Cleaning up after Clinton

By W. James Antle III
web posted January 29, 2001

The first order of business for President George W. Bush is to clean up after his predecessor, a task at which he has thus far been considerably more able than many observers had predicted - this writer included. The refuse Bill Clinton left in his wake is more substantial than the pranks and vandalism his staffers reportedly committed before leaving the White House.

President Bush's "legitimacy" is tarnished less by questions about the Florida vote than by the debasement of the office which took place under Clinton. The hostility and incivility that reigns in Washington is something decades in the making, beginning as far back as the Nixon years, and for which both parties are responsible. But it was worsened by Clinton's obsessive conduct of the presidency in campaign mode, which led him to inflame the bitterest partisan passions and participate in unconscionable race-baiting even as he was ensconced in the Oval Office.

Clinton defined his presidency, particularly following the defeat of his wife's health care reform bill, as being about him. He did not however demonstrate himself to be a particularly big man, continuing not just to indulge his narcissism but every flaw and foible that blemished his pre-presidential life in disregard of the demands of his office. In the process, he managed to make the presidency into a joke to a degree unknown in our history. Bush is now confronted with the damage that has been done. There were reports that Comedy Central toyed with a series that would have portrayed his twin daughters as lesbian lovers; this treatment of a sitting president is hard to imagine in the pre-Clinton era.

Bush, as is well known, has not been a saint. But he has so far conducted himself in a way that indicates he will make an attempt at putting his past behind him and rising to the occasion of the presidency, as he rose to the occasion of the Texas governorship. He differentiated himself from Clinton from the moments he delivered his Inaugural Address, which demonstrated far greater grace and humility than was characteristic of the man from Hope's orations.

In his first days in office, he moved decisively to right some of the previous administration's wrongs. First, he instituted a review of Clinton's last-minute regulatory binge. Second, he stopped the flow of US tax dollars to organizations that promote abortion overseas. Third, he got to work on cutting taxes to the benefit of an economy that Clinton took credit for when it was growing rapidly and dissociated himself from as it began to slow.

Marginal tax rate reduction is essential to re-igniting economic growth, as even many tax-cut skeptics, such as Newsweek columnist Robert Samuelson, concede. A more eminent tax-cut skeptic, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, also has endorsed the concept of across-the-board marginal-rate reduction as a means for stimulating production. If only he would disavow reckless monetary expansion, an economic renaissance could be well under way.

Americans are now devoting as large a share of their income to taxes as during World War II, and real-income bracket creep has penalized families for economic advances. Lower rates would increase after-tax incomes and investment returns and build an incentivized private sector capable of resuming its growth potential. Needless to say, Bush still faces opposition. There are those who prefer juggling the tax burden via complicated credits to reducing it. These are the people who oppose tax cuts in good times because it will "overheat" the economy and generate inflation, in bad times because it will detract revenues from needed social spending, when the government is in the red because it will increase the deficit and when the government is in the black because it will reduce the surplus. Throw in canards about Social Security solvency and the public debt, and it quickly becomes clear that there is no good time to reduce taxes.

Tell that to the American people. After a campaign where the media repeatedly stated voters did not want a tax cut, polls are showing upwards of 57 percent of the American people approve of Bush's proposed tax cut. According to the Gallup poll, 74 percent favor some form of federal tax cut. Exit polls confirm that tax reduction was a major issue motivating Bush supporters in the election. Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) has agreed to co-sponsor the tax cut with Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.). It should be noted that in the 1980s, President Reagan was able to reduce the number of tax brackets from 14 to two and the top marginal rate from 70 percent to 28 percent with help over time from the likes of Richard Gephardt, Dan Rostenkowski and Bill Bradley.

While Clinton's idea of being an "education president" revolved around the protection of school buildings rather than the children who inhabit them and bureaucrats rather than the students they were hired to server, Bush has introduced some measure of school choice (in the form of vouchers, no less) in his education reform bill. It is not exactly straight from the desk of Milton Friedman, but it is a step in the right direction nevertheless. Parents would get the opportunity to take their children out of failed schools and place them in private schools if that is where their needs would best be met. It is the sort of policy that produced concrete results when Bush's secretary of education, Roderick Paige, was presiding over real achievement in 90 percent minority Houston school districts.

"Voucher" is often employed as a scare word by those who see school choice as somehow detrimental to public education. This fallacy has been used successfully against educational choice initiatives on the ballot in several states in recent election cycles. But the fact of the matter is that if a portion of a school district's per pupil expenditure is devoted to vouchers, there is both money to follow that child to a school of the parent's choice and money left over for the school district. If the parent decides to relieve the school district of the cost of educating his or her child in exchange for a portion of that cost to finance the child's education elsewhere, this is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Stalwart vouchers supporter New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson points out that if a city in his state loses 100 percent of its students to private schools under school choice (a virtually impossible scenario) yet retains 40 percent of its funding, how is it that this program takes from public schools? In fact, such a policy would introduce competition into the educational system in such a manner as to likely improve public schools as well as private schools.

Perhaps most surprising is Bush's willingness to prudently employ the means at his disposable to the further the contentious cause of life. As the controversy over John Ashcroft's nomination demonstrates, this is not the politically easiest thing to do. It was not something Bush had demonstrated much fortitude for during the campaign, and it appeared likely to be the first thing he would jettison as president in favor of bipartisan consensus. Debating the nation's most divisive issues does not bring about handholding and choruses of "Kumbaya". Nevertheless, Bush has moved to restore his father and President Reagan's Mexico City policy regarding international family-planning funds and to review the FDA's approval of RU-486.

The Clintons may have been justified in stripping their jet of all presidential memorabilia on the way to New York from Washington. If Bush continues to govern with a balance of prudence and principle, it may be some time before their likes are again flying on Air Force One.

W. James Antle III is a former researcher for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based political consulting firm. You can e-mail comments to

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