On their minds

Political experts from both sides deconstruct President Clinton's 1999 State of the Union address.

By Salon Staff
January 21, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
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Arianna Huffington, author and political commentator:

A great speech has to be about something, not about everything. There
was no overriding vision or theme. He has a laundry list of proposals
targeted at certain voting blocks. This is such a focus-group-tested,
poll-driven approach to leadership.


Last night confirmed two things. We are really two nations, and the
only nation that is really part of the political conversation is the
nation that votes, benefits from the stock market and is the beneficiary of
the strong economy. The other nation is in the inner cities, the
dysfunctional public schools and the growing number of layoffs. The
real crisis in America is the 15 million children at risk, losing the
next generation. He had nothing to say about that. When he talked about
the "new dawn in America," nobody applauded, not even the Democrats. He
sounded so preposterous. To talk about the prosperity of one America --
those benefiting from the stock market and identified with a new dawn
for the whole country -- is such hubris. I can't understand why everybody's
going around saying this was a great performance just because he was
able to get through his speech without stumbling.

It's also amazing to what extent he's become the president of the worst of
corporate America. Because Clinton is a compassionate, caring, feeling-your-pain
Democrat, he has somehow legitimized the neglect. If it were Reagan who
gave that State of the Union address and ignored the problems of those
most in need, there would be riots.

The moment where he honored Hillary was incredibly embarrassing. If
we're going to be asking, as people should, for a clear demarcation line
between the public and the private realms, politicians have to help.
It's an inappropriate expression at this time -- it brings up all that
happened and all the ways he has dishonored her. No wonder she looked so
stone-faced. I would have thrown something at him.


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Ben Cohen, president of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities and
co-founder of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream:

The president's speech was long on talk about education and pretty short on
money for it. It looks like 50 percent of the discretionary money he was
talking about is going to end up going to the Pentagon. I'd give him high
marks for what he's trying to do for Medicaid and Social Security, but the
education stuff was a bunch of talk and didn't have the money behind it.

Our country needs about $7 billion a year to provide Head Start for all the
kids who are eligible but can't afford a spot in it. We need about $100
billion worth of repairs for our schools that are falling apart in a lot of
parts of the country. Meanwhile, he's going to give the Pentagon more than
$100 billion over the next five years despite the fact that we've got far
and away the best military in the world. Now that the Soviet Union is no
longer a threat, between all of them combined -- Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria,
North Korea and Cuba -- they spend a total of about $15 billion a year.
There's no reason why we should have to spend $280 billion a year to defend
ourselves against them. That's the way it looks from Ben Cohen land.


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Deirdre English, former editor of Mother Jones magazine:

Clinton is like an Internet stock: He's all puffed up and when he goes down a little and loses a little air, you think he would be in the pink, but when he comes back up, he balloons back up bigger than ever. That's his style -- he's at his best when he's in trouble, when he has to pull a rabbit out of a hat.


The Republicans were so stodgy and so obsessed with their hatred of him that they couldn't even applaud for public schools. They looked pathetic, possessed with their witch hunt. I expected Clinton to take advantage of this opportunity to make the whole impeachment trial look like the Republicans were dragged down in the trial. And he did. Things like "Where he touched her for the purpose of arousing her?" are extremely unimportant against the large millennial picture that he painted.

I support his agenda, and I would support a more liberal one. But I don't think he can win those things. I don't think there's any question that his presidency has been compromised by the Lewinsky scandal. I don't think Clinton should be impeached -- the crimes he's accused of don't rise to impeachable offenses. On the other hand, I do think his behavior in the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal has been unforgivable. I think feminists have been giving him too much of a pass on that. Clinton was prepared to ruin her life over this. How many women have had their lives destroyed because powerful men have denied their situation and left them to hang out to dry?

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Mike Collins, press secretary for the Republican National Committee:

Much of the speech was a rehash of proposals that were floated a year ago and never heard from again. I can't say that I saw anything that was surprising. It was very similar to last year's address, both in tone, length and content. I would hope the president meant what he said about reaching over the table and working with Republicans on things like saving Social Security, saving the public schools, lowering the tax burdens on working families and shoring up our national defenses. But everything else was already known -- even the Justice Department's lawsuit against the tobacco companies has been out there for at least a year.

I'm pleased that the president is talking about giving some of the surplus back to the people who earned it, but I think what we need is across-the-board tax relief, not gimmicks or narrow loopholes. A person deserves to keep more of the money he or she earns in the form of tax relief.


We agree with the president on fixing Social Security, but not an approach that gives government more control over our retirement income. We want to work with him on an approach that puts you more in control of your retirement income. We also believe that school decisions should be made by local administrators, teachers and parents because they care more about those kids, know what the local needs are and are in a better position to address them.

The empty seats were kicking up in the last half hour, and it's typical that members will leave toward the end because they have been booked already to do television or radio feeds. That happens all the time -- it wasn't political. I think this time the cameras tended to look at them, but those seats were filled for much of the speech.


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Social Security

Puts $2.8 trillion (62 percent) of projected budget surpluses of the next
15 years into Social Security coffers. Up to 25 percent would be invested
in the stock market and the Social Security system would be stabilized at
least through 2055.

Hans Riemer is director of the 2030 Center, a public policy organization for young adults that focuses on Social Security and modern workplace issues.

Clinton is putting forth very broad recommendations for strengthening Social Security that will be very good for young adults. Clinton has turned away from the idea of privatization, wherein you would replace the existing Social Security program with individual investment accounts. The new savings accounts he is proposing are an addition to Social Security, something we've been promoting for a while. As this money earns interest over time, people will retire with more money.


But the program adds 25 percent to the Social Security budget through the projected federal budget surplus, and my biggest concern is that we would be too dependent upon that surplus. We're now going to credit $2.7 trillion of our surplus over the next 20 years into Social Security, but it could be fixed without any new money. The surplus might not materialize entirely, and if it doesn't, this program would require a commitment of general revenue. There's also a lack of any plan on increasing the FICA cap and applying the payroll tax a little bit more fairly to upper-income workers.

But I really think that once this gets into serious debate, the conservatives that oppose this idea are going to self-destruct.

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Health Care

Redirects $650 billion of the projected budget surplus over the next 15
years to preserve Medicare through 2020. Also allows Americans aged 55 to 65
to buy into Medicare if they can't find other insurance; provides $1
billion over five years to help the nation's 32 million uninsured; and
includes a $2 billion initiative to help disabled keep their health
benefits -- which might otherwise be difficult to obtain -- as they return to
the work force.

Larry Levitt is director of the Changing Healthcare Marketplace Project at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and former senior health policy for the Clinton administration.

Clinton's coming back with his proposal from last year to allow people 55 to 64 to buy into Medicare. There would also be tax credits for small businesses to encourage them to offer insurance through purchasing cooperatives; $2 billion in tax credits to help the disabled go back to work; and $1 billion in grants for the uninsured.


A billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, but it doesn't go very far in terms of buying people health insurance. There is the recognition that we are probably a long way from universal coverage and the administration is making itsy-bitsy steps toward it. The intent behind this proposal is to make the safety net work better so that when you don't have health insurance, if you need to go to a hospital or community health center, those organizations have the infrastructure to deal with the rising number of uninsured. The vast majority of the uninsured are either working for themselves or are in a family where someone is working. They are not the poorest of the poor, because, by and large, we cover the poor through Medicaid and other programs. It's really the lower middle class who get squeezed.

These proposals are place holders, sort of down payments, for much larger amounts that are required to really make a dent in the problem. The reality, for example, with the small business tax credits, is that even if you offer them, not very many people take them. It is a huge issue of affordability for small businesses. To buy health insurance for the family of a worker, it costs upwards of $6,000 a year now. Even if you offer a tax credit for half of that cost, it still means the small business has to pick up the other $3,000 dollars. Not many can afford even that much.

But a couple of the proposals are quite large. The continuation of health coverage for the disabled to go back to work is an extremely important and significant initiative. The tax breaks for people who provide long-term care to elderly relatives is also. For a person struggling, $1,000 is a lot of money. And while $1 billion is not going to solve the problems of the uninsured, it is important symbolically to say they are still out there and their numbers are growing in the best economy we have had in the postwar era. That problem still exists, and we need to take every possible step to deal with it.

What's missing is any comprehensive proposal to cover the uninsured, to provide universal coverage. The health-care reform debate of the early '90s gave universal coverage a bad name, and it's going to take a while to get back to a larger discussion like that.
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Increases defense spending by $12 billion in 2000 and a total of $110
billion over the next six years for military modernization and readiness.


Steve Koziak is director of budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a military think tank in Washington.

There is more on defense than there has been in the past, since it is a bigger issue. They want to add $12 billion to defense in 2000 and an additional $110 billion over the next six years for modernization and readiness. The money is in addition to what they were already planning to spend. But it's not clear how much is actually a real increase in defense spending, since $4 billion would be increased purchasing power because of lower inflation estimates and another $4 billion would come from shifting money from low-priority projects, and other places they can save, into these areas.

Modernization funding is a catchword for new weapons and includes research, development and procurement and production of new weapon systems. Readiness spending covers the costs of training, keeping the systems functioning and providing health care for military personnel. Since the end of the Cold War, procurement has gone down about 70 percent from the height of the Reagan buildup. The spending was appropriately cut at the end of the Cold War.

But do we need to keep about 1.4 million troops in the military and have a modernization program that includes procurement? Too much of the emphasis here is on old military ideas -- they should look at more areas where they can upgrade current-generation weapon systems rather than buy new ones, which are two to three times as expensive as those they are replacing.

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Elaine Donnelly is president of the Center for Military Readiness, an independent public policy organization specializing in military personnel issues.

I'm afraid I took down my Christmas decorations too soon -- everybody should have kept their Christmas tree up as a symbol of this State of the Union speech. It was just one bauble after another being displayed on the television screen.

I listened carefully to the statements that the president made on defense and I found that they really ring rather hollow. To say that we support the troops, that we will give them the resources that they need -- when you look at the record of this administration, you see the contrary. All the major funding that he's proposing for the next six years would come in well after he's gone -- and so the promise is not likely to be kept.

I think this president, with the example that he is setting for the troops under his command, is probably the worst commander in chief in history. The effect that this president and the precedent his behavior is setting for the military is going to be a disaster if the Senate does not intervene and remove him from office. The very essence of military discipline is being destroyed.

I think trying to turn this highly publicized media event into a tool to deflect the deliberation of the Senate in the middle of a historic trial is unseemly; it's just one of many things this president has done that is not at all appropriate. But then again, what do you expect from a president like Bill Clinton? He doesn't have that deep-seated respect for the office. He's very different in that regard and that's probably one of the reasons why he's only the second president in history to be impeached.

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Child Care

Subsidizes child care by an additional $7.5 billion over the next five
years, provides an additional $3 billion for early learning programs and
gives a tax credit of up to $250 per child age 1 or younger to families,
including those with a stay-at-home parent.

Helen Blank is director of child-care programs at the Children's
Defense Fund, a children's advocacy group.

The entire child-care package would represent a significant step toward putting in place some of the support families and children need in order to go to school ready to succeed. The initiatives entail new help for low-income families to afford child care; new funds to strengthen the quality of care for very young children; a significant increase in funds for after-school programs so children can be safe; an increased tax credit for lower- and middle-income families with increased child-care costs, as well as parents who choose to stay home with children under age 1; a continuation of funds that were approved last year to improve the quality of child care; and a tax credit for businesses who are interested in contributing to child care. It's a pretty well-rounded package.

There's not enough money to provide every low-income family with child-care assistance; or to insure that all child-care providers get a decent wage; or to support the nearly 5 million children who are home alone after school. But it is a recognition of the job that mothers do, who choose to stay home.

If it does pass, we have to help the states implement it and see what gaps remain. We have gaping holes in child care. Only one in 10 children in eligible families who need child-care assistance get it. The average child-care worker makes $12,000 a year. We have training requirements that are absolutely tiny for people who work in child-care centers. You need 1,500 hours of training to manicure someone's nails, but in 40 states you can work in a family child-care home with no child development training whatsoever. We have a very long way to go, especially if we want our education goals to succeed, because the early years are where children develop their pre-literacy skills and get ready to read. We have a pretty shameful situation in this country. But this would be a big step toward moving in the right direction.

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Includes measures to bring more accountability to schools by ending social
promotion, requiring progress reports on school performance, providing
better competency testing and training for teachers and adopting more
stringent student disciplinary policies.

Kathy Christie is spokeswoman for the policy information clearinghouse at the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

The proposals concern reforming schools, class-size reduction and incentives to our schools to expand professional development and make sure teachers are better qualified. Nearly all the types of initiatives he's talking about already exist -- they may not be in all states, but they are all in some. Things like accountability -- that schools report on their performance to the public -- are in nearly every state. Over half the states already require teachers to be certified.

This proposal is different in that the typical role of the federal government in education has been focused on students with special needs and low-income students. They've been more about equity and providing services that have come out of federal mandates. The new proposals address things like teacher quality that haven't been addressed by the federal government in the past. Most of the states are working independently on their own set of requirements -- this funding will merely supplement what they are able to fund.

The federal amount that goes to the states is not terrifically consequential. The majority of all funding still comes from state and local governments.

Salon Staff

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