"FEELING YOUR PAIN: The Explosion & Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years"
St. Martin's Press September 2000
The victory of William Jefferson Clinton in the 1992 presidential election was supposed to launch a new era in American politics. The Clinton-Gore team promised a "New Covenant" between government and the people that would propel government beyond its past failings. Clinton sought to make government strong enough to hoist and harangue the citizenry to higher ground, once and for all. And there was little to fear from expanding government power because, as Clinton promised, his would be "the most ethical administration in history."
Yet, after nearly eight years of his rule, America is bedeviled by independent counsels crowding Washington streets, cynicism as far as the eye can see, and more hostility to government agencies across the board, from the Census Bureau to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The attempt to forcibly lift people left government in the gutter-at least in the minds of tens of millions of Americans.
From concocting new prerogatives to confiscate private property, to cham-pioning FBI agents' right to shoot innocent Americans, to bankrolling the militarization of local police forces, the Clinton administration stretched the power of government on all fronts. From the soaring number of wiretaps, to converting cell phones into homing devices for law enforcement, to turning bankers into spies against their customers, free speech and privacy were undermined again and again. From dictating how many pairs of Chinese silk panties Americans could buy, to President Clinton's heroic efforts to require trigger locks for all handguns in crack houses, no aspect of Americans' lives was too arcane for federal intervention.
The Clinton administration built its "bridge to the twenty-first century" by filling every sinkhole along the way with taxpayer dollars. From AmeriCorps projects that beat the bushes to recruit new food stamp recipients, to a flood insurance program that multiplied flood damage, to programs to give the keys to lavish new single-family homes to public housing residents, the Clinton administration's record domestic spending produced record fiascoes. For Clin-ton, the only wasted tax dollar was one that did not buy a vote, garner a campaign contribution, or provide a chance to bite his lip on national television.
In the same way that the success of NATO's attack on Serbia was measured largely
by continual proclamations of "record numbers" of sorties flown and
"record numbers" of bombs dropped, so the Clinton administra-tion
gauged its domestic policy successes by the number of new laws passed, new programs
enacted, and new activities prohibited-by record fines levied and record prison
sentences imposed. Federal agencies issued more than 25,000 new regulations-criminalizing
everything from reliable toilets to snuff advertisements on race cars.
While the media focused primarily on the new benefits that Clinton promised, little attention was paid to the swelling tax burden on working Americans. Federal income tax revenue doubled between 1992 and 2000.2 The total tax burden on the average family with two earners rose three times faster than inflation. Though the IRS wrongfully seized hundreds of thousands of Americans' paychecks and bank accounts during Clinton's reign, almost all of the agency's power survived unscathed.
Faith in the coercive power of the best and brightest permeated Clinton administration policymaking. More commands, more penalties, and more handouts were the recipe for progress. The Clinton administration consistently acted as if nothing is as dangerous as insufficient government power.
The history of the Clinton administration cannot be understood apart from the president's personal view of government. Clinton portrayed government as the Lone Ranger-or, more accurately, millions of Lone Rangers, each with a sacred mission to rescue people whether they want to be rescued or not. For Clinton, government was never merely a bunch of clerks in some drab office vegetating toward a pension. Instead, government was "a champion of national purpose,""the instrument of our national community,"6 and "a progressive instrument of the common good." Clinton urged Americans in 1998 to commit themselves "to a new kind of government . . . to give all our people the tools to make the most of their own lives." Clinton's invocation of "government as tool-meister" ignored the abysmal record of federal job training, literacy, and other programs purportedly created to help people help themselves.
Many of Clinton's policies can be explained only by his belief in his own moral superiority. For Clinton, the officially proclaimed intent of a specific government policy or action far transcended whatever force government agents use against citizens. And any protests about excessive force were met by appeals to "the rule of law"-regardless of whether the law was on the side of federal agents. The more people government brings to its knees, the fairer society becomes-simply because government power is the personification of fairness.
And the loftier the goal Clinton proclaimed, the more irrelevant private collateral damage became. One visionary foreign policy speech was more important than a thousand cluster bombs dropped on foreign civilians. Vigorous denunciations of international terrorism were more important than the cruise missiles that destroyed Sudan's only pharmaceutical factory. Continual invoca-tions of "the children" at every political whistle-stop mattered more than the deaths of dozens of children after an FBI gas attack at Waco.
The Clinton recipe for public safety was: if politicians frighten enough of the people enough of the time, then everyone will be safe. Because Clinton felt government must constantly intervene in people's lives, people had to be convinced that they are doomed unless politicians save them on a daily basis. The result: constant efforts to alarm the citizenry on everything from health care to speed limits, to secondhand smoke, to global warming, to garbage dumps, to radon, to guns.
Clinton owes much of his popularity to his "stealth statism." Clinton
was the master of intellectual shell games. In his 1996 State of the Union address,
he announced "the era of Big Government is over." Yet, once he had
won reelection by campaigning as a moderate (or, in the words of presidential
adviser Dick Morris, "campaigning as Pope"), he opened the floodgates.
In his 1997 State of the Union address, Clinton called for a "national
crusade for education standards" and federal standards and national credentials
for all new teachers; announced plans "to build a citizen army of one million
volunteer tutors to make sure every child can read independently by the end
of the third grade"; called for $5 billion in federal aid to build and
repair local schools, a new scholarship program to subsidize anyone going to
college, a $10,000 tax deduction for all tuition payments after high school,
and federal subsidies for private health insurance; demanded a new law entitling
women who have had mastectomies to stay in the hospital 48 hours afterwards;
advocated a constitutional amend-ment for "victims' rights"; urged
Congress to enact a law criminalizing any parent who crossed a state line allegedly
to avoid paying child support; and proposed enacting juvenile crime legislation
that "declares war on gangs," hiring new prosecutors, and increasing
federal spending on the war on drugs. Clinton
also announced plans to expand NATO and declare " American Heritage Rivers" (thereby effectively prohibiting thousands of landowners from using their property along those rivers). Clinton, deeply concerned about American ethics, also demanded that "character education must be taught in our schools." (This demand was not repeated in later State of the Union addresses.)
In his 1999 State of the Union address, Clinton proposed more than 40 new laws and programs. Citizens applauded proposals for more government regardless of how poorly existing government programs functioned and despite the fact that most Americans personally distrusted Clinton at the time he sought more power over them. In his 2000 State of the Union address, Clinton talked for almost an hour and a half and, according to one estimate, proposed the equivalent of $4 billion of new federal spending per minute.
This book focuses primarily on the Clinton administration's domestic policies and programs. A chapter on the war against Serbia is included because that adventure vividly illustrates the Clinton administration's moralism and arrogance. The Clinton presidency must not be judged solely on whether the Senate convicted him on impeachment charges, or whether he and his wife were shown to have obstructed justice during the Whitewater investigation, or whether a federal judge fined him for perjury, or whether a clear link is discovered between Chinese military front companies and Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign. The danger of focusing narrowly on the best-known scandals is that people may forget or fail to realize how much misgovernment occurred during the 1990s. Far more Americans have been affected by IRS depredations, HUD-ruined neighborhoods, and FDA-denied drugs than by Clinton's personal misbehavior. Many of the worst abuses of the Clinton administration never appeared on the media's radar screen. Instead, they were buried in Inspector General reports, General Accounting Office studies, or the proceedings of court cases followed by few.
The Clinton administration changed the political fabric of this nation and the political expectations of the American people and the American media. Clinton's policies and rhetoric helped infantilize the American populace. The entire political system was subtely transformed year by year, crisis by crisis, hoax by hoax.
Clinton's administration was far from unique in its contempt for constitu-tional or taxpayer rights. Most of the pernicious trends in federal policy started long before Clinton's arrival in Washington. President Franklin Roosevelt was as voracious for power as was Clinton. Lyndon Johnson was more successful in passing sweeping laws to swell the federal government. The Bush administration was as feckless in its resolution to terminate failed government programs-and even President Ronald Reagan was far more tolerant of wasteful government spending than many of his fans recall.
The fact that the Clinton administration championed so many flawed programs and policies does not mean that good government would have resulted if the Republican Party held the White House. The Republicans controlled both houses of Congress for six of the eight years of Clinton's administration. Most congressmen of both parties showed little understanding of, or curiosity about, how federal programs were functioning.
This is not an attempt to pass final judgment on the Clinton administration. Such an effort must await the unraveling of numerous cover-ups and the surfacing of further flaws in new programs and policies. Instead, it is an effort to present many details and key issues that must be part of a broad assessment of the impact of the Clinton administration on America.
Once a president leaves office, his record usually quickly blurs. All that is recalled are a few high points, a few catch phrases, and a few indictments. The rest is swept under the rug of failing memories and the spin-doctoring of supporters and detractors. Americans cannot understand the nation's political course without recognizing the follies and fiascoes of the recent past, the constant expansion of government programs and power, and the resulting momentum for ever more coercion.