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The Politics of Ambition : Is Clinton Forgetting the Middle Class?

Kevin Phillips, publisher of the American Political Report, is the author of "Boiling Point: Democrats, Republicans and the Decline of Middle-class Prosperity," just published by Random House.

FIRST, THERE was the failure of Bill Clinton’s Inaugural Address to express concern about the economic burdens of middle-class Americans, which he so emphasized during the campaign. Then, he didn’t grasp that his attorney-general nomination of Zoe Baird, who hired illegal aliens to care for her child and didn’t pay their taxes, was unacceptable to ordinary Americans whose hostile calls flooded Washington.

The incoming yuppie Democratic Administration is starting to look like it has almost as much sensitivity to Main Street pocketbooks and values as the departing preppie Republican Administration. But what’s at issue is not just votes but character: Any turning away from the people who pay the taxes and play by the rules would raise fundamental questions about Clinton’s political integrity.

We are not talking here about a few casual promises. From roughly Thanksgiving, 1991, through Election Day, 1992, candidate Clinton conducted an extraordinary dialogue with America’s middle class: commiserating with their economic plight; decrying how their taxes had been raised while those of the rich were reduced, and promising all that would change if he was elected.

“Out there,” he liked to say, “you can hear the quiet, troubled voices of forgotten middle-class- Americans lamenting the fact that government no longer looks out for their interests.” These were not careless words. From the start, Clinton’s pollster, Stanley Greenberg, had identified a “middle-class centered coalition” as the key to Democratic victory. And it was pursued with enough shrewdness--and success--to put a smile on the face of Nicolo Machiavelli’s ghost.

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But now a new Washington game is afoot--raising revenue for new programs and deficit reduction. And the middle class, once again, is dumped as an icon and relabeled as a milk cow. The political irony, though, is that if Clinton breaks his tax-cut and no-new-tax commitments to the middle class under the banner of deficit reduction, he’s risking the sort of double failure that makes for one-term Presidents. In fact, Democratic Presidents usually stumble when they pursue the conservative, fiscal-restraint policies normally associated with GOP regimes.

Abandoning the folks in the supermarkets to reassure the yuppie professionals in the bond markets is a risky game. Most of the possible tax increases that Clinton’s economic policy-makers are weighing--new levies on energy, gasoline or employee health benefits, even a national sales tax--would offend swing voters the new Administration needs to please. But even this backlash could be small potatoes compared with the resurrection of lingering trustworthiness questions that have haunted Clinton since Gennifer Flowers batted her false eyelashes. His political integrity could be at issue on a new dimension.

Recall, if you will, Clinton’s TV spot for the New Hampshire primary: The candidate described how his comprehensive economic plan “starts with a tax cut for the middle class.” Together, he promised, “we can put government back on the side of the forgotten middle class and restore the American dream.” And when George Bush tried to drop his own middle-class tax cut, Clinton was outraged. “The rich get the gold mine and the middle class gets the shaft,” he charged. “It’s wrong and it’s going to ruin the country.”

Clinton’s courtship of the middle class--"pandering,” as Paul E. Tsongas called it--shifted into even higher gear in July, when Ross Perot’s exit from the race put his backers up for grabs. Millions of TV viewers saw the Arkansas governor stride to the podium in Madison Square Garden and accept the Democratic nomination in the name of the “hard-working Americans who make up our forgotten middle class.” He promised, “When I am President, you will be forgotten no more.”

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After the convention, as the Clinton-Gore campaign bus rolled across America’s heartland, so did the populist rhetoric. In Pennsylvania, Clinton said the GOP likes “to keep taxes low on the rich and special interests, keep them high on the middle class.” A week later, he mocked Bush’s 1988 campaign promise to “listen to the quiet people,” saying, “I have seen the quiet people crushed under the burden of economic policies that favor the very rich at the expense of the middle class and working poor.”

In the late October debates, Clinton again reaffirmed his fiscal commitment: No tax increases would be imposed on the middle class to pay for new programs. Earlier that month, he had explained the fairness considerations involved: “The truth is that middle-class Americans are basically the only group of Americans who’ve been taxed more in the 1980s and during the last 12 years, even though their incomes have gone down. The wealthiest Americans have been taxed much less, even though their incomes have gone up.” His words were true.

Indeed, middle-class Americans could legitimately interpret Clinton’s campaign as a continuing reaffirmation--albeit without “read my lips” insistence--of personal belief that the middle class had been savaged by the economic circumstances and unfair tax policies of the 1980s. His election would change this, Clinton said, and from Long Island to Los Angeles, suburb after suburb tore up its GOP record and backed a Democratic presidential candidate who spoke like no other they had ever heard.

Or he did until he had their votes on Nov. 3. Now, that empathy may be vanishing into the mists of memory. Under the pretense of being stunned by federal budget-deficit estimates that, in fact, were already circulating last summer, the Arkansan is putting aside his middle-class tax pitch and mumbling that nobody ever cared about it, anyway. But what about the voters in New Hampshire and elsewhere who responded to that TV ad in which Clinton promised his economic program “starts with a tax cut for the middle class?”

This is the backdrop against which we now have Clinton advisers talking about deficit reduction possibly requiring new taxes--a levy on excess employee health benefits, maybe a nice steep gasoline tax. These would fall most heavily on the middle class and working poor.

A supporting case could be made if Clinton had a serious blueprint for both deficit reduction and a fairness-spurred tax overhaul. He doesn’t. Moreover, if Clinton asks for significant new taxes on the middle class as part of a plan to bring down the deficit, the odds are on failure. Nothing in the Democratic Party’s record in the last hundred years supports an ability to override pro-spending constituencies and downsize the deficit rather than enlarge the budget.

Nor does history show there’s a Democratic payoff for Scrooge-like policies. The Democratic Presidents in the last hundred years who pursued “root canal” economics amid downturns--Grover Cleveland in the 1890s and Jimmy Carter in 1977-80--left a legacy of failure. Democratic administrations reap their glory in exuberant, activist times when public-sector dollars can flow; they function poorly in conservative economic roles.

In short, the new President is in a box. If he follows economic advisers who want to ease the deficit at the expense of the middle class, he’ll probably undercut himself politically. That, in turn, would detract from his ability to ride herd on Washington special interests, allowing deficits to grow like mushrooms under a rotten log. But to ignore the deficit to pursue traditional activist Democratic economics with dozens of new federal programs could send interest rates climbing and bring on another recession. There may not be a safe middle route.

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How ironic, then, that several times during the 1992 campaign, Clinton labeled Bush “untrustworthy” because of his broken tax pledges. Indeed, after Clinton’s New Hampshire TV spot, his media adviser called that ad an attempt to “break the cynicism people feel about the political process,” because “a candidate looks you in the eye, talks about the problems of the country.” Today’s backsliding is refueling that very cynicism.

Of course, it’s still too early to say that Clinton is breaching fundamental commitments. Future political events and circumstances could push him back to his middle-class commitment. That may even be likely. But it’s also plausible, alas, to speculate on the possibility of another national disillusionment--even from the first President to style himself as “the man from Hope.”


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