about America's role in the world and the Cold War's guarantees of economic security in crucial industries. We feel competition from a world market. We fear a future where success depends on skills as arcane as Urdu.

And that's just part of the angst. Add in the anxieties that have festered for 25 years about the survival of bourgeois values. Liberal rhetoric and policy have addressed the grievances of society's designated victims by taking things, material and emotional, away from non-victims. Activists pursuing church-state separation have done so by denigrating the need for religion in public life.

Then there are the other symbols of loss of control--illegal immigrants; viruses with no vaccines or cures, and the big one, crime, fearsome in itself but serving as shorthand for all the public practices and institutions that fail to do their job of promoting public order.

When Advertising Age runs a feature, titled "Fear!", about the burgeoning commercial side of the perceived crisis, and Hammacher Schlemmer offers a $119.95 life-size dummy for your car so you won't look like you're driving alone, the preoccupation with the dangers of violence has reached an advanced stage.

We want our leaders to protect us against such fears. Yet, in these uncertain days, public officials can't know which specific demands the future will make of them. What they can do is provide a clear sense of first principles and shared values, so that citizens can identify with them, invest them with moral authority and trust them to make reasoned decisions.

Clinton--likable, supple, untroubled by contradictions--is not a protector. He has an ambiguous past; more important, he has not spoken out about this past from the perspective of a grown man looking back on his actions with a grown man's sober judgment. Citizens do not know what standards he would use to make such a judgment, let alone knowing whether they agree with him.

That said, we should not overdraw the importance of Clinton's failings. Inspiring confidence in government, and a sense that government "works," would be a long shot for almost any President reliant on the Democratic Party's political base and dominant thinking.

Take the matter of alternative lifestyles. Most Americans probably have some tolerance of these differences--but would prefer not to have them at the top of the public agenda, getting in the way of ordinary folks' atavistic desire for grandchildren. A prudent President would not begin his Administration with the issue of gay rights. But what President elected by Clinton's coalition could escape pressure to do so?

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