The debate is over
In national politics, 1997 was a year for complacency, the status quo, and "golf, golf, golf"
1997 in Review: News by Michael Crowley
On August, 1997, Bill Clinton made a telling pronouncement. "The debate,"
Clinton said, "is over."
Specifically, the president was talking about welfare reform -- and on that
score he is dead wrong. It is far too early to judge the real effects of last
year's sweeping new welfare law.
But in the context of 1997, his statement achieves a higher significance. In
its glibness and irresponsibility, "the debate is over" serves as a kind of
slogan for national politics in 1997. For this was a year of political
complacency, of the status quo -- a year when risks were dodged, tough
the year in
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Yes, there are grounds for a little complacency in America at the moment. The
economy is a dream. The stock market is on fire. Unemployment is at 4.6
percent, the lowest rate in three decades. People aren't clamoring for sweeping
change the way they did after the painful recession of the early 1990s.
But you don't have to look far below the surface to see underlying problems
that challenge our comfortable conventional wisdom. A December round of
downsizing at several big Northeastern companies was a reminder that job
security is still elusive for millions of people. Fifteen percent of Americans
still lack health insurance. Fourteen percent live below the poverty line.
While the economy soars, wages are flat and our disgraceful income gap
continues to grow.
And America is still fundamentally divided by class and ethnicity. Which
brings us to perhaps the greatest nondebate of all time: Clinton's "national
dialogue" on race.
Yes, it's admirable that Clinton wants to get us talking about this topic. But
his commission on race stubbornly resisted real intellectual discourse,
shutting out leading conservatives -- both black and white -- who represent
millions of Americans with doubts about affirmative action.
"I make a distinction between a dialogue and a debate," the venerable panel
chairman, John Hope Franklin, said last month. "A debate almost by its very
definition suggests controversy, wild and wide differences of opinion, and I
must say, I'm not interested in that."
Well, that's okay. Neither was anybody else. For most of the year, politics in
America was little more than a hollow shell.
Take that most defining act of the year, the so-called balanced-budget deal
between Bill Clinton and the Congress. When the pact was signed in June, both
sides bragged that this cure-all bill would erase the deficit and deliver a fat
tax cut at the same time.
It was a joke. Even as the deal was hammered out, it was clear that the strong
economy was well on its way to balancing the budget on its own. Washington took
the credit for that, but the only real achievement of the bill may be to throw
us back into debt when its back-loaded tax cuts take full effect in a few
There were, of course, many more ambitious ways Washington could have taken
advantage of these economic good times: we could have found more money for
college loans, for our United Nations debts, for job training. But that would
have required some real debate.
And no such thing was to be found in this do-nothing Congress, which produced
almost no significant legislation. Indeed, the biggest arguments in Congress
involved Republican plots to overthrow Speaker Newt Gingrich.
In foreign policy, the Clinton administration's pride was an effort to expand
NATO -- "a brain-dead Clinton move," New York Times columnist Thomas
Friedman called it -- that almost nobody in America understood, and whose
significance no one bothered to explain.
Who is to blame for this lethargy? Start at the top. In 1997, the Oval Office
was a place for sleepy satisfaction and idle distraction. This month, the
New York Times caught up with the president, only to find "a conspicuous
sense that Mr. Clinton is no longer consumed by big ideas and the prospect of
major battles ahead. Liberals and moderates alike described Mr. Clinton as
trapped in a risk-averse, aimless Administration of his own making."
Perhaps Senator John Breaux of Louisiana, a Clinton friend, best summed up the
president's attitude: "It's golf, golf, golf -- interspersed with politics."
In 1997, Clinton's idea of a wrenching public decision was what to name his
chocolate Labrador puppy (it's "Buddy," we learned last week).
Meanwhile, the man planning to succeed Clinton in 2000 spent most of the year
trying to stay as far as possible from anything resembling a debate. Until
December, the strongest stand Vice President Al Gore had taken all year was his
March assertion that "no controlling legal authority" governed fundraising
calls he made from his White House office -- a kind of "I am not a crook" for
Yes, Gore did join the treacherous global-warming battle by traveling in
December to Kyoto, Japan, to push for a world treaty limiting greenhouse gases.
But the man who once called global warming "the most serious threat we have
ever faced" initially waffled on whether the political risks of attending the
Kyoto summit were too great.
For a few days in the heat of summer, would-be ambassador to Mexico Bill Weld
led us to believe there might be a real debate over the future of the
Republican party. But Jesse Helms summarily gaveled that one to an end.
When the year opened, it looked as though the 1996 campaign-finance scandals
would touch off a healthy reexamination of the way America pays for elections.
But it was not to be. Fred Thompson's Senate hearings went nowhere. And just
when the panel was delving into the real substance of reforming the system --
at last, a chance to debate! -- the Republicans put the kibosh on it. Likewise,
House and Senate Republicans wouldn't even allow a campaign-finance reform bill
come to a vote. Now, with each new independent counsel Janet Reno
doesn't appoint, the scandals threaten to blur into meaningless white
noise from D.C.
Even the radicals were quiet in 1997. The conservative brigade that took over
Washington in 1995 has largely fallen silent. That's because their less insane
ideas -- balancing the budget, cutting the capital gains tax, scaling back
welfare -- now constitute mainstream politics. Their other ideas -- gutting
environmental laws, wiping out abortion rights -- scared the bejesus out of the
public. And so there's not much left for them to do.
The silence of the far right was nothing to lament. But where were the
liberals? With the budget coming into balance, now is the time to end the
deficit-era politics of "reactionary liberalism" and to argue on behalf of
government as an active force for good. And though good economic times might
seem to muffle the resonance of the left's compassionate ideals, there is
surely an effective argument to made for fairer distribution of the 1990s'
Early in the year, leading liberals missed these opportunities. Even Senator
Ted Kennedy voted for the summer balanced-budget agreement, which resulted in
slightly higher taxes for the poorest Americans.
But the center, as they say, cannot hold. By the waning weeks of 1997, the
left was beginning to show some spunk, and there was hope that liberals, at
least, might be bringing national politics back to life.
Take Bill Clinton's stunning defeat over the "fast-track" legislation that he
called "key to US leadership in the world economy." Clinton has tried to end
the debate over the wisdom of internationalism and expanding free trade. But
when he asked Congress for broad powers to negotiate trade treaties, he was
Labor was a key element in the defeat of fast-track. But more significant was
the opposition of House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt. Gephardt is
challenging Gore for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination, and
fast-track was a chance for him to highlight his economic populism and deal the
Clinton-Gore administration a public blow.
Expect a lot more of this sort of thing in 1998. In a speech at Harvard
earlier this month, Gephardt offered a preview of a coming brawl between his
wing of the party (liberal-populist) and Gore's (centrist-internationalist),
saying that his was "a different approach from some who call themselves New
Democrats . . . who talk about the political center, but fail to
understand that if it's only defined by others it lacks core values."
Core values are what Ted Kennedy returned to this month, when he offered some
of the best political ideas of the year in a speech at the National Press Club.
Kennedy argued for making "the benefits of a prosperous economy flow more
fairly to all our people" through such steps as raising the minimum wage,
reforming the regressive payroll tax, and trying new ways to recruit teachers
and make college affordable.
With good ideas like these, and a round of 1998 congressional elections ahead,
Democrats should enter the new year energized. This fall, Barney Frank told me
he figured the Democrats had a 50-50 chance of taking back the Congress.
Throw in the growing momentum of the 2000 presidential election, and national
politics just might return to life. It's already become clear that we can count
on rollicking, historic debates over global warming and Republican plans to
reform the US tax system.
And it was encouraging, in the last days of December, to see Clinton's race
panel salvage its credibility by sitting down with critics of affirmative
Even Clinton himself showed signs of life in the weak light of the year's
sunset. Trying to counter criticism that he's been lame-ducking it, Clinton
conducted one of the longest press conferences on record last week, promising
this: "All I can tell you is, in '98 it will be a more vigorous
year. . . . We intend to have a very, very active time."
Of course, Clinton makes statements all the time that never amount to
anything. But this time it looks as if the debate may be ready to resume.
Michael Crowley can be reached at email@example.com.