Bill Clinton, the Born-Again Liberal

Willy, we hardly knew ye. After spending much of his term of office on the fringes of the opposition camp, sanctioning such conservative causes as NAFTA, the balanced budget, banking and telecommunications deregulation, and repeal of the welfare entitlement, Bill Clinton -- Wandering Willy to his friends -- has apparently returned to his political roots.

In an about-face as sudden as it was unexpected, the president has emerged in recent months as a seemingly born-again liberal. First, it was his rediscovery last summer of poverty. Like Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy before him, he toured run-down Indian reservations and Mississippi Delta backwaters by-passed by the economic boom, calling for action to alleviate their plight.

Unlike his predecessors, Clinton proposed no big, government-based solutions and no public spending, but instead held out the vague promise that targeted tax credits would, if enacted, lure business development and jobs into areas of impoverishment. It's doubtful that the present Congress would ever pass the president's "new markets" tax plan, especially with elections looming, and equally doubtful that it would work. Nevertheless, the Clinton tour did place poverty once more on the national agenda.

In acknowledging the existence of want, the president separated his administration, rhetorically at least, from the Republicans, whose presumed standard-bearer, George W. Bush, has contemptuously dismissed reports that a significant number of his fellow Texans are going without adequate food, despite a U.S. Agriculture Department study to the contrary. The Lone Star State, says the recent USDA analysis, ranks among the nation's top four states in the proportion of its citizenry suffering malnourishment (over 12.5 percent) and is second in the proportion experiencing outright hunger (5 percent), the handmaiden of poverty. By denying these statistics, Bush has effectively denied the very existence of poverty itself.

Clinton has offered few good answers -- it will take more than some business tax credits to lift the needy out of their predicament -- but his recognition and airing of the problems of the dispossessed does imply that a solution needs to be found. That's one giant step back from the abyss of conservative denial. Ironically, it's also an indirect refutation of the 1996 welfare reform endorsed by the president, which has contributed in no small measure to the poverty he now seeks to ameliorate.

The congressional Republicans, whose welfare bill the president accepted, exhibit no signs of having second thoughts; they set out to punish the poor for being poor, and they succeeded. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, was motivated by a desire to inoculate himself in an election year against charges of being soft on Cadillac-driving welfare mothers and other mythical AFDC abusers. He now seems to be suffering from a classic case of liberal guilt, even as he hails the success of reform. Witness his belated efforts to "improve" the welfare law he signed and reverse its worst consequences, such as the highly publicized denial by individual states of food stamps and Medicaid benefits to those leaving the welfare rolls but remaining unemployed and below the poverty line.

The president's entire 1999 anti-poverty initiative, in fact, can be seen in part as a remorseful response to a harsh welfare reform that "worked" by cutting caseloads in half, but provided no serious follow-up to deal with the long-term results. It's easy to reduce welfare rolls; you simply throw people off government assistance by imposing time limits, work requirements, and penalties for noncompliance with arbitrary rules. That doesn't mean those dropped from the rolls have escaped poverty.

Indications are that most former recipients are no better off than before, even if employed. A National Governors' Association study indicates that close to 50 percent of those lately leaving welfare did not have jobs, and that the remainder were working at or slightly above minimum wage. Many may have simply joined the ranks of the homeless, like the deinstitutionalized mentally ill before them; we don't know because there are few accurate figures.

There is a regrettable American tendency, based on some concept of human perfectibility, to view welfare dependence as an easily solvable problem amenable to "tough love" solutions. Just push the poor hard enough, encourage them enough, berate them enough, punish them enough, and eventually they will all pull themselves up by their own bootstraps; welfare offices can then be closed. The truth is that an intractable minority of disadvantaged people simply can't make it in a ruthlessly competitive society like ours -- for reasons of genetic inheritance or extreme social deprivation. They can either be maintained at public expense, or thrown into the street. In his new liberal phase, Bill Clinton may be beginning to recognize that fact.

The Clinton anti-poverty offensive is only one indication of the presidentís newfound liberalism. Others include his push for HMO reform and a patients' bill of rights, his proposal to cover prescription-drug prices for the elderly, his plan to insure a portion of the medically uninsured, and his designation of threatened natural wonders as scenic national monuments. Most startling of all, however, is the president's abrupt reversal on the issue of global trade.

In an exercise in selective amnesia, Clinton went to Seattle and practically became a demonstrator. Expressing sympathy with those opposed to corporate globalizationís heedless trashing of international labor and environmental standards, for which his administration's enthusiastic support of NAFTA, GATT, and the present WTO bears large responsibility, the president seemed to dismiss seven years' worth of his own pro-corporate economic activism. "They are knocking on the door here," he said of the protesters, "saying, let us in and listen to us."

The upshot: Just as the liberal Clinton proposes to fix the flawed welfare policy of the conservative Clinton, the liberal Clinton likewise proposes to reform the flawed trade policy of the conservative Clinton. Calling on the WTO to put "a human face on the global economy," the president urged that the organization open its proceedings to greater public scrutiny, and add strict labor and environmental criteria to world trade rules. To safeguard workers, in particular, the new Clinton trade agenda supports creation of a WTO committee that would establish minimum worldwide standards on wages and working conditions, guarantee organizing rights, and ban child and prison labor. These revised rules of the game would ultimately be enforced by trade sanctions against offending nations.

The question that immediately leaps to mind, of course, is whether the president really means it. Does he genuinely identify with those suffering from the negative effects of globalization at home and abroad, or is he just sidling up beside them to, as it were, feel their pain? Is this the true turning of a new leaf, or is it Election 2000 strategy aimed at mollifying core Democratic constituencies presently lukewarm towards the Gore campaign? At this point, that's not entirely clear, but it certainly is fun to watch a master politician at work.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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