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Jewish World Review /Jan. 25, 1999 / 8 Shevat, 5759

Tony Snow

Tony Snow The apogee of a trend

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) AT LAST, the kind of partisanship we can use!

Last week, with the impeachment trial proceeding and his political life on the line, Bill Clinton made a fateful choice. He threw off pretensions of being a New Democrat and used his State of the Union Address to make the case for adventurous, big-government liberalism.

Depending on how one does the calculating, he proposed anywhere between 75 and 85 new programs. He crammed so much into the talk that the White House distributed a 23-page small-print summary of what served as the basis for the president's 16-page, regular-type speech.

The president clearly views government as an instrument of salvation. He considers no personal crisis too small to command some share of Uncle Sam's time or the people's money. In that spirit, he proposed large things, such as ironing out the business cycle and putting a damper on global warming, and small stuff, such as producing "rapid response" teams to sweep into a town whenever a business shuts down.

He embraced the left on many fronts, especially the quest to broaden Washington's role in local schools, but he also threw scraps to Republicans in the form of defense-spending hikes.

Most breathtaking was his attempt to tie up every spare penny the government will take in over the next 15 years. He proposed about $2 trillion in new spending and another $2 trillion or so to prop up Medicare and Social Security. He even floated the idea of letting the federal government become the largest and most influential investor in the nation's stock markets.

It merits mention that virtually none of this stuff has any chance of passage. Congress won't turn Wall Street into the last refuge of political hacks. Nor will Republicans stand for many of the more aggressive suggestions proffered in Clinton's speech.

In that sort of principled gridlock lies the hope of reviving political idealism. Washington has become vicious as it has become more idle. There is a biological explanation for this. Lawmakers are a peculiar species. As a general rule, they store up vast troves of nervous energy and must be able to work it off regularly. It takes incredible stamina to run for office and carry out the endless duties incumbent upon lawmakers -- from greeting constituents to slapping backs at numerous and endless receptions.

If honorables cannot lavish attention upon matters of policy or state, they will turn toward the sport of destroying each other. The president plays the dominant role in setting the tone. He supplies intellectual grist by drafting legislation. The old saw notes of the law that a president proposes and Congress disposes.

Unfortunately, the Clinton administration took a powder after the health-care debacle of 1993-94. It continually presented legislators with a dust storm of small and uninteresting bilge, giving character assassins ample encouragement to ply their craft.

The impeachment trial marks the apogee of this trend. But once the Senate has lanced the boil, tempers will settle and politicos will try to restore some sense of collegiality.

The impeachment trial's final verdict, no matter what it is, also will mark the beginning of the end of Bill Clinton's political relevance. Democrats are fighting not so much for their president as for their party. They know they must survive after he leaves the stage. They also know that his removal could provoke an electoral wipeout.

Ironically, the State of the Union address supplied a convenient device for soothing frayed nerves. It challenged solons to debate how government can best promote brotherhood, decency, security and prosperity.

The president proposed the most assertive government in American history. That stirred Old Democrat hearts, and recalled the venturesome rhetoric and politics of FDR and LBJ. It also jolted Republicans back to attention. Sen. Pete Domenici, often a staunch opponent of tax cuts, quickly urged Congress to pare federal income taxes by $600 billion over the next five years.

Others in the GOP talked openly of taking a hatchet again to federal spending and letting workers keep their money. Not since the Reagan era have Republicans talked so openly or eloquently about the importance of placing fetters on Uncle Sam.

This is the kind of partisanship we desperately need. Politicians come and go, and so do disputes over what kind of people they are. But at the heart of any democracy lies the challenge of performing good deeds without stripping people of their money and freedom. This year's State of the Union Address, with its applause lines and eye-popping promises, put that debate back at the center of our political life.


01/21/99:What my 3-year-old taught me
01/17/99:Don't be fooled, folks
01/14/99: Must a pol be ‘baaaad’ in order to get elected?
01/12/99: Jumpin’ Jack (Kemp)
01/08/99 : Hot air in the Windy City

©1999, Creators Syndicate