Clinton on Trial

Clinton’s Details Bedevil the Republicans

Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., distinguished himself at last year’s State of the Union by sitting silent and stony throughout the entire speech. The absence of Barr from tonight’s address clears the way for his Republican colleagues to compete for the title of America’s Surliest Congressman. And they make a bold run for it, shunning the president with spectacular grimaces and vicious body language. Rep. James Rogan, R-Calif., avoids applauding President Clinton by studiously taking notes (or pretending to) throughout the speech. Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., does the Air Clap, a maneuver that looks like applause but produces no noise. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, stares straight ahead from start to finish.

The championship trophy is shared by House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, both of Texas. They don’t applaud his proposal to eradicate child labor worldwide. They don’t applaud the 50 percent cut in welfare rolls. They don’t applaud his charter schools proposal (what kind of Republican doesn’t applaud charter schools?). They don’t even applaud his increase in defense spending. (What kind of Republican doesn’t applaud defense spending?) Armey twirls his pen. DeLay whispers in Armey’s ear and grins. They give a tour de force performance in how to dis the president.

The Republican recalcitrance is more pronounced than it was last year, but then again, so is the Democratic enthusiasm. From the hooting, hollering ovation that greets Hillary Clinton at the start of the evening to the 51 standing ovations by Democrats in the first hour–I counted–to the high-octane gloating in the press mob afterward, the Democrats are in gleeful form.

They should be, because the speech is Clintonism at its finest (and, I suppose, at its worst). That is, it mentions every single government program that ever has been, is, or ever will be. It is flooded, deluged, with specific ideas: more defense, more cops, more teachers, more prescription drugs for the elderly, more historic preservation, more cigarette lawsuits, more patients’ rights, more trigger locks and fewer guns, more technology and less Y2K. In every paragraph there are years: 25 years of budget surpluses, 22 years of Medicare solvency, 75 years of Social Security solvency–he begins to sound like an actuary. (Clinton is accompanied to the State of the Union by about 50 members of his “Cabinet.” Last time I checked, there were only a dozen-odd executive branch departments. It’s no wonder that Clinton has so many programs to propose: He’s got to keep all those Cabinet members busy.)

This encyclopedic style–enervating as it is to listen to–is the secret of Clinton’s success as an orator and as a president. He is specific. It doesn’t matter that most of the ideas he proposes tonight are castles in the air that have no more chance of becoming law than, say, campaign finance reform does. They are concrete. At the end of every proposal he adds a plea: “We must do this,” or “I ask you to join me in doing this.” It is very effective, very direct. The Republican response, by contrast, is an exercise in tired generalities. Largent and Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., propose a 10 percent income tax cut and a missile-defense system. (Has there ever been a Republican answer to the State of the Union that did not propose an income tax cut and a missile defense?)

The heart of Clinton’s speech is Social Security, which he proposes to fix by giving it most of the budget surplus for the next 25 years. He would have the federal government put one quarter of the surpluses into the stock market (index funds, probably), then give another 11 percent of the surplus to Americans in the form of Universal Savings Accounts, a government-funded 401(k) plan.

These seem like promising enough ideas, a way to split the difference between conservative privatizers and liberals. But they set the stage for what could be a long phony war. Congressional Republicans have reserved the first bill of the year for the president’s Social Security proposal–that is, they are waiting for him to introduce his own reform bill. But Clinton learned the hard way during the 1993 health care fiasco that if he proposes a bill, he merely makes himself an attractive target for Republican attacks. Republicans, similarly, know that if they propose a Social Security bill, they make themselves vulnerable to Democrats. So the Republicans say, “After you, Mr. President,” and the president says, “After you, congressmen,” and the rest of us may just have to wait.

After the speech, Statuary Hall is the usual mob scene. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wades into the crowd, sees (and smells) its frenzy, and panics: “I am getting out of here! I want to promote the president’s speech, but not if I have to do this!”

But most of her Democratic colleagues are cheerful. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York keeps talking about what a marvelous speech it was. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia congratulates the president on his “courage” in coming before such a crowd and speaking so powerfully.

Conservative Republicans, meanwhile, seem both confused and enraged at the spectacle. Barr, who skipped the main course but shows up for the media dessert, inveighs against the president for having given the speech. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., glowers, “The American people understand that the truth is not in this man.” Chenoweth says, “All he did was propose expanding the federal government. I did not come to Congress to oversee more property-taking by the federal government. I did not come to Congress so that the federal government [through Social Security investment in the stock market] could become the biggest stockholder and dictator of our companies.”

I make it through the entire evening without hearing anyone refer to the impeachment, except in passing. This may be the greatest triumph of Clintonism. On a day when the president is being tried in the Senate, members of Congress actually spend the evening talking about policy. We are all “compartmentalizers” now.

The party of Lincoln, Madonna, and Namath: The prize for the most peculiar utterance of the day goes to Dunn, who told CNN why she and Largent represent the Republican party: “Steve has been a famous football player. I’m a single mother. We’re an example of the diversity that we want to see in our party.”