The Beltway reaction to the Clinton economic plan could hardly have been more predictable. Democrats praised its main contours but took cover when the details came up. The Republicans flailed around pathetically, while the punditocracy expressed both admiration for Clinton’s theatrical skills and muted hysterics that taxes were about to rise on the people who write op-ed pieces.
William Safire called the plan “snake oil.” George Will waxed nostalgic for the days when no one talked about surtaxes on his million-dollar-plus yearly income. Unreconstructed supply-siders, including most vocally Evans and Novak and Bob Bartley’s wrecking crew at the Wall Street Journal, could barely contain their outrage over Clinton’s “spectacular selling job . . . in convincing Americans that they really want massive new taxes.”
Progressives viewed the plan with what diplomatic spokespeople like to call “cautious optimism.” In their eyes, Bill Clinton proved himself to be a president who, if not exactly a leader of progressive causes, is at the least sympathetic to progressive goals.
The question now is, “Can he pull it off?”
To investigate, I turned to authors Kevin Phillips and Paul Kennedy. Phillips’s 1990 book, The Politics of Rich and Poor, made it respectable to mention that Republicans had been waging war against the poor and middle class on behalf of the rich. His new tome, Boiling Point, predicts a middle-class revolt against both parties unless Clinton is able to restore hope to the country. Phillips, a key Nixon strategist in 1968, says he is still a Republican, though this is slightly less convincing than Sam Nunn claiming to be a Democrat.
Paul Kennedy’s recent book, Preparing for the Twenty-First Century, argues that the challenges facing the United States can only be solved in a global context and warns of dire consequences if the world’s most powerful nation continues to avert its eyes from population explosion, environmental destruction, and uncontrolled technological innovation. Kennedy believes that the Clinton plan is the first step in moving the United States toward an entirely new agenda.
First, Phillips and domestic politics:
Mother Jones: The Clinton economic plan is obviously a political document as well as an economic one. Politically speaking, what does he need to accomplish?
Kevin Phillips: There are two challenges: short term and long term. The middle class is willing to give up its own tax cut but wants the upper brackets to get nailed. For much of the middle class, it is now enough to show that the top 1 percent got hit hard and that the middle class is not the milk cow it was in the Reagan years. But in the longer haul, people will be looking for actual, tangible gains for the average American.
His principle political strategy so far is to try to split the middle class, to go for the lower two-thirds of the middle class–the fortieth or so percentile up to the seventieth or eightieth.
MJ: Any problems here?
KP: He has aimed so much of this at the upper-middle class, while the capitalist superstrata still have their lower capital gains rate. If you’re a millionaire, you’re a lot better off than if you’re a suburban orthodontist. This can be said to be increasingly unfair to the upper-middle-class salaried person. If the Republicans were more credible as an opposition, they might be able to make more out of that.
MJ: Is it possible for Clinton to pursue a long-term investment strategy that truly deals with the sources of our economic decline, or does he need to show results for the middle class right away?
KP: The Catch-22 is that he’s got to do something in the next two years that gives them the sense that things are brightening. Under the present budgeting arrangement, the deficit will stay high, and as long as they have that sense, many will prefer deficit reduction to vague government spending programs that don’t deliver for a while.
MJ: What advice would you give progressives seeking to move this administration toward its better instincts?
KP: Clinton, given his druthers, is somebody who would probably like to move in a more activist direction–especially if you think of this as a “Billary” administration. Given the limited voter turnout and the constraints of the deficit, you can make a good case from a liberal standpoint that it is not myopia but pragmatism to give the administration time to prove itself. That tax package is certainly a show of good faith.
MJ: Will it work?
KP: Will it revitalize the American economy? At best, it’s fifty- fifty. Will it stabilize the deficit? For a while perhaps, but what we really need is a surge in the broader economy. I’m not optimistic about that. But if the swing voters in the middle buy into Clinton’s class-warfare strategy–and they share his list of targets–he may still be able to pull this off.
MJ: What if Clinton fails? Where will we be in four years?
KP: The most likely result is further disenchantment with both parties. You would have an intensification of the talk-show phenomenon and greater anger against the “special interests.”
MJ: So our next president will be Rush Limbaugh?
KP: I don’t think so, because the right has no credibility on economics. It will be very difficult for a conservative movement to pretend to be populist while it still safeguards the interests of the top one-tenth of 1 percent. What is much easier to see coming into the vacuum is a Perot-type mixture of conservatism and liberalism that touches on all the soft points of the interest groups and the foreign lobbyists and the whole paranoid streak. An awful lot of people may say the whole thing needs to be blitzed.
Paul Kennedy on the globe:
Mother Jones: In your new book you’ve written, “The greatest test for human society . . . is how to find effective global solutions in order to free the poorer three-quarters of humankind from the growing Malthusian trap of malnutrition, starvation, resource depletion, unrest, enforced migration, and armed conflict–developments that will also endanger the richer nations, if less directly.” Can you predict the likely consequences of ignoring these problems?
Paul Kennedy: A global population of ten billion people will carry with it considerable social and political turbulences across many parts of the globe, and we will not emerge from these turbulences unscathed. I think there are three reasons why we need to be concerned. First, there is going to be a massive surge in population movements, owing to a combination of traditional, environmental, and economic refugees, and we are ill-equipped to deal with it. Second, I think we have to take the greenhouse/global-warming danger seriously. Third are the more traditional security-related reasons. Many of the places we see the exploding population and its pressures on land and water are among the most volatile parts of the world, where the West and the Soviet Union have sent large numbers of enormously sophisticated weapons.
MJ: Do you really think a global agenda can be sold to a country like this?
PK: When I finished my first draft, my initial reaction was: “Good lord, these issues are so complex and so big that it is really quite difficult to imagine American politicians–or any politician, really- -trying to do anything about them.”
Then there’s the position of the techno-enthusiasts like Ben Wattenberg and George Gilder, who say that so long as we let unrestrained capitalist genius do its magic, any problem can be solved. Of course these people don’t mention that 80 percent of the world’s population do not have access to market forces.
And there’s a third position, which is the urgent environmentalists who say, “What we need to do is to totally transform our lifestyle by banning the automobile, getting on a bike, stopping industrialization in developing countries, returning to the age of candlelight.” But that has no chance whatever with the American public, which can’t even accept a ten-cent gasoline tax.
So I ended up suggesting broad directions–improvement in development aid on a North/South basis; encouraging the transfer of sustainable technologies; helping to reform education and gender roles in developing countries. I’m not terribly optimistic, but the other three responses leave me no hope at all.
MJ: Even if you sold the president on your ideas, he might ask you, “Paul, look at what this country is. How can I possibly make that case?”
PK: (Long pause) I’m almost ready to say I take your point. But I think I detect a yearning in America, at least over the past year, for the country to be given some purpose again. Domestic renewal is clearly the first item on that agenda. But I think there is a great deal of anxiety about the way our blessed planet is going, too. And given how articulate and persuasive Clinton is, if he would only spend maybe 15 percent of his time addressing these larger and more dangerous global issues, there’d be tremendous benefits.
MJ: What’s your response to those who say we need another shock to the system, a cataclysm, before we can act in our own best interest?
PK: I don’t like that solution, and anyway, I can’t see the big shock out there. I think a slow burn is more likely–not only in our education system and social fabric, but also in the outbreak of this local crisis or that local crisis in the developing world. I fear the marines are going to be very busy in the twenty-first century.