Locked in the Cabinet
Whatever It Takes: The Real Struggle for Political Power in America
Trail Fever: Spin Doctors, Rented Strangers, Thumb Wrestlers, Toe Suckers, Grizzly Bears, and Other Creatures on the Road to the White House
In a speech in San Francisco last month, President Clinton announced three new urban initiatives. First, the Department of Housing and Urban Development will offer a 50 percent discount to police officers who buy homes owned by the department in neighborhoods they patrol. The program is designed to reach one thousand police officers. It will last one year. The second is a reduction in the points on Federal Housing Administration mortgages, from 1.75 percent to 1.5 percent, for first-time home buyers in inner cities. This program is expected to save twenty thousand eligible buyers about $200 each in closing costs. The third initiative is a demonstration program that will allow up to two thousand families to use federal rent subsidy money to buy their own homes.
This is the style of governance that has been adopted by a country that has the strongest economy in the world, has enjoyed five years of sustained growth, confronts no immediate threat to its security, and has almost completely lost its faith in public works. This style is not neoliberalism or neoconservatism, whatever those terms mean. It is something different, a kind of Government Lite. We want to improve conditions in depressed urban areas, so we show our good intentions by sprinkling a handful of federal fairy dust over them.
It is a style that enjoys strong bipartisan support. We think people should feel patriotic, so we pass a constitutional amendment making it a crime to burn the flag. We want to encourage the arts, so we give $99 million to the National Endowment for the Arts as a token of our esteem. (It is often pointed out that, at $99 million per year, each American is contributing only the cost of a postage stamp annually to the arts. It is less often pointed out that each American is therefore receiving a postage stamp’s worth of arts programming in return.) Our children are our future! We award a $500 tax credit for each child. Slavery was wrong! We pass a resolution apologizing for it. The appointment of a presidential commission certifies our acknowledgment that racism continues to be a problem of serious concern. School uniforms, tobacco-free All-Star games, television ratings: the country is in love with gestures. The only person who can’t seem to get his sins washed clean by a public apology is Mike Tyson.
The demise of the idea that the federal government ought to exercise its formidable power to amass and direct large amounts of resources to improve the quality of American life has many causes. Some Americans have become persuaded, by Ronald Reagan and his political epigoni, that they are overtaxed, and that public programs are a wasteful and even a counterproductive means of addressing social problems. Some Americans feel that reducing the budget deficit—which, in the absence of a willingness to raise taxes, means cutting spending—must be an economic priority. Some of the anti-government sentiment may be fueled by an unstated belief on the part of some white Americans that many public programs (for example, anything presented as an “urban initiative”) are essentially handouts to black Americans. The population is growing increasingly middle-aged, and consequently more conservative and self-satisfied. And many people, regardless of their age or their politics, do, in fact, think that symbols are important, that gestures are worth something. A culture, after all, is made up of symbols, and Americans tend to regard them very reverently. This is a country that has devoted a good deal of its creative energy to producing innovations in the art of the handshake.
Because he faced a relatively weak field in the presidential primaries in 1992, when a number of the better-known Democrats stayed out of the race after judging George Bush to be unbeatable, and because he won the presidency with only a plurality of the popular vote in both 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton is sometimes discounted as a kind of default president, a president who won his first election because of a badly sagging economy and his second because of a badly sagging opponent. The assumption seems to be that, under the circumstances, any Democrat, or any reasonably centrist Democrat (or, had he chosen to run, Colin Powell), could be president.
This seems a misestimation of Clinton’s significance. John McEnroe was said to have developed his tennis game specifically in order to beat Bjorn Borg, who was then the reigning champion in the sport, on the theory that the only way to become champion was to beat Borg. There was no need, in other words, for McEnroe to develop an all-powerful tennis game. He just needed a tennis game powerful enough to beat Borg. Clinton succeeded in 1992 and 1996 by blunting the strengths and exploiting the weaknesses of the people he had to beat and, more importantly, by responding to the diffuse, almost subpolitical mood that was out there in the country. He defeated Bush not because the economy was sagging, but because he made a sagging economy the issue, and he defeated Dole by the same strategy—by making Dole seem fuddled and inept. Clinton ran a stupefyingly empty campaign against Dole, because the more vacuous he sounded, the more Dole looked like a man swinging wildly at the moon. Dole ended up, in effect, knocking himself out. It was not a campaign that could have beaten Colin Powell, but Powell was not the opponent.
Successful politicians know how to play the cards they are dealt, and Clinton is the most successful Democratic politician of the postwar period. As a national candidate, he has no one in his own party to touch him; and although they may seem like the political equivalent of tomato cans now, the two Republicans he defeated (and defeated handily) were the most prominent and least ideologically compromised figures in their party. Clinton’s style, a weird combination of compassion, self-centeredness, uplift, and indecisiveness, is a style that seems to suit a politically fractured, intellectually uninspired time. If he completes his second term, he will be only the third president since 1945 to have done it, and the 1990s will become known as the Clinton era.
The Republicans maintained control of the House of Representatives after the 1996 elections, and this, too, has contributed to the sense of Clinton as a minority and reactive president, a man at odds with the political mood of the country. But the vote in House races in 1996 was almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats: 48.8 percent of the electorate voted for Republican House candidates and 48.5 voted for Democrats. The political mood in the country is schizophrenic, a fickle combination of me-ism and do-goodism, and Clinton is its representative.
From the beginning the question about Clinton was what kind of liberal he really was, whether his obvious pragmatism and opportunism were or were not in the service of a liberal core of principles. This question is the heart of Robert B. Reich’s book about his four years in the Clinton administration. Locked in the Cabinet is a smoothly written, self-serving, and (to put it mildly) somewhat embellished account, but it does provide a few artfully framed and telling glimpses of Clinton at work.
Reich was one of the oldest of the Friends of Bill. He had met Clinton on the boat to Oxford when they were both Rhodes Scholars. He had met Hillary Clinton even earlier, when she was an undergraduate at Wellesley. All three attended Yale Law School. Reich ended up teaching at the Kennedy School at Harvard. He was one of Clinton’s key advisers on economic policy during the 1992 presidential campaign, and after the election Clinton named him Secretary of Labor.
Reich’s politics were unmistakably liberal. His chief concern was the income gap that has been steadily widening between the richest and the poorest Americans since the early 1970s. To narrow this gap, Reich supported increased spending on social welfare programs, particularly job training. He proposed using the tax code to encourage corporations to behave more responsibly toward their employees—by letting workers share in the profits when times are flush, for example, and by helping them find new jobs when downsizing is inevitable. And he was a deficit heretic. He regarded the obsession with balancing the budget as a Republican plot, designed to make it impossible to fund the kind of programs he supported and to drive down interest rates for the benefit, principally, of Wall Street.
Once inside the Billway, Reich was not shy about pushing his views on job training and corporate responsibility—often to the exasperation of some of the administration’s more centrist members, particularly Lloyd Bentsen, Robert Rubin, and Leon Panetta. Reich had hoped to continue as Labor Secretary after the election, and evidently had Clinton’s support (at least there is nothing in his book that suggests otherwise); but his wife and children (he has two young sons) persuaded him to return to Cambridge. He now teaches at Brandeis.
Locked in the Cabinet has the form of a diary, but it does not quite pretend to be a diary. Reich explains that he sometimes jotted notes late at night and then, after leaving the government, “began to review and consolidate” what he had written. “Consolidate” apparently means “expand.” For the entries don’t read like jottings at all. They read like a series of carefully shaped vignettes whose details are all too clearly designed to point a moral or adorn a tale.
There is, for example, a great deal of direct quotation. Reich has pointed exchanges with other members of the administration; he interviews workers on the factory floor; he negotiates with the leaders of organized labor, schmoozes with congressmen, and commiserates with his unhappy wife, who is eternally complaining that Washington is a one-company town where everyone talks and thinks just like everyone else (as opposed to Cambridge?).
But almost none of the dialogue is believable. Everyone sounds like a character in a very conventional Washington novel—or a sermon. Workers explain how if there were only a real job training program in this country they could turn their lives around. Black teenagers looking for summer employment point out that a whole summer jobs program could be funded from the money saved by canceling the contract for one B-1 bomber. Democratic congressmen drone on self-importantly while inner cities burn and Republican congressmen rant shamelessly against the minimum wage. And our diarist manages, in almost every conversation, to comment thoughtfully and articulately on the growing gap between rich and poor and the need for public investment in job training, education, and the environment.
It is not surprising, therefore, that some of the people who appear in his pages have complained about finding Reich’s words in their mouths. One journalist, Jonathan Rauch, in Slate, went to the trouble of checking the book’s version of two events—a congressional hearing and a speech Reich made to a meeting of the National Association of Manufacturers—and found a number of discrepancies between Reich’s account and the official record, discrepancies mostly designed to make Reich more articulate and his opponents more pigheaded than the transcripts suggest they really were.