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Don't blame me, I voted for Nader.

It seems like only yesterday that left-liberal-progressive-labor leaders from Gloria Steinem to A.F.S.C.M.E. president Gerald McEntee were urging us to vote for Bill Clinton so that he could "fix" the punitive and slashing welfare bill he had, with much rueful lip-biting, just signed. The argument was a subset of the theory that Clinton was secretly one of us in disguise, who, after a lifetime on the Democratic right, would burst from the electoral phone booth as Liberalman once he no longer needed to please every voter in the land except the people whose politics, according to this theory, he shared. I know some very smart English professors who believed this improbable scenario--proof, if more was needed, that books are not life.

Well, the great thing about predictions, unless we are on the editorial board of Social Text, is that we can test them. The election is over, the second term under way. How is the Liberalman hypothesis holing up? Clinton's second Cabinet is even more military-and corporate-minded than his first, with a weapons-system-loving Republican in charge of Defense, a Ron Brown protegee slated for Labor (so much for that $35 million lavished on the elections by the A.F.L.-C.I.O.) and wheeler-dealer William Daley at Commerce. Madeleine Albright as the first female Secretary of State may represent a giant leap for womankind in the Guinness Book of World Records sense--she's the highest-ranking female government official in U.S. history, which is quite a powerful statement about U.S. history. It's good to see her speaking up for the quick release of funds for family planning programs overseas. But does anyone even Betty Friedan, who energetically thumped for the Albright appointment as item number one on the bill for the women's vote--think her nomination represents a new, progressive, swords-into-plowshares foreign-policy initiative?

Clinton's budget calls for increased spending on school construction, Head Start and Pell grants. He also calls for enlisting an army of 1 million volunteers to teach children how to read. (I guess we've given up on the idea of having actual certified teachers perform this task. What's next, barefoot doctors?) The centerpiece of his education proposal, though, is helping families pay for college by offering tuition tax credits, a plan that will benefit those who don't need it (most middle-class kids already go to college) and do nothing for low-income students, who are increasingly unable to keep up with tuition costs, even with Pell grants, and whose rates of college attendance (only 8 percent of the bottom income quartile) have been stagnant for seventeen years. As for health care, a major topic in Clinton's first term as I seem to recall, he wants to cover half the 10 million children without health insurance--never mind the other half, let alone the more than 32 million uninsured adults. Meanwhile, on the bipartisan horizon: caps on Medicaid, cuts in the cost-of-living increases for Social Security and--the Holy Grail of former President Bush--cuts in the capital gains tax.

And what about that pledge to "fix" the welfare bill? For welfare mothers, the kind of fixes that might have made some difference--requiring that they be found living-wage jobs and child care before their benefits could be terminated, for example, and insuring that higher education and job training counted as work--were never even on the table. Instead, Clinton proposes another tax-credit scheme, whereby private employers will be subsidized for hiring people on welfare, a program that we already know doesn't work, and if it did work would merely mean that for every welfare recipient hired some other person in the low-wage labor pool--a student, a housewife, a struggling single mother--wouldn't get hired, and would have to go on welfare. Tax credits don't create jobs, certainly not on the gargantuan scale welfare reform will require over the next five years: more than 200,000 in New York City and 500,000 to 700,000 in California. We are not talking about a downtown hotel hiring a few extra chambermaids. For legal immigrants and the unemployed, whose plight under welfare reform, unlike that of poor single mothers, was an object of regretful presidential murmurs, Clinton suggests splitting the difference: Don't cut sick, elderly, disabled immigrants off Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid--just the ones who are destitute but healthy. Let the jobless collect food stamps for six of every twelve months instead of three of every thirty-six months. Don't knock 300,000 poor disabled children off S.S.I.--only 135,000. So I guess that Stand for Children march last June really worked.

Now, I get no particular pleasure in demonstrating the fallacy of the Liberalman hypothesis (well, beyond the considerable joy one always feels at being able to say the four most beautiful words in the English language: I told you so). Why? I know it won't make a bit of difference. Even as I write these words the same left-liberal-progressive-labor leaders who urged a vote for Clinton are preparing the ground for some other Democratic pol--Dick Gephardt or David Bonior or whomever--to trudge through the snows of New Hampshire as the Workers' Friend for the Year 2000. This candidate will be packaged to look like the antithesis of Al Gore, Clinton's anointed successor. We'll hear a lot of outraged thunder about the Administration's "betrayal" of unions and working people, the environment, the middle classes (defined so as to include everyone between the homeless shelter and the private yacht), retirees and, of course, "families" and "children." In the lefty think tanks, "identity politics" (minorities and women) will be out, "populism" (white men) will be in. But the arguments for the new fellow will involve exactly the same mechanisms of wishful thinking and blinkered memory, the same illusions about our political and economic systems and the role of money in both, that made supporting Clinton seem like a smart thing to do.

Just thinking about the next campaign--the fawning magazine profiles, the endless photos of the candidate modeling his collection of expressions (sincere, resolute, compassionate, just-folks), the fauxjudicious editorials full of friendly policy advice--makes me want to retire to the country and raise cats.
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Title Annotation:Subject to Debate; President Bill Clinton's social policy; Ralph Nader
Author:Pollitt, Katha
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Column
Date:Mar 3, 1997
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