Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Educating Bill Clinton

President Bill Clinton arrived this week in Chicago brandishing a strong record of achievements in office and, just as important on the eve of the big push of the 1996 campaign, an extraordinary political intelligence and dexterity. With a relentlessness that has frustrated his opponents, he has co-opted the Republicans on one issue after another. Who says a Democrat can't slash the deficit, cut back on big government, support family values, cut taxes and take a hard line on crime -- or even agree to sign a punishing welfare bill that offends a lot of Democratic true believers? Clinton has done all of this.


In the process, he also has lifted nearly every albatross hung around the neck of the Democratic Party over the last 30 years -- starting with those named "tax-and-spend," "soft on crime," "anti-family" and "anti-middle class." Whatever else members of his party may feel about the president's politics, they should be grateful that he has bought them the freedom to do the progressive work that makes them Democrats. The question now is whether they will choose to use that opportunity.


The same method that has enabled the president to scrub away the classic Democratic stigmas also has given him a big lead in the polls. Through a strategy called "triangulation," he has taken a kind of straddling position between the Democratic and Republican camps that has helped deflect much of the Republican attack. It might have been a vulnerable position if the Republicans had countered with a strong campaign that presented the most popular parts of their agenda crisply, clearly and in harmony. But the president's opponents have so far lacked that kind of energy, initiative and organization. Indeed, at this point the Democrats' greatest strength may be their opponents' weakness.


As strong as the president is now, however, I have a concern -- not about whether he will win, but about what, precisely, a victory will win for him and for America. What kind of mandate for progress will his political success supply?


Triangulation is an exquisitely pragmatic strategy that carefully selects positions -- some of them distinctly conservative -- that have worked marvelously well to parry Republican thrusts. It also allows the president to stand firm on key Democratic issues, such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and a woman's right to choose. In effect, it is a chart that allows the president to step across troubled political waters a stone at a time, choosing a step to the right, a step to the left, then a step to the right again. But it does not necessarily lead us to a more upwardly mobile middle class or rescue those drowning in poverty.


It doesn't deal vigorously with education or training or fairer trade or incentives to corporations to help reduce the growing gap between owners and investors on the one hand and workers on the other. Beyond the salutary effect of deficit reduction, it leaves the president with nothing much to offer those who believe growth will require greater investment by both the private sector and government. In the lexicon of triangulation, any proposal like that smacks of too much government.


To deal with the concerns of middle-class workers and of the seekers further down the ladder, we need to do a lot more than we are doing. For a start, we need much more education and training; we need to devise a free trade policy that's fair to American workers; fewer tax incentives to send jobs overseas and more incentives to keep them here; we need to provide more secure and affordable health care; encourage pay for performance and profit-sharing plans; ensure pensions; and continue to boost technological advancement.


What if Clinton were to build his campaign on his strong and long-standing record of commitment to educational excellence? As governor of Arkansas, he led the way to revolutionary educational reforms in a state that needed them badly. And he has continued that commitment as president, with innovations such as a proposal to put every U.S. public school online.


On that foundation, what if Clinton were to commit to using his second term to do for American education what John Kennedy did for the space program -- to put us on the road to becoming the best-educated, best-trained people in the world -- and promised to report on our progress at least once a month for four years? A lot of what needs to be done does not cost money, but some investment would be necessary: The information superhighway is an intriguing reality, but it is -- after all -- a toll road. Public school infrastructure needs repairs that local governments cannot afford. Increasing the 180-day school year we now require to match the 200 to 240 days of our competitors' children will surely cost money. But education needn't be a budget buster -- any more than the space program has been.


More important, a major national commitment to education would help exorcise a number of our demons at once. What other single thing could we do that would help make us more competitive globally, raise our standard of living, improve the prospects of the poor and inspire a sense of national pride and accomplishment all at once?


It appears now, however, that Clinton's comfortable lead in the polls will leave him reluctant to do anything beyond what he has already pledged. If so, he will wind up, in effect, running on his good record, on his image as the mitigator of the Republicans' harshness, negativism and divisiveness -- and the weakness of the other side.


That's enough to make him president again, but it will not give him the lift he needs to surmount the obstacle of an intransigent Republican Congress.





Mario Cuomo is former governor of New York. This comment, which is adapted from a new postscript to his book "Reason to Believe," was contributed to Newsday.