Nov 1 1994

Wines’ World: The Tie-Dyed Clinton

The front page of the New York Times Week in Review section is a platform that both reflects and helps set the conventional wisdom. Michael Wines, one of the Times‘ top political reporters, used that space on September 11 to amplify the claims by “Mr. Clinton’s loyal critics in Congress and Democratic research circles…that only a basic change of direction will revive his political fortunes.”

Wines’ unnamed sources call on Clinton to “govern from the center.” “They fear that his handling of many major issues has enabled Republicans to persuade the public he is the sort of tie-dyed, union-label liberal that voters shun,” Wines writes. “They argue that the only way to erase that stain is to pursue policies that can attract moderate Republicans as well as Democrats.”

You may be wondering just which policies “stain” Clinton as a “tie-dyed, union-label liberal.” After all, Clinton’s major legislative victories –like NAFTA, the crime bill and deficit reduction — have been in support of centrist or conservative policies. His administration’s major initiative, healthcare reform, was founded on the industry-friendly “managed competition” model rather than the progressive single-payer plan. When Clinton has taken a controversial progressive position, as with recognition of gay civil rights in the military, his economic stimulus program or the nomination of Lani Guinier — he’s retreated briskly.

Wines acknowledges some of these things, but discounts them. Even though Clinton has pushed “centrist legislation,” he

has won most of his legislative victories with few Republican votes, preferring to roll his opponents with the same coalition of unions, elderly and other beneficiaries of Federal protection that almost elected Hubert Humphrey.

Maybe that’s what happened in Wines’ world. In the real world, Clinton got his budget passed by dropping provisions that various industries objected to, like the energy tax and grazing fee hikes. He got NAFTA passed by including all sorts of breaks for business interests; more Republicans than Democrats voted for the bill. To get the crime bill over, Clinton ended up cutting the social programs that were supposed to balance the “law and order” provisions like increased death penalties.

Ironically, most of these concessions were made to satisfy conservative Democrats — the “loyal critics in Congress” who are quoted constantly in the press, complaining that Clinton doesn’t “govern from the center.” The Clinton administration has generally followed the center-right agenda of the “New Democrats,” which was supposed to bring voters back to the Democratic Party; since that hasn’t happened, the press seems intent on writing off the administration — regardless of the evidence — as another failure for the left.