Frame Game

Budget Fudging

President Clinton opened his hourlong news conference Thursday with a defense of his budget proposals and a critique of Republican tax-cut plans. Newspapers duly reported his quarrels with the GOP over revenue projections and the cost of new Medicare benefits. Which side will prevail on these matters remains to be seen. But the underlying struggle to shape the terms of the debate remains invisible to the media. And Clinton is winning that struggle hands down.

1. Whose money is it? President Reagan used to argue constantly that federal money belonged to taxpayers, not “bureaucrats.” Later, House Speaker Newt Gingrich took up this theme. But now both men are gone, and nobody in the GOP seems capable of battling Clinton’s counterspin. Clinton chooses words that oblige the media and the public to look at every financial question from the standpoint of the government rather than the taxpayer. The Republican tax cut plan will “cost” too much and cause “an enormous loss to the American people,” Clinton argued Thursday. This obscures the alternative point of view–that taxes themselves impose “costs” and “losses” on everyone who has to pay the Internal Revenue Service.

Likewise, Clinton shrewdly portrays tax cuts as a kind of “spending.” At his news conference, he questioned how Republicans could “finance” their tax cuts. Words such as these dissolve the moral difference between giving money “back” to the people it came from, as Reagan and Gingrich used to put it, and passing it on to others instead. Once the question is framed as how to “finance” tax cuts–implying that the government owns the money and gets to decide who should receive it–conservatives can’t win.

2. Who can spend it more wisely? Conservatives used to frame this question as a choice between government “spending” and private “investment.” “Investment” meant the money was working and growing. “Spending” meant it was being wasted. Clinton has turned this language on its head. “We must decide whether to invest the surplus, to strengthen America over the long-term, or to squander it for the short-term,” he argued Thursday. To “squander” the money, in Clinton’s language, is to “spend” it on tax cuts. To “invest” it is to allocate it to “long-term goals,” which used to be called government programs.

Clinton constantly borrows capitalist terminology to make federal budget decisions appear as productive as corporate budget decisions. At his news conference, he made clear that allocating money to poverty-stricken parts of the country isn’t subsidizing the poor; it’s “investing in America’s new markets.” Adding prescription drug coverage to Medicare isn’t additional spending; it’s “modernizing” the program to meet future needs.

3. Who deserves it most? Reagan used to dominate the moral dimension of budget debates by posing a choice between hard-working taxpayers and irresponsible beneficiaries of government programs. Clinton’s greatest feat has been to reverse this hierarchy. The question, as he put it Thursday, is no longer whether to spend more money on programs but whether “to meet our basic responsibilities in education, defense, the environment,” and other commitments.

What about the government’s responsibility to taxpayers? Clinton explained that in contrast to the GOP’s “risky” tax-relief plan, he favors only “tax cuts we can afford,” since we must maintain “fiscal discipline.” “We” refers, of course, to the government. “Afford” makes clear that it’s the government’s money and that tax cuts are a secondary and purely elective consideration. Our “responsibilities” come first, and to forsake “fiscal discipline” by cutting taxes would be immoral as well as imprudent. This spin keeps the alternative interpretation of fiscal discipline–cutting taxes first, and then cutting spending accordingly–conveniently out of the picture.

Good spin wins the issue of the day, but great spin goes further. It wins the war invisibly, by skewing the debate at such a deep level that the media can’t see it. And it so permeates public discourse that even the opposition helplessly or unwittingly succumbs. Four months ago, when George W. Bush launched his presidential exploratory committee, he defended tax cuts by arguing that it was “compassionate” of political leaders “to give people more money.” That’s not a challenge to Bill Clinton. That’s a tribute.