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The new Bill Clinton.

The New Bill Clinton

With A Presidential Race In His Future, Arkansas' Governor Strikes A Moderate Chord

These are, in some respects, the political salad days for Gov. Bill Clinton.

On the national level, he can go through the motions of running for president without having yet to accept the consequences that such a decision would bring.

On the state level, he can sing the praises of the recently completed legislative session without having yet to defend its actions. It is simply too early to tell if the new programs will work or not.

On the West Coast, the East Coast and in between, Clinton is recast in the role he so enjoyed during the spring and summer of 1987 -- that of potential Democratic presidential contender.

You remember 1987. Clinton was all over the map.

He was in Iowa and New Hampshire speaking to those states' Democrats, who are small in number but wield influence nationally due to their early caucus and primary dates.

He was in Los Angeles doing lunch with Norman Lear and other entertainment types.

He was in Washington testifying to Congress and visiting with Pamela Harriman.

We were convinced Clinton would run for president. A news conference was scheduled. Democratic advertising guru Ray Strother flew from Washington to Little Rock to plan Clinton's radio and television strategy.

Clinton reached the brink. Then, on July 14, he stepped back.

Now, the scenario is much the same.

During a single week earlier this month, Clinton was in Washington, Boston, Fort Worth and Baton Rouge. At almost every stop, the party faithful gave him standing ovations and urged him to seek the 1992 presidential nomination. Clinton is among a dozen presidential prospects invited to attend a June 13-14 party meeting at the Harriman estate in the Virginia hunt county and discuss strategy for the 1992 election.

It is the kind of attention and adulation that would boost the ego of even the most hardened political realist. This is the perfect period to be a politician on the national scene -- late enough in the election cycle that the press is paying attention, but too early for the media hordes to ask those dreaded "have you ever" questions.

This is also a nice time to be governor. Clinton is just a couple of months removed from a legislative session that saw the House and Senate approve his program with few exceptions.

It was a session that saw a half-cent sales tax increase and the application of the sales tax on used vehicles. The taxes will provide an average 10 percent increase in teacher salaries in each of the next two years.

It was a session that saw the gasoline tax increased by 5 cents per gallon and the diesel fuel tax increased by 6 cents per gallon to fund a $2.4-billion state highway program.

It was a session that saw a 1-cent-per-pack increase on cigarettes to buy vans for transportation of the elderly.

It was a session that saw an increase in the corporate income tax to pay for the reorganization of the state's vocational-technical education system.

The taxes have not been in effect long enough for people to complain. It's too early for anyone to examine how good a job state government has done implementing the 1991 legislative mandates. And it's too soon for the governor to be specific on any plans for the 1993 legislative session.

For now, Clinton can bask in the glories of his legislative accomplishments and worry later about whether the General Assembly's actions will produce concrete results.

The Good Times

On the state level and the national level, there has never been a better time to be Bill Clinton.

Following his November re-election, Clinton became the nation's most senior governor at the age of 44. In the bad times -- after his loss to Frank White in November 1980, after his decision not to run for president in July 1987, after legislative defeats in early 1989 -- Clinton can seem older than his age.

But in the good times, the governor can appear even younger. His boyish enthusiasm reminds you of the eager student who loves school and convinces himself he can make the world a better place to live.

Clinton sits in his Capitol office on this cloudy May afternoon preaching the gospel as he views it to an audience of two -- a visiting reporter and a press aide. Because the audience is small, Clinton does not speak loudly or gesture constantly as he is wont to do on the stump. He remains at his desk, occasionally pouring from a pot of hot coffee but not bothering to touch the cigar by his left hand. Still, he speaks rapidly, jumping from subject to subject, using the reporter's questions as cues to take off on lengthy discourses on his current philosophy of government.

You have come to find out if Clinton, who has received massive amounts of ink in recent months for the job he has done as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, has really moderated his views.

Is he a liberal in the modern sense of the word? A moderate? A conservative even?

The rhetoric certainly sounds moderate. Yes, the Legislature stuck Arkansans with a bevy of tax increases. Yet those increases were targeted for specific purposes, Clinton explains. These days, that is the name of the tax-and-spend game.

He points out that since the additional revenue won't go toward general operations, the Legislature could come back into session tomorrow and repeal the new taxes without causing state government to go under. He further notes that such targeting is necessary because voters no longer trust politicians and bureaucrats with their money.

If you tell them the money is going for education, health care, economic development, infrastructure development and the like, the taxpayers will agree to increases, Clinton surmises. What they won't do is write a blank check and allow some school board, city board, county quorum court, state legislature or Congress decide how to spend it. Taxpayers fear their money will be "frittered away," in Clinton's words, or spent on people who won't use the money wisely.

Realistic Yet Unconventional

Here, according to Clinton, is the targeted-tax message: "This is what it's going for. It will be there next year and the year after and the year after that. I'm not going to fool around with this money. If you give me this money, this is what I'll spend it on."

Clinton's sees this as a realistic yet unconventional view of the American taxpayers' psyche.

The conventional conservative view: No tax increases are needed. We simply cut back in other areas of government and apply the savings to priority programs.

The conventional liberal view: Government is providing more services and thus deserves more revenues.

The Clinton view: Ask for across-the-board tax increases and you'll be drummed out of office. Target those increases, and you might be president one day.

The middle class is fed up, Arkansas' governor tells you. Two things happened in the 1980s to bring about this attitude, Clinton says. There was an increase in Social Security taxes, which hit those in the middle especially hard. There was also the Reagan Revolution restructuring, which transferred the responsibility of government from the federal level to the state and local levels. Strapped for revenues, state and local governments boosted property taxes and sales taxes, again hitting the middle class at a time when their real income was declining.

"Incomes are stagnant," Clinton says of the middle class. "Their taxes have gone up. And they're being told they make too much to qualify for government assistance programs."

In other words, the middle class is madder than hell and not going to take it anymore. And Bill Clinton maintains that he has heard their cry.

"To put this problem into a national context, that's why we should lower the Social Security tax or increase the standard tax deduction for children," Clinton says. "We don't want to punish work, and we don't want to punish parenthood."

Clinton puts a lot of things in "a national context" as a presidential election year nears. He's not yet running for president, but without a doubt he's fine tuning the message. In addition to targeting tax increases and taking care of the middle class, an important part of that message is the efficient delivery of government services.

Clinton says government officials must begin looking at budgets in different ways. It is no longer merely a question of how much you're spending and what the deficits are. The key question now is how the money is being spent. In the present climate, politicians must prove to taxpayers that investments will yield a greater return than the debt incurred to begin a project.

The governor calls the federal budget a "murky mess" in which no one knows "how much of what is being spent is actually an investment in the future. How much is spent to develop new technology and build infrastructure as opposed to increasing the size of the staffs at the White House and Congress? We must change the whole way we look at government."

Clinton believes the new Omnibus Quality Management Law will allow the state to eliminate unnecessary levels of bureaucracy, re-examine programs and treat taxpayers like customers. He also believes such a program can be instituted on the federal level.

On paper, it looks good. But there have been thousands of government programs through the years that have looked good and not worked.

Clinton responds that since 1989, the state Department of Education has abolished 20 reports that were required of local school districts, saving districts statewide about 55,000 man-hours. He says that before a government agency produces a report, its employees should ask three questions:

* Does the law require it?

* If not, do we still need the report to cover ourselves in the event we are sued?

* Is there someone who really reads these reports?

"There are thousands of internal forms we can abolish in government," Clinton says. "And there are positions we can fill from within rather than hiring new people."

The governor reduced the mansion staff by 20 percent and his security staff by 20 percent.

But are his agency and department heads willing to go along with such restructuring?

Clinton pauses.

"They're coming along," he says. "The real trick is to get middle management to go along with it."

Clinton claims that if you take away federally mandated programs and take away the employees it has been necessary to hire because of a growing prison population, state government grew very little during the 1980s.

No Easy Solutions

The governor is a smart enough politician to know that a basic restructuring of government -- any government -- won't be easy. Political institutions traditionally are slow to respond to change. Government agencies are top-down, bureaucratic, decision-making operations heavy with administrative personnel.

"What I am trying to figure out is how you move as many state employees as possible out of middle-level management and put those employees on the front lines dealing with people," he says.

Clinton tells the story of how Xerox went from 1.6 administrative personnel for every production worker to .6 administrators for each production worker. He also calls Nucor Corp., which will operate two steel mills in Mississippi County by 1993, "my model." He says Nucor employs "only about 20 people" in a central office that oversees steel mills nationwide.

"Data-processing capabilities will have something to do with how quickly we can achieve our goals," Clinton says.

That's because computers help ensure accountability, allowing the middle-level managers to pursue other tasks.

"You don't need as many managers telling people what to do if you have computers informing you whether or not they're actually doing it," Clinton says.

He mentions that Wal-Mart's Sam Walton can come into work each morning, "pick up a computer printout on any store and see whether or not that store is meeting its goals."

For years, politicians have promised to "run government like a business."

Those politicians were usually conservatives for whom "running government like a business" was a euphemism for cutting back on welfare and other social programs. In fact, Republican Frank White used the "running government like a business" tactic effectively against Clinton in 1980.

Clinton says he's not advocating hurting anyone in need of aid. He's talking about "literally changing a culture, about re-examining the whole premise of government."

As the political buzzwords fly, the visitor is tempted to scream, "What does this mean? Speak English! Give us examples!"

There are hundreds of examples in the business world in addition to Xerox and Nucor, according to the governor. The recession forced companies to restructure.

It's time for government to take a cue from business and quit acting like a monopoly, Clinton says.

Believing It All

The more Clinton talks, the more the listener becomes convinced he really believes it all. Clinton is no conservative. He might not even be a moderate, depending on who is assigning the philosophical tags. But he's definitely delivering a different message from the one he delivered a decade ago.

Regardless of whether he runs for president or not, Clinton has more than three years remaining in this term as governor. Did he peak in the 1991 legislative session or does he have plans for 1993?

Clinton, of course, says he is not ignoring his job. He tells his visitor that he already is planning to focus his 1993 legislative program on three areas:

* Economic development -- "We need to scour the country for the very best economic development ideas," he says.

For several years, Clinton has maintained that the days of the industrial "buffalo hunt" are over, that small Southern communities can no longer attract cut-and-sew operations, shoe factories and the like with promises of a work force that will accept low wages. Those operations have moved overseas. The solution, he says, is helping existing operations expand and encouraging homegrown entrepreneurs.

The 1991 legislative session may have offered a preview of what is to come. The Arkansas Rural Development Commission Act established a commission and an Office of Rural Advocacy to target state resources to small communities and rural areas. The Legislature also created a small business revolving loan fund to provide loans to small and minority businesses primarily in rural areas, a revolving loan fund for the expansion of fruit and vegetable cooperatives and a linked deposit program to create a new source for agricultural and small business loans by allowing up to $50 million of state funds in lending institutions to be loaned to small business owners at lower-than-market rates.

* Quality management -- "We need to build on what we did this year and work to put more government employees on the front lines," Clinton says.

Restructuring will focus on the Education Department in an attempt to make it less of a regulatory bureaucracy and more of a support system for school districts. If that effort is a success, the next session of the Legislature might choose to concentrate on other departments and agencies.

"It would be difficult to go back and find a legislative session where more was done in more areas," Clinton says. "We didn't just raise money. We began the process of restructuring government along the lines of businesses."

* Tax reform -- "We must find more ways to give relief to working people and families with children," Clinton says.

He thinks this year's legislative session made steps in that direction by reducing state income taxes for about 374,000 lower-and middle-income Arkansans, which comes to 42 percent of the state's taxpayers. State income taxes will be eliminated for about 252,000 low-income taxpayers and lowered for another 122,000 Arkansans.

"We hadn't done much in the previous 20 years in the way of income tax relief," Clinton says.

The Legislature also raised from $12,000 to $15,000 the eligibility limit for homestead property tax relief for senior citizens, while lowering the age requirement to 62.

Finally, the Legislature provided a $500 state income tax deduction to families that care for totally and permanently disabled children.

Voter Backlash

Despite the relief measures, there are those who fear the tax increases approved this year will create a backlash, making it difficult for school districts, cities and counties to go to the voters and raise additional revenue.

"There might be," Clinton says when asked about a backlash in local millage and sales tax elections. "But I think we saw a backlash in the Legislature in 1989 because so much had been done on the local level.

"Any new tax is going to be hard to pass unless people know on the front end exactly how that money will be spent."

Whether Clinton will spend the next year focusing on the remainder of his term as governor or on a presidential race depends on numerous political considerations.

On the one hand, there are advisers telling Clinton he could be a contender. The Democrats need a man with a moderate message to offset the liberal image that has beset the party on the national level for the past two decades. They see Clinton as an articulate spokesman who can attract those on the right without alienating traditional constituencies such as blacks and labor.

On the other hand, there are advisers telling Clinton that the timing is all wrong for a 1992 race. George Bush is unbeatable, they say. Whoever wins the Democratic nomination next year has, in their opinion, purchased a one-way ticket to palookaville.

Whatever he decides, Bill Clinton has developed a fresh message. It's now a matter of whether Clinton will be delivering that message in Iowa and New Hampshire or to civic clubs across Arkansas.

PHOTO : A FRESH MESSAGE: Gov. Bill Clinton is not conservative. He might not even be a moderate, depending on who is assigning the philosophical tag. But he's delivering a different message now than he was delivering a decade ago.

PHOTO : NO MORE DUKES: As chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, Gov. Bill Clinton is trying to move the Democratic Party away from the message that led to the thrashing of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988. Clinton might seek the Democratic presidential nomination next year, but most political observers feel he is a better bet for 1996.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; governor of Arkansas' attitudes and plans for 1993
Author:Nelson, Rex
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:May 27, 1991
Previous Article:Conflicting accounts.
Next Article:First Commercial first in assets.

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