Battlefield Conversion?

Can the Washington, D.C., elites become any more irrelevant to the lives of the citizens of the United States? Our President has been reduced to a laughingstock by the investigation of his sex life conducted by an Inquisitor working hand-in-glove with right-wing zealots. The House of Representatives is ready to impeach the President if the Inquisitor can provide the Republicans with a pretext.

The media zero in on salacious speculation about rumored romps in the White House, then roll their eyes and scoff at Hillary Clinton's complaint that a "right-wing conspiracy" was dedicated to destroying her husband's Presidency.

What else would you call the cabal that includes Richard Scaife, the obsessive billionaire who has bankrolled much of the anti-Clinton muckraking (see Craig McGrath's story on page 6); the Rutherford Institute, which is bankrolling Paula Jones' lawsuit; and Rev. Kenneth Starr, who apparently has been working hand-in-glove with the Jones team to set up the President? By the way, Starr is poised to accept a Scaife-financed job teaching law at a seaside university in California whenever he has finished off Clinton.

We have been plenty critical of Bill Clinton when he has strayed from the populist themes that got him elected. He has bowed to Wall Street and the bondholders to the detriment of Main Street and the middle-class wage earners whenever push came to shove on economic policy. His administration squandered much of its good faith in his first term with deals to push NAFTA and GATT, and those deals helped move thousands of manufacturing jobs overseas. Now he wants "Fast Track" to pass more "free trade" deals that ignore worker rights, health concerns and even national sovereignty. He also presided over a "reform" of telecommunication law that allowed the further concentration of electronic media in a few hands. He endorsed the gutting of civil liberties in a misguided effort to crack down on potential terrorists, drug dealers and Internet smut peddlers. And his USDA is currently promoting regulations that would allow under the "organic" label bioengineering, toxic sludge, irradiation, antibiotics and non-organic feed for livestock and keeping animals in close confinement.

Any of those initiatives could have been brought by a Republican (and sometimes we wish they had been). But in his time of trouble this New Democrat has returned to the people who "brung" him: workers, women, minorities -- the old Democrats. In his closely watched State of the Union speech, he returned to populist themes: He proposed to offer Medicare to younger retirees, grant patients a Bill of Rights, subsidize child care for working parents, hire more teachers and increase the minimum wage by $1 over the next two years and use any budget surpluses to shore up Social Security.

The public responded by giving Clinton the highest approval ratings of his Presidency, making it risky for the GOP to pursue impeachment hearings based on accusations that emerge from the politically charged Starr Chamber.

Clinton cut short the GOP's plans for further tax breaks with his plan to "save Social Security first." The Republicans have been scaring the younger generations for years with pessimistic projections about Social Security and Medicare. Now the President is challenging them to do something about it.

[Progressive Populist readers will recall that we proposed a Social Security fix in December 1996 that would eliminate the $60,600 ceiling on wages subject to the Social Security tax. We also would exempt the first $15,000 of income for both workers and employers, making the payroll tax more progressive. Low-to-middle-income workers would get a $1,100 annual tax break, as would their employers, while the trust fund would net an additional $24 billion a year from the high-dollar payrolls to help close the projected shortfall.]

Clinton's proposed Medicare expansion is the GOP's worst nightmare: another move toward a universal health program. Clinton's new plan would let early retirees from age 55 to 64 buy into the government health plan. The cost -- $3,600 to $4,800 a year -- would be cheaper than most private insurance plans but more than most unemployed workers could afford. However, insurance for the unemployed -- who should still be relatively healthy -- could be subsidized and the expansion at least would get people talking about universal health insurance, which would be a step forward. [Note that Joan Retsinas offers a more pessimistic analysis of the proposed Medicare expansion on page 12.]

Among those working poor who have lost their health insurance, those who have been dumped into corporate "managed care" systems, and the doctors who are forced to work in those profit-squeezing health maintenance organizations, there is plenty of dissatisfaction with the private insurance industry that the Republicans are so proud of. A survey in January by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, conducted for the AFL-CIO, found that two-thirds of the general public named affordable health care and choice of doctors as serious concerns. Expansion of good old Medicare, where clients can pick their own doctor and their own hospital, would be a popular alternative. And if it works for those over 55, next we could cover children under 10. In a few years, picking up the remaining relatively health age groups, we could cover the whole country.

The Clintons gave the Republicans and the health insurance industry an easy target back in 1994 with health insurance reforms that required complex organizational charts. In comparison, expansion of Medicare -- a familiar program that has worked well to improve the lives of our elderly -- is simple. And Medicare for all Americans, financed with a broad-based tax, would relieve small businesses of a major administrative headache and expense.

Clinton estimated his "Medicare buy-in policies" would cost $1.5 billion over the next five years. Of his other initiatives, helping the states recruit and train 100,000 teachers would cost $7.3 billion over five years. Child care subsidies would cost $7.5 billion. The increase in the minimum wage would generate tax revenue. In comparison, spending on new weapons for the military would increase by $15 billion over the next three years, to $60 billion.

Of course there is a strong possibility that this populist rhetoric is just another battlefield conversion by the Comeback Kid, who will forsake the people as soon as the heat is off. But if Clinton is serious about providing a legacy -- or just staying in office for the remainder of his term -- he should hammer the Republicans from now until November on Medicare, Social Security, patient rights, a living wage for the working poor and child care for working parents. Maybe then next year he'll get a Democratic Senate that will give his nominees a hearing.

Wayne O'Leary, in "Those Generous Billionaires" on page 23, puts some perspective on the purported largess of the new billionaire class. The average household in the United States contributes about 2 percent of its annual income to charitable causes but low-income donors are proportionally more generous than the wealthy. According to the Independent Sector, a Washington, D.C., based think tank that monitors philanthropic trends, Americans with annual incomes below $10,000 donated 4.3 percent of their household incomes to charities in 1995, while those in the $75,000 to $99,000 bracket were giving 1.8 percent of their household income. Millionaires and billionaires become regressively more stingy but even a skinflint like Bill Gates can look beneficent if he flashes his bankroll in the right place.

Why not levy a "fat tax" on accumulated wealth over, say, $1 million? A 2 percent tax on Gates' fortune would generate nearly $800 million for the Treasury, bring him up to the average level of giving for American households and leave him with $39 billion. Is that asking too much?

-- Jim Cullen

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