Change in Agenda May Be Placing Clinton, Dole on Common Ground
President Clinton and Sen. Bob Dole have praised the same ideas so many times in the past few weeks that it’s easy to wonder if someone (White House political advisor Dick Morris, maybe?) is switching their TelePrompTer scripts.
Let’s stipulate up front that this reflects a fair amount of cynical posturing. Both men now say they support repealing the 1993 gas-tax increase and encouraging states to randomly drug-test all welfare recipients, which only proves that pandering can be a team sport.
But if there is opportunism in the convergences of Clinton and Dole, there is also opportunity. One reason Clinton and Dole so frequently find themselves in the same place is that beneath the rhetorical storms on the campaign trail and the staged confrontations in Washington, significant elements in both parties are quietly coming together on some of the central issues of government reform.
“What really may be happening,” says Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute, “is that the agenda of American politics is changing, and some people in both parties are rushing to occupy the new middle ground.”
Through that lens, some of the campaign’s confusing gyrations take on a different shape. Clinton has turned lots of heads--and inspired hoots from conservatives--by embracing such Republican ideas as limiting death row legal appeals and providing a tax credit to encourage adoption. But, without anyone questioning his character, Dole has echoed centrist Democrats by urging greater reliance on housing vouchers for the poor and tougher enforcement of statutory rape laws as a means of combating teen pregnancy.
This isn’t theft, it’s cross-pollination, and a reason for optimism, not cynicism. Ideological rigidity still constricts both parties, especially in the House of Representatives. And a full range of important, legitimate disagreements divides the two sides--as Dole and Clinton demonstrate when they’re not trumpeting peripheral issues (gay marriage?) or stealing each other’s lines.
But the crossed paths in the presidential campaign measure a growing acreage of common ground. And the opportunity for centrist breakthroughs on balancing the budget, restructuring Medicaid and reforming welfare is increasing precisely because the purists in both parties have so powerfully demonstrated the futility of an all-or-nothing approach.
In 1993 and 1994, liberal fundamentalists in Congress and the administration resisted many of Clinton’s promised reforms (particularly on welfare) and steered the debates over crime and health care to the left: The result was the Democratic debacle in November 1994. Then conservative purists piloted the new GOP congressional majority onto the rocks of repeated government shutdowns. Now, Republicans are staring at polls threatening a deluge this fall.
These parallel failures are opening the door for moderates on both sides to argue for a shift in course. “As [economist] Herb Stein once said, ‘When your horse dies, we suggest you dismount,’ ” said Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), who is in the thick of efforts to chart a path through the partisan DMZ. “What both parties are doing is trying to ride a dead horse.”
Armed with that conviction, bipartisan coalitions in both chambers are looking for new mounts to ride out of the swamp. In the House, moderate Republican Rep. Michael N. Castle of Delaware and conservative Democratic Rep. John Tanner of Tennessee have crafted a welfare reform bill that improves on the compromise plan the nation’s governors issued earlier this year.
Like earlier GOP plans, the Castle-Tanner bill would convert the welfare program from an entitlement into a block grant and impose a five-year limit on benefits. But it would provide states more money for child care and job placement and allow for more realistic exemptions from the time limit than the earlier Republican proposal. It also exceeds both the GOP and governors’ plans in preventing states from diverting money from welfare to other programs with more powerful constituencies.
Castle doubts the plan will get a fair hearing this year: The House GOP leadership is inexplicably committed to sending Clinton another welfare reform bill that he would veto. But if and when Congress finally overhauls the welfare system, probably in 1997, many believe that the final result could look very much like this blueprint. “You could have 85 votes in the Senate and 350 in the House for something like that,” said one senior White House official.
In the Senate, Breaux and moderate Republican Sen. John H. Chafee of Rhode Island have offered a similar welfare reform package within an overall plan to balance the budget in seven years. On most issues--cutting taxes, reducing the growth in spending on Medicare and Medicaid--the Chafee-Breaux budget charts a middle path between the Clinton and congressional Republican fiscal plans.
Breaux and Chafee cut less from domestic programs--everything from the FBI to the Park Service--than either Clinton or the GOP, correctly arguing that both sides are now projecting reductions larger than any future Congress would actually produce. They then bring their plan into balance by substituting a new source of savings: a half-a-percentage-point reduction in the annual cost-of-living adjustment in Social Security and other entitlement programs.
Breaux and Chafee mount a reasonable argument for that proposal: Many economists believe the consumer price index that determines the annual increase in benefit levels overstates inflation. And, privately at least, almost everyone in Congress agrees that entitlement costs must be restrained before the baby boomers retire early next century.
But adjusting the inflation index remains politically radioactive because it would mean smaller annual benefit increases for Social Security recipients--an idea most politicians welcome as much as a visit from Mike Wallace.
Which makes it even more remarkable that when Breaux and Chafee late last month offered their plan as a substitute for the official Republican six-year budget, it nearly passed the Senate. Surprising even its sponsors, the Chafee-Breaux plan attracted 46 votes--24 from Democrats and 22 from Republicans. Even in voting against it, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), the principal architect of the GOP budget, allowed that Breaux and Chafee had drafted “an alternative . . . that may some day become the budget of the United States.”
The Chafee-Breaux plan isn’t perfect: It still cuts taxes more than many budget analysts consider wise. And reducing inflation adjustments for all retirees is a less equitable way of controlling entitlement costs than accelerating the increase in the retirement age and aiming benefit reductions at the most affluent.
But the instinct toward centrist compromise that animates the budget plan (and the Castle-Tanner welfare proposal) is the right one. The overriding lesson of the past three years is that there is not a majority in the country willing to give either party a blank check to write into law its vision of the ideal public policy. Skeptical of both parties, Americans want them to compete and argue, but also to give: The public isn’t looking for gridlock, but rather a hard-fought consensus that prevents either side from steering over the edge and, even better, points them both toward fresh approaches.
Clinton is in such a strong position for reelection exactly because he learned this first. He is not running to prevent the downsizing of government, but he has rehabilitated himself with the public as the balance wheel moderating the worst instincts of both sides. In his vetoes, Republicans see defense of the status quo; but, for now, Clinton has convinced most Americans his real goal is to force both parties to meet him in the middle.
Dole could contest that ground: At key points in his long career, he’s reached out to Democrats and confronted elements of his own party on issues such as civil rights and reducing the deficit. Instead, Dole is pursuing the opposite strategy--attempting to polarize the race around sharp-edged wedge issues like “liberal” judges and illegal immigration. Dole may soon irrevocably commit himself to a campaign of ideological separation by proposing a large income tax cut anathema to Democrats.
That’s the playbook Republicans used to dominate presidential elections from 1968 through 1988. But it may be that in the 1990s, Americans are looking for a president who will bridge, not widen, the partisan divides. The urge for conciliation and closure that brought together Breaux and Chafee in the Senate and Castle and Tanner in the House is the same current carrying Clinton to his formidable early lead over Dole.
The Washington Outlook column appears here every other Monday.