Clinton at an Impasse

Clinton at an Impasse

Midway through Year Two of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the most striking aspect of his tenure in office is the demobilization, the silence, of the coalition that brought him to power. As far as the nineties are concerned, the Schlesinger thirty-year cyclical theory of American politics is turning out to be about half right. As in the thirties and the sixties, a mildly progressive Democrat occupies the White House. Unlike the thirties and the sixties, there is no mass progressive movement anywhere in sight to push the Congress and the president to the left.

It’s not as if the supporters of the progressive side of Clinton’s agenda aren’t out there, though. Mid-summer polling showed that between 75 percent and 80 percent of Americans favored government-guaranteed universal health coverage, and that, depending on how the question is phrased, support for making employers pick up the tab ranged from 50 percent (when small business was specifically mentioned) to the low seventies (when it wasn’t).

And yet, as I write in mid-July, universal coverage and employer mandates are both viewed by the political-media establishment as marginal, almost quaint, policy options, about as likely to emerge from the legislative process as, say, collective farms. As I write, the Democratic leadership in Congress is endeavoring to enhance the prospects for health care’s passage by lowering the amounts employers will be made to pay and raising the share required of individuals. There’s something breathtakingly counterintuitive about all this—except that, on economic questions that pit the broad public interest against an array of business lobbies, we have reached the point where mass sentiment is too demobilized to merit serious consideration.