Cohen & Solomon: Clinton's Sell-Out

Wielding enormous power in Washington, he has done much to undermine federal workers and social programs. Several years ago, he jumped on a bandwagon that has become a steamroller, threatening to flatten many government agencies along the way. No, we're not talking about Newt Gingrich. Or Bob Dole. We're referring to Bill Clinton. For many weeks now, news media have focused on the Battle of the Budget -- pitting Republican congressional leaders against Democrats led by President Clinton. But the truth is that Clinton has already given away much of the store. Long ago, the president agreed to pursue a balanced budget while protecting huge Pentagon outlays, retaining corporate subsidies and ruling out substantial tax hikes for the wealthy. That leaves the rest of us to "sacrifice." When Clinton negotiates with Gingrich and Dole about how to achieve Medicare "savings," for instance, there isn't a lot of difference in how much they want to spend. What's more important is that they are hacking away at the program's structure. "Clinton has not drawn a line in the sand to retain the integrity of Medicare," says Dean Baker, an economist with the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute. "He's not really defending Medicare as a universal program -- he's just haggling over small dollar differences." The president "has already conceded most of the key points in the budget debate," Baker told us. In the case of Medicare, the Republican strategy is to chip away at the program by turning it into a multi-tier system: If you don't have the bucks, you may not have access to adequate medical services. "The issue is whether Medicare support pays for quality care in and of itself, or whether you have to kick in your own money," Baker observes. The GOP is eager to transform Medicare so that quality of coverage will depend on ability to pay -- and "Clinton hasn't taken a principled position against it." Meanwhile, the White House has already gone along with deep cuts in Medicaid funds -- more than 60 percent of which benefit elderly people in nursing homes. So much for Clinton as champion of "the middle class." During this winter's budget impasse, it's ironic that the White House has expressed so much concern about furloughed federal workers. Three years ago, with great fanfare, Bill Clinton and Al Gore came into office pledging to eliminate a quarter of a million federal jobs. That hasn't been among their broken promises. Much of the work has been contracted out to private firms -- often at higher costs to taxpayers. In 1992, Clinton campaigned to "end welfare as we know it." A few weeks ago, he balked at drastic legislation to decimate federal aid to dependent children. Yet, the latest word from the White House is that he might be willing to sign a welfare "reform" bill that ends the federal government's guarantee -- which has been in place since the New Deal -- to assist poor children and their mothers. If FDR spins in his grave this year, we'll have Bill Clinton to thank. As a New York Times article noted Jan. 2, "He has steadily retreated to embrace his rivals' goal of balancing the federal budget in seven years. This has meant accepting a level of cuts in domestic spending that Mr. Clinton's own advisers had repeatedly denounced as unthinkable." To hear White House spin doctors and much of the press corps tell it, Clinton has found his true voice by firmly defending social programs against GOP right-wingers. The truth, however, is that Republican forces now storming the federal ramparts have traveled over groundwork he helped to lay. Meanwhile, millions of decent-paying jobs have disappeared -- and they won't be coming back. Most of the new jobs opening up in the private sector are low-wage and dead-end. Soon after he moved to Washington in January 1993, Clinton made it clear that he saw no major government role for turning things around. A tip-off was his swift abandonment of a modest, $16 billion federal job "stimulus package." Since then, in economic matters, President Clinton has differed with Republican leaders on the numbers but not on the basic tenets of their political faith: "The deficit" is the devil, and a stake must be driven through its bleeding heart by cutting "entitlements." By now, Clinton has ceded so much ground to the Contractors on America that they have long since succeeded in defining the terms of the "debate." Only public pressure in support of popular programs has prevented further capitulation in the White House.

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