A Talk With Bill Clinton: `I Want To Generate A Lot Of Millionaires'

The Democratic front-runner on taxes, donations, and economic policy

You can forgive Bill Clinton for a little excess exuberance. As he stormed into sunny Kissimmee, Fla., for the ritual photo opportunity at an exhibition baseball game, the Arkansas governor wound up--and let fly an errant pitch that had photographers hooting. That was about the only miscue Clinton made on his way to a crushing sweep of seven Southern and border states on Mar. 10. Washington Bureau Chief Lee Walczak caught up with Clinton on Mar. 9 during a hectic dayof Florida campaigning and talked with the soon-to-be Democratic front-runner about his views on, among other things, rival Paul Tsongas, the economy, executive pay, and the gas tax.

Q Initially, you stressed your moderate credentials. But now, most of your backing is coming from such traditional constituencies as blacks, working-class voters, and the elderly. Is that why you now sound more traditional themes?

A No, because I haven't really changed my message. . . . You have to listen to what I'm saying more. Tsongas got himself positioned with upscale voters by saying: "I'm for cutting taxes on capital gains and against a middle-class tax cut." . . . But I have proved that you can bring back a lot of blue-collar Reagan Democrats into a coalition with minorities, the elderly, and other traditional groups of voters.

Q In South Florida's Jewish enclaves, you pledged to tilt U.S. policy toward Israel. In Miami's Liberty City ghetto, you spoke of more aid for cities. In central Florida, you promised that you would retrain defense workers. Is this the "new politics" of your Democratic Leadership Council--or as Tsongas charges, old-fashioned pandering?

A You can say I've said that there, but you can't find any place where I've said anything different. I also went to Wall Street and said, "I'm going to raise your taxes and give the middle class a break," and got groans at my own fund-raiser. If you want to look at pandering, you've got to look at who has changed positions.

Q You blast Tsongas for being too cozy with Wall Street, yet you've raised large amounts of money from investment bankers (table). How can you take their money and attack them?

A Because I do it when I'm there. That's the difference between me and former California Governor Jerry Brown. He thinks if you give money, you're bad for America.

Q Could those executives be writing checks because they think your anti-Wall Street stance is only a pose?

A No, no. . . . People who work on Wall Street are good citizens who want their country to change. . . . I want to generate a lot of millionaires, and I want to do it with an economic policy that is focused on rebuilding our country.

Q Would you use the tax code to tie executive compensation to gains in productivity?

A I basically buy the argument that author Graef Crystal makes: You ought to have real incentives for executive compensation based on long-term growth of the company. That's better than just a capped limit on deductions.

Q The New York Times alleges that you and your wife Hillary were business partners with a troubled Arkansas investor and notes that when your partner's S&L was under fire from regulators, he hired Hillary to represent him. Was this proper?

A Look at the facts, which were not in the Times story. . . . When I made this real estate investment, it was four years before the man was in the S&L business. It was before I became governor. . . . The Times alleged--falsely--that I was not at any financial risk. We were at significant financial risk and lost a good deal of money. When I got back in the governor's office in 1983, he was then in the S&L business. At that point, there was no option to get out of the deal. It would have raised more questions if somebody bought me out when I was losing money.

Q In retrospect, would you do it again?

A No, because I lost money.

Q You blast Tsongas for backing a higher gas tax. Isn't that the kind of consumption levy the DLC advocates?

A He says we ought to raise this tax 3 to 5 a year for a decade and force people to buy new cars. If you're from Boston and can ride the T, that's fine. But if you're going to raise the gas tax, it should be much more modest.

Q In the South, you've left the impression that President Clinton would retrain displaced defense-industry workers. What's to keep this "defense conversion" program from turning into a costly fiasco, like the Trade Adjustment Assistance program of the mid-1970s?

A Trade Adjustment Assistance was basically designed to help retrain workers for areas where the jobs were growing. This is more of an investment strategy to make sure America is investing in new technologies. . . . There are several things . . . we should do. No. 1, if we could acknowledge that we're deficient in commercial research and development compared with many of our competitors, we can say that if we reduce defense R&D we can at a minimum increase civilian R&D dollar-for-dollar by that much. . . . We need to take ideas and move them to market in America instead of overseas.

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