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The Rabbi Writes: Bush or Clinton

The Jewish Humanist, October 1992, Vol. XXIX, Number 3

Bush or Clinton? 

Ever since the frightening Republican convention the choice has been very clear to me.  The economic agenda which won the victory for Ronald Reagan in 1980, has been abandoned.  The social agenda of the radical right, with its hatred of feminists, atheists, homsexuals and Jews, has taken its place at the center of the Republican stage.   “Family values” is the front cliche for all this hatred and meanness. 

The social agenda of Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson will win the hearts of a large vocal minority of the American people.  But it is not high on the priority list of most Americans.  Most Americans are worried about the economy and about their jobs.  Most Americans belong to the vulnerable and battered middle class who are experiencing a fall in their standard of living and who are losing hope in the economic future of America.  Most Americans now belong to “unconventional” families where women are forced to work outside their homes and where the traditional support systems are no longer available, even through prayer.   

The setting of this election is a terrifying economic recession.  This recession does not appear to be a short-run relapse like the recessions of the past.  It is a symptom of a major structural fault in our economy as it encounters new technology and international competition.  People are frightened and apprehensive.  They need to be assured about their jobs and their homes.  They need hope.  That was the genius of Reagan.  He always conveyed hope. 

This election has been both tedious and exciting.  The endless primaries were tedious.  The arrival and departure of Perot was exciting.  Perot was a major threat to both Bush and Clinton.  He seemed to have the power to galvanize the moderates among both the Republicans and the Democrats around a single candidate.  The moderates are the American Center, the largest potential political bloc in this nation.  The moderates are the people who are wary of the social agenda of the Right and the welfare agenda of the Left.  The moderates are the American middle class whose support is essential for a presidential victory.  If Perot had brought them together into a third party, he would have radically altered the character of American politics.  But he turned out to be an enormous disappointment, a billionaire eccentric with megalomaniac manners and with a skin too thin for ordinary politics. 

Of course, political campaigns are no cup of tea.  If an age where television images dominate and privacy is impossible, running for public office is akin to running naked in the streets with all your warts and pimples exposed.  There is no question anymore that is outrageous.  There is no personal detail that the public does not have the right to know.  Democracy and equality have removed any possibility of remaining a mysterious aristocrat.  Sleeze is the gossip of the masses turned into a political weapon.  You have to be a monk, starting in the womb, in order to plan a successful political career.  Or you have to be bland enough to have avoided doing anything interesting. 

The Republican concession to feminism is to have two wives offer their endorsement of their husbands.  Women blame the “kosherizers” of the social agenda.  Mean spirited Marilyn Quayle and her limited husband are two of the best reasons to vote for Clinton.  What if something should happen to Bush and these two darlings of the religious right should take over the White House? The thought is terrifying. 

Now the Clinton alternative is not all roses.  Clinton is an attractive, bright man with enormous political savvy.  He is smart enough to know that victory goes to the candidate who captures the Center.  Roosevelt sailed to victory with the Left and the Center.  Reagan made a winning team out of the Right and the Center.  Clinton has to do what Roosevelt did.  And he has a recession to help him get to the White House. 

Clinton’s stand on the social agenda is clear and morally correct.  He is in favor of privacy and personal choice.  He supports the protection of those who deviate from the traditional norm. 

His economic program is more vague.  He wants to tax the rich and relieve the burdens of the middle class.  He wants to use the government to mobilize the economy and to create jobs.  He wants to save money by reducing military spending.  He wants to replace welfare with workfare. 

All of these goals are commendable.  But they do not really address the central overwhelming problem, the crushing burden of debt which eats up more and more of the national income.  With an aging population the greatest burdens of our society are the middle class entitlements for health and retirement that expand relentlessly.  Continuing that process will not be easy, especially with the promise of unusual health care.  The test of his success, if he is elected, will be to stimulate the economy sufficiently to meet the challenge of these burdens. 

In the end, I support Clinton because I will not support a candidate who has sold his soul to the radical right and its reactionary social agenda.  I do not know whether Clinton will be better for the Jews than Bush.  After all, the reason the Shamir government fell and the peace initiative of Rabin could begin was, ironically, the relentless pressure brought by Jim Baker to resist the demands of the Israeli Right.  But the Israel agenda is not the major issue that we American Jews must confront in this election.  We need a president who will not be the prisoner of the crazy Right or the crazy Left.  We need a president who is willing to live with social changes that cannot be reversed and confront the fundamental economic issues that frighten the American public.  We need someone who will project sanity, caring, intelligence and hope.   

Given the options, Bill Clinton is our best choice. 

The Rabbi Writes: Gingrich v. Clinton

The Jewish Humanist, February 1996, Vol. XXXII, Number 7

Gingrich v. Clinton.  It is a battle to the finish.  Rarely has political confrontation in America been so intense and so nasty.  No holds barred.  Every opportunity to assault the “enemy” will be used.  Even Hillary is not safe. 

After two frustrating years for the Democrats and Clinton, the Republicans took over Congress in a stunning victory.  Both the House of Representatives and the Senate were in their hands.  Not since the end of World War II had the Republicans tasted such legislative power.  The Democrats were stunned by the size of their defeat and collapsed into depression and disarray.  Clinton was seen as the “kiss of death!” 

The Republican victory produced a new Speaker of the House, who very quickly saw himself as the new leader of America.  The alternative to a weak and discredited president.  His name and face became a popular sign of the “revolution” which he was now planning.  Determined to avoid the compromises of the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations, Gingrich and his 72 ardent new Republican representative wanted nothing more than to undo the legacy of the New Deal.  Sixty years of big government, the welfare states and outrageous defeats would not be replaced by a return to “American values.”  Gingrich called this proposed revolution the “Contract with America.” 

The challenge ws formidable.  Over the last sixty years the American people had grown accustomed to a benevolent government that dispersed a wide variety of benefits from poor relief, food stamps, child support, educational scholarships and health care service to farm subsidies and veterans payments.  Even the prosperous middle class had come to take for granted the comforts of Medicare.  After half a century the welfare state was no longer a radical new idea.  It had become the conservative status quo.  Tearing it down was ironically the work of “radicals.” 

The “radical” posture of the “Gang of 73” confronted old established institutions and expectations.  The radicals of the “Contract with America” proposed to restore the small government free enterprise of pre-New Deal America.  They wanted to eliminate the right of the poor to public support, to decentralize welfare, to substitute “workfare” for handouts, to shrink Medicaid, to make Medicare more expensive and less inclusive, to revise the regulations of environmental protection, to cut educational scholarships, and to close down entire departments of the government.They proposed to attack the enemy of runaway deficits and the threat of federal bankruptcy with the reality of a balanced budget. And they proposed to achieve this balanced budget with a substantial tax cut, which, they asserted a’la (sic) supply-side economics, would serve as a powerful boost to new investment. 

This economic agenda (conservative to some, radical to others) was to be accompanied with a renewal of traditional” American values.”  Quota systems and affirmative action would be rejected. Every American will be encouraged to assume responsibility for his and her life. And the “war against religion” would be terminated with the introduction of prayer into the public schools, a procedure guaranteed to boost ethics and morality among students. 

Despite the formidable obstacles of inertia and political compromise, Gingrich succeeded in turning most of this agenda into Congressional legislation. His determination and passion were greater than Clinton’s two years earlier. His energies were focused and his ability to handle hostility and rejection was more carefully honed than that of the President. He was a powerful leader with a “revolutionary” program, who was able to bring most of his proposals to the very desk of Bill Clinton for the president’s signature.  

Clinton now seized center stage by vetoing the legislation. He presented himself as a “conservative” who was defending the “traditional” rights of all Americans. The government shutdown. The poor protested. The middle class became nervous about the cuts in its benefits. Farmers and veterans had second thoughts about balanced budgets. Clinton’s ratings rose. Gingrich’s ratings fell. The political battle lines for the 1996 election were drawn. 

What does it all mean? 

It means that the political agenda of this country has been written by Gingrich. The idea man is Gingrich. Clinton is responding to the Gingrich initiative.Clinton has offered no clear competing vision. His strength lies in his defense of the status quo.  

It means that Gingrich may lose the election.  But he has won the principle. The principle is that the American budget must be balanced in seven years. Clinton has already made that concession. 

It means that welfare will never be the same again. Even if welfare is not decentralized, even if the guaranteed safety net remains, workfare is the order of the day. Wherever possible, long-run dependency will be replaced by some form of personal responsibility. 

It means that health care reform, the failed effort of the Clinton administration, will be pushed on its way by the cost-cutting moves of the Gingrich initiative. 

It means that the reform of public education will become a central issue for Americans on a federal, state, and local level. With a shortage of educational dollars, the way educational money is invested will become part of a radical new educational re-think. 

It means that if Clintonwins the election in 1996, he will win a platform partially designed by Gingrich. He will simply guarantee that he will do the same thing less abrasively and more compassionately. 

The problems with Gingrich are Legion. He has an unattractive bulldog personality, which always manages to convey the mean side of his character. He is a fighter who does not easily accept the political compromises that are necessary for success. He has tied a classically liberal free enterprise economic proposal to a reactionary social agenda designed by religious fundamentalists. He has naively assumed that the middle class and the elderly rich will easily give up their own welfare benefits. He ignores the fact that our environment needs protection and regulation. 

Above all, Gingrich has undermined the credibility of his balanced budget proposal by advocating a tax cut for the rich at the same time that he proposes removing the safety net for the poor. You cannot persuade the public to accept personal sacrifice unless that sacrifice is equally distributed. 

But the reality remains. The only visible politician with a clear vision of an economic plan for the future is the Intolerable Newt Gingrich. Bill Clinton is a status quo politician with no passionate focus.. 

I will not vote for Gingrich’s party or program because it distributes sacrifice unfairly and because its message of fiscal and personal responsibility is all tied to a reactionary and fundamentalist social agenda. But I recognize creative leadership when I see it.  

The Rabbi Writes: Bill Clinton Won

The Jewish Humanist, December 1996, Vol. XXXIII, Number 5

That hardly seemed possible two years ago.  Newt Gingrich was on the rise.  His faithful followers flooded the halls of Congress.  Both the Senate and the House of Representatives were given over into Republican hands.  The radical rightness of the Contract with America was popular.  The first two years of the Clinton presidency featured dramatic failures, especially the fiasco of health care reform.  The stench of scandal was rising up from the White House. 

But the ‘miracle’ happened.  Newt Gingrich overplayed his power hand.  He frightened the middle class with his ‘indiscreet’ campaign to tackle the cost of Medicare.  He annoyed many economic conservatives with his persistent effort to push the social agenda of the Religious Right.  He angered millions of Americans by his radical attempt to shut down the American government by withholding funds.  His bulldog personality, with all its insistence that change happen quickly, did not take into account the deep ambivalence of Americans about the role of government in their lives.  Only a charismatic Republican candidate could reverse the damage.  But, instead, the party bosses chose Robert Dole.  Had he been a Democratic ‘mole’ his dull schoolteacher preachiness could not have served the cause of the Democrats more effectively.  The Republican Congressional victory in 1994 was turned into a presidential defeat in 1996. 

Of course we have to be aware of the realities surrounding the Clinton victory.  Bill Clinton was elected by less than a majority of the Americans who chose to vote.  The Republicans still control both houses of Congress, increasing their number in the Senate.  Newt Gingrich is still the Speaker of the House,, with the power to dictate much of the legislative agenda.  The economic policies of Bill Clinton are almost indistinguishable from that of the Republicans, a phenomenon dictated by political necessity.  Many Americans who voted for Clinton expressed deep reservations about his moral character and complained about the unexciting choice they were ‘forced’ to make.  Even in victory, Clinton was faced with the threat of deadly scandal. 

So what does the Clinton victory really mean? 

It means that the Left is dead.  You can no longer win a political victory preaching the virtues of the welfare state.  But, at the same time, you cannot assault the established welfare benefits of the middle class, especially Medicare. 

It means that Newt Gingrich and the Republicans call the economic shots and Clinton follows.  Bill Clinton was able to win the election because he embraced a large part of the Gingrich agenda, from workfare to the shrinking of the government.  The defeat of Dole was not a defeat for Republican economics.  While the unions were instrumental in helping remove some Republican ‘radicals’ from Congress, Clinton ignored their economic passions.  The victory for North American free trade, engineered with the help of the Republicans, is a case in point.  Cooperation between the President and the Republican Congress on economic issues will continue. 

It means that only by embracing the moderate Center, where most Americans stand, can you win a presidential election.  The Left and the Right can only ‘win’ if they ally themselves to a candidate of the Center. 

It means that the ‘great reversal’ has taken place.  The American South, which at one time was the reliable bastion of the Democratic party is in the foundation population (sic) of the Republicans.  Twenty years ago the South voted Republican only in presidential elections.  Today they vote Republican in Congressional elections. The Democratic conservatives of the past have become the Repblican conservatives of the present and the future.  At the same time the Northeast, which until Roosevelt was a Republivan stronghold, has now gone over to the Democrats.  The political map has been turned upside down. 

It means that, while the Democrats are becoming more moderate, they are also losing their Southern right wing conservatives.  Many of these conservatives always voted with the Republicans anyway, especially on social issues.  The internal unity of the Congressional Democrats has been improved. 

It means that racial minorities are becoming politically more important.  The victories of Clinton in the Northeast and California were dictated by the overwhelming support of Blacks and Hispanics. Republican power in the past, especially its capture of the South, relied on its image as the party of white people.  But, with the growth of the non-white population, that image may, in the end, prove to be counter-productive. 

It means that increasing numbers of American no longer see themselves as either Republicans or Democrats.  They split their vote in the spirit of independents.  The stability of the old system, with large blocs of predictable party voters, is gone.  Long stretches of either Democratic or Republian rule will no longer exist.  The new fickle voting public has little discomfort in either mixing or repudiating.  Old time party loyalty is over.  Change is the name of the game. 

It means that the political era dominated by World War II has come to an end.  Robert Dole was the last presidential candidate who will have participated in the greatest trauma of the twentieth century.  The patriotism of that era (that) carried over into the intensities of the Cold War, is now not even nostalgia.  Most American have no memories of either war or conscription.  World War II is ancient history.  And so is the America of small towns and apple pie. 

It means that Bill Clinton may have a hard time in a second term.  A Republican Congress will not force the political advantages in pushing the Whitewater scandal.  The political victim of such an assault will not be Clinton-who cannot run again for president-but Al Gore, the obvious heir-apparent to the Clinton mantle.  The public needs to brace itself for Whitewater ‘burnout.” 

Above all it means the defeat of the Religious Right.  One of the reasons that Clinton took the moderate Center was  his resistance to the social and ‘moral’ agenda of the Republican party.  It is very clear that, outside of the South, the alliance of the Republicans with the Christian Coalition is not an advantage.  For Americans who fear the Religious Right this development is good news.