Ballot Box

A Stalwart Says Goodbye

[Editor’s note: Jacob Weisberg will be filing all weekend from the Bush inauguration in Washington, D.C., including an analysis of President Bush’s address Saturday. Check back here for the latest. In the meantime, click here to read “Clinton’s Last Ride,” about President Clinton’s final days in office and his plans for life after the White House.]

In keeping with my departure theme, I paid a call on Bruce Reed, for a few more hours chief domestic policy adviser to the president. Reed is truly the iron man of the Clinton White House. A policy maven of New Democratic bent, he worked for Sen. Al Gore in the 1980s before joining the Democratic Leadership Council during the period when Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton served as the organization’s chairman. As a result of that connection, Reed became one of the first people to climb aboard the Clinton presidential campaign in October 1991. Reed served Clinton during the campaign as policy guru, political counselor, and sometime speechwriter. His most notable contribution was probably coming up with Clinton’s classic formulation of his promise to “end welfare as we know it.” After the election, Reed joined the administration’s Domestic Policy Counsel and tried to fulfill that pledge. When he leaves work today, it will be after more than nine years in Clinton’s service, or 11 if you count his time at the DLC.

Reed is a moderate guy in every sense. Rail-thin, with fine, almost epicene features, he looks considerably younger than his 40 years. His approach to work is often contrasted with that of Gene Sperling, his friend and suite-mate on the second floor of the West Wing. Sperling, who is unmarried, works in a state of perpetual emergency, seldom leaving the office until late at night. Working for him can be a punishing assignment. Reed, by contrast, is a fellow of calm and orderly habits. He heads home to his wife and kids at 7 p.m. sharp. His assistant told me that he was such a good boss that she was leaving the civil service after 26 years to follow him. In an administration where exhausted officials often stagger around like the walking wounded, Reed told me he wasn’t planning to take more than a few days off before starting his new job because he’s not feeling especially tired.

He says the best advice he got when joining the administration was from a friend who told him to write down the four things he wanted to get done so he’d remember what he came to do. And Reed did so, jotting his goals on a yellow Post-it note that he attached to a full-page list of Clinton’s campaign promises published in the Washington Post on Inauguration Day in 1993. He took me over to his desk and showed me the note, still attached to the yellow newspaper. It reads:

1. End welfare as we know it.

2. Cut 100,000 bureaucrats.

3. Put 100,000 cops on the street.

4. Take government away from the lobbyists and special interests and give it back to the people.–B.R. 1/21/93

Below it is a list of Reed’s goals for Clinton’s second term.

1. Move 2 million more people off welfare.

2. Every state embrace world-class standards in reading and math.

3. Finish the job of putting 100,000 cops on the street and lower the crime rate four more years in a row.

Each of these goals involved a protracted struggle that Reed says, “taught me patience and persistence.” But looking over these lists now, he can feel a sense of accomplishment. By signing the bill passed by Congress in 1996, Clinton did end welfare as we knew it. During his second term, an additional 6 million people left welfare rolls nationwide. The administration met its goals for reducing bureaucrats and crime while increasing the number of police and speeding the adoption of educational standards. Of the goals on Reed’s list, the only conspicuous failure was the attempt to take government away from the special interests. The culture of Washington remains much the same as it did when Clinton arrived. For this, Reed blames Democrats in Congress who weren’t interested in campaign-finance reform and some of Clinton’s advisers who were intent on avoiding Jimmy Carter’s fate of locking horns with members of his own party on Capitol Hill.

The high point of Reed’s service in the White House was Clinton’s signing of welfare reform legislation in 1996. An earlier welfare bill he was primarily responsible for drafting went nowhere, thanks mainly to Democratic opposition in Congress in 1994. After Republicans took control of Congress, they passed a far more punitive version of welfare reform, one that stuck with Clinton’s idea of time-limited welfare but also cut off a variety of benefits for legal immigrants.

Administration officials divided on the question of whether Clinton should sign the bill. White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta led the majority arguing for a veto. Reed argued in favor of signing, arguing that Clinton had to keep his campaign promise and that there would be an opportunity to undo some of the punitive aspects of the bill after the 1996 election. “I argued that the bill would work,” Reed remembers. “We could fix the problems, and we might never have this chance again.” Clinton took Reed’s advice and signed. The result has been a reduction of the welfare rolls from 14.1 million when Clinton took office in 1993 to around 6 million now.

When I asked him about the low points, Reed noted a few: the defeat of a tobacco bill he worked hard on; the 1994 election; and the impeachment. During the Lewinsky scandal, he tried hard to stay focused on the substantive issues he was working on. “I felt the whole thing was none of my business, none of the country’s business,” he says. “Obviously, it was the wrong thing to do, and having made a mistake, [Clinton] should have leveled about it. But I hated watching the way this town and the whole sorry punditorcacy we created with the scandal judged him day in and day out. 1998 was a pretty bad year all around.” 

“But in the worst of times, I loved coming to work every day, walking through the gates and seeing the splendor of the White House and being in a position to make a difference in some small way,” he says. When I asked him what he’d miss most about the job, Reed said it would be watching the president work. “It’s been an incredible joy to work on domestic policy for a guy who loves it so much.” He describes the spectacle of Clinton at work as “like watching Babe Ruth hit home runs in the dead-ball era.”

Reed’s replacement in the Bush White House will be Josh Bolten, whose job will be slightly different. Bolten intends to serve as deputy White House chief of staff in addition to being domestic policy adviser. The two men have yet to meet. I asked Reed if he had any advice for his successor. “My best advice is that good policy is the best politics,” he told me. “That’s something I hoped when I came in but I didn’t know whether it was wishful thinking or not. That doesn’t mean that you can do anything without regard for whether the American people will like it. But if you have a sound idea, you can generally win the debate. And if you don’t, you never will.”

Given how idealistic he remains after eight years in the White House, it’s not surprising that Reed leaves reluctantly. He was deeply disappointed by Gore’s loss, most of all he says because of the way it happened, at the hands of a lousy Supreme Court decision. He says it was hard to explain to his 5-year-old son why the guy who got more votes didn’t win the election. Had Gore been elected, Reed almost surely would have remained in the executive branch, possibly in a Cabinet post. Things being as they are, Reed will become president of the Democratic Leadership Council. When welfare reform comes up for reauthorization in 2002, he’ll try to influence from the outside the redrafting of the bill and the question of what to do about the hardest core of welfare dependency. In a larger sense, he’ll be doing what lots of former administration officials will be doing over the next four years or perhaps longer: biding his time until he get another chance to work in a Democratic White House.

A natural optimist, Reed doesn’t seem daunted about having to take several giant steps away from real political power. He jokes about how the best days of his career are over. And he’s been an enthusiastic participant in the close-of-business merriment around the administration. Last week, at a going-away party at the White House, he appeared in a red plaid skirt and sang a ditty making fun of his failed crusade to impose school uniforms on American public education. Sperling, dressed as a rapper, performed a number as well. Then the two “held hands and danced a little bit,” Reed confesses. I have a feeling there’s going to be less of that kind of thing around the White House once John Ashcroft becomes attorney general.