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Is Bill Clinton For Real?

Anointed -- prematurely -- as the front runner, he remains an enigma: a bold planner but poor manager, a conciliator yet sometime waffler. Still, many Democrats believe he's electable, and that's what they want.


January 27, 1992

A few weeks ago most voters in the 49 states outside Arkansas had not even heard the name of Governor William Clinton. And those few political junkies who might recognize it would remember mainly one thing: his introduction of the newly nominated Michael Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Clinton's speech droned on through 33 minutes that seemed about five times as long; the cheers that erupted when he said "in conclusion" appeared to toll the knell of any hopes he might have had to succeed in national politics.

Yet now, before a single caucus or primary ballot has been cast anywhere, the national press and television have anointed Bill Clinton as the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Some pundits are speculating that he might even have the prize locked up in another eight or nine weeks. Their script: Clinton uses a victory or strong second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary Feb. 18 as a launching pad to wins in scattered primaries and caucuses from Arizona to Maine, and then storms the polls in 11 states, eight of them in his native South, that will vote on Super Tuesday, March 10. The next day the Arkansan will have the lion's share of the 1,400- odd delegates chosen by then -- out of an eventual 4,282 -- and so much momentum that he can finish off any rivals who might survive that blitz in the Illinois primary on March 17. Going further still, many analysts believe Clinton is the Democrat most likely to beat George Bush in November -- which, in a fine example of circular reasoning, is precisely why they say he has become the front runner.

Well, now, wait just a minute. New Hampshire's cantankerous primary voters have a long history of giving a comeuppance to supposed front runners, from Harry Truman in 1952 (who lost to Estes Kefauver there shortly before withdrawing from the race) to Robert Dole in 1988. Even now, though Clinton has rocketed from 5% in a November poll of New Hampshire Democrats taken by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center to 23% in a resurvey of the same voters two weeks ago, he still trails "undecided" (26%). Similarly, in a nationwide poll taken last week for TIME by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, "not sure" led with 24%; Clinton tied for second with ex-California Governor Jerry Brown at 22%. But Brown, who started out with far greater name recognition, has probably topped out, while Clinton is rising.

From now on, most of Clinton's opponents can be expected to take dead aim at him, rather than scatter their fire against one another. And as he comes under close scrutiny for the first time outside Arkansas, Clinton may well be vulnerable on a variety of issues. One of them is his penchant for offering what sounds like detailed programs that on examination sometimes turn out to be distressingly vague. Nebraska Senator Robert Kerrey has already assailed the imprecision of Clinton's stand on health care, which is emerging as one of the hottest issues of the campaign. The Arkansan promises a plan that will combine insurance coverage of everyone with cost controls so stringent as to make the plan "revenue neutral": that is, it would require no additional tax money to finance. To some experts that combination sounds flatly impossible.

Then there are the rumors about womanizing that have dogged Clinton for years and resurfaced in sensationalist tabloids last week. Clinton called the stories "lies" but, asked point-blank by a New Hampshire television interviewer last week, "Have you ever committed adultery?" he replied, "If I had, I wouldn't tell you." He admits that his 16-year marriage has gone through some troubled times but says it is now solid. Friends, and even some foes, note that no one has ever been able to pin down anything.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the Clinton boom is a suspicion that it is largely an artificial creation by the press. Journalistic pundits are constitutionally incapable of confessing that they have no idea what will happen in a presidential race; they are irresistibly driven to impose some sort of structure on the most shapeless contest. Last year many were looking for someone to cast as the principal rival to presumed front-runner Mario Cuomo. They came up with Clinton partly because he seemed the perfect foil to a Northern Big Government liberal: a Southerner who took many moderate stands -- on education and welfare reform, for example -- and talked constantly about the "responsibility" of people who receive government benefits to do something in return.

Then, too, many journalists had repeated until it became conventional wisdom the idea that the Democrats have lost five of the past six presidential elections largely because they had become identified as a party of the poor, blacks, labor unionists, radical feminists and other special interests. Supposedly they could win again only if they chose a candidate moderate enough to win back middle-class voters, especially Southern whites. That idea was promoted most assiduously by the Democratic Leadership Council, a group headed in 1990-91 by none other than Bill Clinton. When Cuomo finally decided just before Christmas not to run, pundits of this school were pretty much stuck with hailing Clinton as the new front runner by default. Some who had complained endlessly about the interminable length of past campaigns are even beginning to grumble that this one may be over almost before it begins.

But Clinton can not be dismissed as a mere creation of journalistic fashion. Many Democrats did not need the media to tell them that their standard-bearer should be someone who cannot be attacked as a McGovernite liberal. Reporters on the early campaign trail have been struck by the number of party activists who volunteer that this time around they are looking for "electability" far more than liberal purity in a nominee. Clinton got himself cast in that role largely because he could present solid credentials: as a canny politician who has run in 18 elections (counting primaries and runoffs) in the past 17 years and lost only twice; as a Governor with a genuine, though far from unassailable, record of accomplishment; and as a candidate who says things the nation is not accustomed to hearing from Democrats -- support of the death penalty, for instance.

Like every politician who comes out of nowhere to hit the big time, Clinton remains something of an enigma, the more so since he often seems a bundle of contradictions: a visionary leader and a poor manager; a propounder of bold programs and a waffler who talks on both sides of hot issues. All of which raises the insistent question: Is Clinton for real -- not only as front runner but as man, as Governor, as candidate? An attempt at some answers:


Though Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, tongue in cheek, introduced Clinton at a meeting two years ago as "the only politician to be a rising star in three decades," he knew pain and adversity in childhood. His father, a heavy- equipment salesman, was killed in a freak road accident three months before Clinton -- originally christened William J. Blythe IV -- was born on Aug. 19, 1946, in the little southwestern Arkansas town of Hope. Five months later, his mother Virginia returned to nursing school in Shreveport, La., to get a degree in anesthesiology, leaving Bill with grandparents who ran a small grocery store. When Bill was four, she returned to Hope and married Roger Clinton, a Buick dealer who moved the family to Hot Springs. Bill's stepfather was an alcoholic who sometimes beat Virginia and once fired a gun at her in their living room (she insists to this day he intended only to frighten, not to injure, her). Virginia and Roger divorced but quickly remarried; as a gesture to help keep the family together, Bill, then 15, had his name legally changed to Clinton.

The turmoil at home seems to have left two imprints on Clinton. One was a driving ambition to get out and make something of himself in the big world, initially by being the perfect student. As a high schooler, he was selected a senator in Boys Nation, an annual promotion by the American Legion in Washington, and he got to visit the White House and meet President Kennedy. He came home starry-eyed and fixed on politics as his career. He enrolled at Georgetown University largely to be near the Congress he hoped one day to enter. Then came Oxford, on a Rhodes scholarship, and Yale Law School, where he met the brightest woman in the class, Hillary Rodham -- today a successful lawyer and a feminist who did not call herself Mrs. Clinton until her unwillingness to do so began to hurt her husband politically.

Back home, Clinton lost a race for Congress but became state attorney general and in 1979, at 32, the youngest Governor in the country. Two years later, he was the youngest ex-Governor; he had impressed some of his constituents as an arrogant whiz kid who had surrounded himself with a bunch of outsiders who looked on Arkansans as barefoot hicks. In 1982 a chastened Clinton came back, apologizing to voters for developing a swelled head but vowing to reform; he has won every election since.

The 1980 defeat also intensified a trait that is universally considered Clinton's greatest weakness. Even as a young teenager, he recalls, he often felt compelled to act as a peacemaker, trying to smooth over the violent quarrels at home. As a politician, he wants to be loved by everyone even more than most practitioners of his trade. Says Stephen Smith, a professor of communications at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and onetime Clinton aide: "He would really like to get 100% in an election." Clinton makes such extreme efforts to conciliate opponents that Arkansans jest that the way to get something you want desperately is to become an enemy of the Governor's.

Clinton's compromising bent also makes him appear at times to take both sides of a controversial issue. To cite the most prominent current example, he claims to be the only Democratic candidate to have backed George Bush early and unreservedly on the gulf war. But on Jan. 15, 1991, the war deadline, the Arkansas Gazette quoted him as saying that he agreed with the majority of Democrats in Congress who voted against the use of force and for longer reliance on sanctions.

Asked to explain, Clinton launches into a convoluted exposition: "The people who argued that sanctions should be given more time had some good arguments," but he thought and said it would be wrong to vote "to undermine the U.N. resolution" allowing the use of force; he did not trumpet that opinion because he was a Governor, not a member of Congress, and "I didn't want to give any extra grief to my two Senators and my Congressmen, who had a tough vote to cast"; looking back, though, it seems clear that "sanctions would not have worked to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait."

Such performances lead opponents to call Clinton "Slick Willie." In the partisan opinion of Sheffield Nelson, who lost the 1990 gubernatorial race to Clinton, "He'll be what the people want him to be. He'll do or say what it will take to get elected." Supporters retort that Clinton has merely learned the arts of building coalitions and crafting compromises between opposing views, as a Governor -- or President -- must. True, but a President also should be tough enough to knock heads together on occasion, and Clinton has given little evidence of that ability.


Clinton has shown a rare talent for sniffing out issues and acting on them at a state level before they become hot nationally. Early in his tenure, when some experts rated Arkansas' schools the worst in the nation, he pushed through a reform package combining increased spending with standards that all schools had to meet. Most famously, he instituted competency tests for teachers. The exams were not especially difficult; 93% of teachers passed the first time around and 97% passed the second time. But Clinton's supporters claim that many teachers were required to take new courses to improve their skills. In any case it is hard to argue with the results: the percentage of Arkansas high schoolers going on to college, which was only 39% a decade ago, has increased to almost 52%.

Clinton also has made several reforms carrying out his "responsibility" theme: parents who do not attend parent-teacher meetings are fined $50 for each one missed, and students who drop out of school can have their drivers' license suspended (1,000 have been since 1989). Furthermore, the Governor has implemented a welfare-reform plan, requiring able-bodied recipients to undergo training or schooling, and imposing penalties if they do not. So far, the results are inconclusive, but critics say the plan has been sabotaged by the state's sluggish welfare bureaucracy.

If true, that would point up what many critics, and some friends, consider Clinton's greatest executive weakness: he is a poor manager who conceives good programs but does not see that they are carried out. A lawsuit filed against the state and Clinton personally last July charges that the Arkansas child- welfare system is riddled with abuse and neglect; children placed in foster care have been mistreated, and some have even died. The problems have been festering for at least a decade, but Clinton paid scant attention. Last summer he appointed a task force (quintessential Clinton: his first response to almost any hot problem is to appoint a task force or study commission), and since then he has been working to repair the system. He hopes to reach a settlement before the suit comes to trial, now scheduled for March, and plans to call a special session of the legislature to enact reforms.

Liberals contend that Clinton inherited a regressive tax structure (it presses harder on the poor than on the well-off) and made it more regressive by raising sales taxes while largely leaving alone income and business levies. Clinton replies, correctly, that the state constitution requires a nearly unobtainable 75% vote of the legislature to raise any tax other than the sales levy and, more dubiously, that he sought to change that and failed (critics say he did not make anywhere near the effort required). Characteristically, though, he adds, "What I've tried to do is to promote tax reform but also to give people what they wanted." Arkansas polls have consistently shown property taxes to be most unpopular, income taxes second, sales taxes the least hated.

Overall, Arkansas remains a dirt-poor state, but during Clinton's tenure it has been rising, relative to the other 49, slowly but measurably in some rankings of well-being. In a 1991 poll, the nation's Governors were asked which collegue they would rate the most effective; Clinton got more votes (39%) than anyone else. That, however, is not necessarily an omen of national success. Two years before the last presidential election, the same accolade went to Dukakis.


Press puffery apart, Clinton has got off to an impressive start. He has improved immensely as an orator; his latest efforts have been smooth, colloquial and graced with a touch of self-deprecating humor. He has raised more money (close to $4 million) than any of his rivals, and on grounds of electability has won the sympathetic interest, if not outright backing, of teacher groups and labor unions that might ordinarily prefer a more liberal candidate.

But how cogent is his program? His proposals are more detailed than usual for candidates at this stage and contain nothing that seems flagrantly silly. Most are at worst debatable, and they do hang together rather than contradict one another. Some specifics:

  • Taxes. Like two of the other candidates, Clinton promises a middle-class tax cut, but he has at least thought it out. His idea: reduce the tax rates on income up to $82,150 from 15% and 28% now to 13.5% and 26.5%; keep the present 31% rate on further income up to $200,000 but raise it to 38.5% on amounts above that. Supposedly these changes would collect the same amount of revenue as the present rates, but more equitably. Clinton also would allow entrepreneurs to exclude from tax 50% of their capital gains, but only on profits from money invested in new businesses and kept there for five years. He would grant tax credits on purchases of new plants and equipment, but only to small and medium-size businesses and only for purchases that exceed the average for the prior three years. The purpose is to spur new investment without giving a windfall to individuals and companies that cash in profits on investments made years ago or merely continue their existing level of buying plants and equipment.
  • Recession. A nonpartisan criticism of Clinton's tax program is that it might help the economy in the long run but would do nothing to jolt it out of the present slump. To do that, the Governor proposes a variety of measures: speeded-up spending on highway construction, new regulations that would prevent banks from foreclosing on homeowners or business people who can at least keep up interest payments on their loans. Generally, these ideas seem helpful but insufficient.
  • Defense. Clinton would chop $100 billion out of the military budget over the next five years, on top of the $100 billion Bush already proposes to cut. Some suggestions: cancel the B-2 bomber and the SDI antimissile program, cut another two Army divisions and two aircraft-carrier battle groups, in addition to the reductions Bush has suggested.
  • Social programs. A main element of Clinton's much touted "new covenant" between the Government and its citizens is his plan to ditch the $6 billion student-loan program and replace it with an $8 billion program that would extend funds to any student entering college -- but require repayment, either through deductions from future earnings or by two years of low-paid community service as a police officer, child-care worker or the like.

At times, the Governor is trying to find the middle ground on issues where none seems to exist. He has said abortion should be "safe, legal and rare" -- a formulation likely to strike moralists on both sides as waffling pure and simple. On foreign policy, he takes an internationalist line, agreeing with Bush on some matters but flaying him on others, notably for continuing "to coddle China." On trade, he is generally antiprotectionist and favors a free- trade pact with Mexico. But he has said the U.S. should tell the Japanese that "if they don't play by our rules, we'll play by theirs."

Clinton has fed an almost palpable voter hunger for a new face and a new voice speaking neither liberal nor conservative orthodoxy. But that hunger can ( be dangerous. Suppose Clinton does sew up the nomination by mid-March and the Republicans discover a Willie Horton or Donna Rice in his background? They might choose to withhold the information until Clinton delivers his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in July, when springing it would be most damaging. The grind of press conferences, debates, primaries, caucuses has often been vilified in the past as no test of anything about a candidate except his glibness and powers of endurance. But a mercifully shortened campaign season can and should fulfill a different function, subjecting an intriguing but largely ambiguous new face to a rigorous examination of his character, accomplishments, failures, ideas and ideals. Clinton should be put through a competency test tougher than any he imposed on Arkansas teachers. The nation will benefit whether he passes or flunks.


Clinton's strategy is to present himself as a candidate of substance by offering specific proposals that address virtually every major problem the U.S. faces. But some of his campaign promises are vague, misleading or based on optimistic assumptions. Examples:

  • Clinton says he can save $6 billion a year through a 3% across-the-board trimming of federal administrative costs.
  • Federal agencies have already "been cut to the bone," says economist Cynthia Latta of the consulting firm DRI/McGraw-Hill, who sees further reductions as "phantom savings." But others say the bureaucracies are still bloated.
  • Clinton wants to replace the current $2,150-per-child income tax exemption with an $800-per-child tax credit.

Although the credit could be phased in at an initial cost of $5 billion, the loss of revenue would soon balloon to $20 billion annually. Clinton has not spelled out how he would make up the difference.

Clinton vows that "as President, I'll veto pay raises in Washington until middle-class incomes are going up again."

Members of Congress automatically receive an annual cost-of-living increase (3.5% this year). The President can veto bigger pay hikes, such as the $23,200 Senate raise last year, that are attached to appropriations bills.

Clinton says he could provide health insurance to all Americans solely through strict cost controls.

Experts think this would require a harsh rationing of medical services. Says Robert Berne, professor of public administration at New York University: "If someone could do what he says, they would have done it a long time ago."

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