Politics & Policy

Bill, Ron & How The Good Times Got That Way

This president will take credit for anything that's not nailed down.

Clinton Claims Bragging Rights to Nation’s Prosperity” reads the headline of this morning’s New York Times. Indeed, if you could stand to watch the president’s State of the Union address last night, his gloating was stunning. Well, not stunning, as this is a president who will take credit for anything that’s not nailed down. And, to be fair, presidents of all parties love to take credit for economic success.

But that doesn’t mean we have to give it to him. I don’t want to get too heavy into an economic argument since, well, economic arguments are a lot of work and Joe has appointments elsewhere (Joe, by the way, is my belly. Everybody, this is Joe; Joe, this is everybody).

Still, there is time enough for a brief case against Clinton’s — and by extension candidate Gore’s — claims to economic bragging rights. “Next month, America will achieve the longest period of economic growth in our entire history. We have built a new economy.”

First, what do you mean “we,” kemo sabe? Clinton came into office promising to focus like a laser on the interns — I mean on the economy. His plan was a massive pork bill concentrating on roads and bridges — hardly the building blocks of the new economy I’ve been reading about.

Second, that “longest period of economic growth” that Clinton boasts of is 9 years. Pretty good, no doubt. But before you start sending him a thank-you card for making your new SUV possible, you should do a little math. Clinton has been in office for 7 years. So the idea that he fired the economic starter’s pistol is a non-starter.

TAKING CREDIT WHERE NONE IS DUE But that is not the way this administration measures success. Last March, Mara Liasson of Fox News and NPR asked the president the following question at a press conference:

LIASSON: Mr. President, your Vice President has recently been ridiculed for claiming that he invented the Internet and spent his boyhood plowing steep hillsides in Tennessee. What advice would you give him about how to brag on himself without getting in so much trouble? Pres. BILL CLINTON: Well, you know, he came a lot closer to inventing the Internet than I did. I mean, the — I will say this. First of all, you remember he was talking about the information superhighway 20 years ago…I think when I became president in 1993 there were still only 50 or 60 sites on the Internet. Now there are millions and millions.

Okay. First of all Gore “came a lot closer to inventing the Internet than I did.”

Who said Bill was in the running for the title of Internet creator in the first place? Does he think people are saying things like: “Well, Gore didn’t actually create the Internet but you gotta give him this; he deserves more credit than even Bill Clinton does.”

Second, since when does “talking about the information superhighway” confer credit for creating it? I’ve been talking about women’s prison movies and the French art of surrender for years. Does this mean I can get a production credit in Caged Heat 3? Simply because Parisians run into the hills every time they hear the word “sauerkraut,” am I the Al Gore of French capitulation? Clintonites believe that talking is the same as doing. They always have and they always will.

But more seriously, what does the number of webpages have to do with anything? Since Bill Clinton became president, the number of cell phones has gone up a thousandfold. Is that going on his résumé too? How about the fact that some ten million babies were born in the United States since he was sworn in; is he responsible for that too? After all, he’s been far busier in the baby-making department than he has been in the webpage-creating business.

SURFING THE REAGAN WAVEJust as the president showed up as the web was blossoming, he came into power when the economy was booming. Annual economic growth was already robust when he was sworn in — somewhere around 3.5%. Last night the president said, “Eight years ago, it was not so clear to most Americans there would be much to celebrate in the year 2000. Then our nation was gripped by economic distress, social decline, political gridlock. The title of a best-selling book that year asked: America: What Went Wrong?” All of that is true. It did take a while for the reality of the boom to set in, but that doesn’t mean Clinton is responsible for the boom itself. President Clinton listed all sorts of scientific breakthroughs last night. Like the webpages, these developments in the war against cancer, Parkinson’s, etc., are not the result of a president or an administration. They are social profit from generations of work and investment. Clinton — like most politicians — listed them last night as if somehow he’s been reviewing lab results and pointing scientists in promising directions.

Nor is he responsible for the halt in social decline. The solutions to our social problems were in the pipeline long before Clinton came into power. Welfare reform, community policing, restoring standards in the schools were conservative priorities and policies for the last twenty-five years. James Q. Wilson, Charles Murray, George Gilder, William Bennett, put these ideas in play when they were monstrously unpopular with the establishment.

President Clinton, to his credit, ran on the idea of “ending welfare as we know it.” But if that hadn’t been an idea whose time had come; if the American people weren’t speaking to him through the polls already; our weathervane president would never have touched welfare. Virtually every major social policy breakthrough in the last twenty years can be traced back to once unpopular conservative ideas.

John Maynard Keynes once observed that “the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.” President Clinton is a wily and devious man, but he is a smart one. The true triumph of the Clinton years is that he knew how to get out of the way of those ideas and let them do their work.

WHAT ARE PRESIDENTS GOOD FOR? Many of the more left-leaning readers of this column often charge me with hypocrisy when I write that Clinton — and presidents generally — do not deserve credit for economic prosperity. How, they ask can that square with my unabashed hagiographic recollection of the Reagan years? Well, I’ve figured it out.

The best president, or manager, or father is one who creates a positive climate. You don’t say a man is a good father because he makes his kids do chores around the house. You don’t say someone is a good manager because he created an ingenious vacation policy. Instead you look at the climate they create, the atmosphere of initiative and trust. You look at the expectations and priorities he sets for his kids or his colleagues. In short, you look for his philosophy.

This is what is so infuriating about the presidential race these days, especially on the Democratic side. All of these pissy fights about whose tax plan cuts X in outlying year Y, or whose health plan is more generous to diabetic old women with swollen ankles. This is not what presidential candidates worry about. This is what Undersecretaries of Labor hash out over coffee.

Unfortunately, because liberalism has become so sclerotic with programs for this, that, and even the other thing, Bradley and Gore can’t argue about first principles. They have the same philosophy: Government should do every single thing that polls, activists, or lawyers say it can. They both agree on the destination and legitimacy of the liberal-activist government; their only arguments are about the route and how much gas money it will cost.

REAGAN’S PHILOSOPHYRonald Reagan had a philosophy. He also knew how to create a climate. In the first moments of his administration, Ronald Reagan was presented with striking air-traffic controllers who wanted an unbelievably unrealistic wage and benefit increase. The New York Times (!) said in an editorial at the time, “the Reagan Administration has little choice but to risk the walkout and seek help from the courts. For a settlement on the union’s exorbitant terms would set an inflationary precedent for millions of Federal employees.” Of course, the risks were worse than the Times’s own assessment. And, the Times overlooked an option. Reagan could can their sorry asses. And that is precisely what he did. Reagan fired the strikers, risking a grinding halt to America’s transportation system and economy. The unions and their captive handmaidens, also known as the Democratic party and the national media, went ballistic. How cruel! How heartless! The press profiled dozens of Reagan’s victims. But he hung tough. After all, the Gipper was the man who, when governor of California, said of the Berkeley protestors, “If it takes a bloodbath now, let’s get it over with.”

Christopher DeMuth, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, and one of the smartest men in Christendom, has argued that this was Reagan’s greatest accomplishment. Why? Because it sent the message throughout the American economy that organized labor wasn’t going to spread the disease of Eurosclerosis in the United States. In places like France, unions to this day run the show (unless the Germans phone in new orders).

There was a very serious threat that the same rot of democratic socialism could sink into the pillars of the American economy (remember Nixon’s “wages and price controls,” Carter’s rationing). Reagan’s shot across the bow of the Left woke up corporate managers long accustomed to having the government siding with labor. Reagan stared down the creeping forces of soft-socialism and the American people cheered him for it. All of a sudden, corporate America got the message that they could undergo the painful restructuring that was desperately needed.

Of course, the termination of the controllers was part of a larger program of cutting taxes and deregulation. But it was this grand gesture — the equivalent of Dad going for his belt — that reverberated throughout the economy and the society. Critics who ask if the specific facts warranted the gesture miss the point. This is like Jesse Jackson screaming about how unfair “zero tolerance” for school violence is. The point is that the policy — even if “unfair” to the hoods and thugs he defends — represents a broader philosophy and climate.

America’s greatest presidents understood the need for such gestures — as all great leaders do — instinctively.

Take Clinton’s criticism of Sista Soulja during the 1992 campaign. This slap in the face of Jesse Jackson and black activists generally was seen as a similar shot across the bow. Whether it was a “fair” criticism was irrelevant. The fact that Clinton seemed at the time to be willing to confront this constituency sent a signal throughout America that he was a different kind of Democrat. Unfortunately, like so much else about Clinton and so little about Reagan, there was no sincerity to the gesture — it was simply good politics.

But other presidents have offered real leadership along these lines. When Teddy Roosevelt was elected he busted the National Securities Company, one of the supposedly pernicious trusts. He did this even though this specific trust had not abused its monopoly power. Roosevelt picked it because it was a famous company due to a high-profile stock trade. On the merits Roosevelt was wrong, and I’m sure many libertarians think that in this case the merits are all that matters. But Roosevelt believed that America needed to send a signal to a different vested interest than the one Reagan faced.

So-called “malefactors of great wealth” were polarizing the society along class lines. Roosevelt, perhaps suspecting that the real threat might be a socialist over-reaction down the road, let some air out of the plutocracy’s bubble. Whether he was right is an issue for the historians. But the fact is that the grand gesture went a long way toward creating a more equitable climate for America.

There are other examples. TR’s cousin, FDR, tried all sorts of truly awful ideas because he felt that American people required action in the face of the Great Depression. Any good economist will tell you that most the ideas in and of themselves were counter-productive. But they moved the country in a direction that FDR felt it needed to go.

Calvin Coolidge’s handling of the Boston police strike is often seen as the cxlosest parallel to Reagan’s sacking of the controllers. “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, at anytime,” declared silent Cal. Of course, Coolidge said this when he was governor of Massachusetts (I say “of course” because I looked it up and it makes me sound like I knew it already). But it was that statement that got him on Warren Harding’s ticket as vice president (Americans were sick of strikes back then. In 1919 alone there were some 4 million workers on strike, at a cost to the nation of about $4 billion). And it was that attitude that made Coolidge America’s most underrated president.

BACK TO CLINTON AND THE VICTORY OF CONSERVATISM.I think it is fair to call this the 17th year of the Reagan boom, because Reagan, like TR and FDR, created more than the sum of his policies. They all launched eras. Ronald Reagan’s specific economic policies were a mixed bag. But the direction he put the country in was pure brilliance. Until Reagan, all presidents stood on FDR’s shoulders. Truman, Eisenhower (who made the welfare state bi-partisan), Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon (who was easily more liberal than even the squishiest Republican congressman today), and Carter all provided more of the same. The New Frontier, the Great Society, and all of Nixon’s horrid programs were founded on the premise that the government had the right and the expertise to muck about with everything. Reagan changed that course dramatically. He swept the detritus of old ideas from the desk of the Oval Office and plotted a new course for the nation. Bill Clinton has tried mightily to turn the ship of state from the path Reagan set for it. But he can’t, quite simply, because he is not man enough for the task.

Clinton’s successful ideas are all borrowed from the Reagan Revolution and the movement that brought it about. As R. W. Apple of the New York Times put it in this morning’s paper, Clinton is simply a master of “Democratic spots on Republican ideas.” He came into office promising grand things but ended up proposing school uniforms and better food inspection. His bold scheme for “reviving” an economy in need of no such thing was scrapped because he couldn’t risk swimming against Reagan’s tide. In 1993 he bitterly announced to his cabinet, “we’re all Eisenhower Republicans now.” He was wrong, again.

We’re all Reagan Republicans now.

NOTE TO READERSMy apologies for making the above screed longer than a short elevator ride with Rosie O’Donnell. But I just needed to get this out of my system. Coming Monday: The Post Office versus McDonald’s. Jesse Jackson’s conspiracy theory, and perhaps an interview with Joe. Have a good ‘n and please check out Rich Lowry’s [Link defunct] (my boss, BTW) and Ramesh Ponnuru’s [Link defunct] (not my boss) dispatches from New Hampshire. In fact, I really do wish you people would come to this site through the front door. There really is a lot of sweet, sweet, stuff at NR Online, including our latest poll on Bill Clinton [Link defunct] (how much credit does he deserve for the economy?). But that’s a dead horse I know. Have a good weekend.


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