Moderation, Please, Mr. President

Two things appear certain in politics today. Voters want their leaders to govern from the center. Politicians, however, insist on governing from the extremes. President Clinton ran in 1992 as a moderate New Democrat but saw his election as a mandate for government-run health care. He got clobbered on the issue. The Republicans won Congress in 1994 and saw their victory as a mandate to shut down government as a tactic to squeeze entitlement spending to pay for big tax cuts. They got clobbered as well: Middle-of-the-road Americans were furious at their hubris. The 1996 Presidential race is just heating up and is way too early to call. But if Bill Clinton wins a second term, we have some advice for him. It's the same advice we have offered on this page to Bob Dole: In all things political, observe moderation.

Here's how. First, Bill Clinton should tell the people the truth about entitlements and the budget deficit. Don't be a demagogue or an alarmist. Tell them the U.S. has a modest fiscal problem that requires modest solutions. The deficit is already down to a mere $116 billion in a $7 trillion economy--1.7% of gross domestic product, the lowest of any major nation in the world. Explain that future growth in spending for Medicare and Social Security has to be curbed somewhat to generate about $150 billion in savings over seven years. A little more than $20 billion annually is less than what Americans spend on their pets. Raising some out-of-pocket costs, encouraging older folks to join the same kinds of HMOs their children belong to, and slowly raising the Social Security eligibility age for aging boomers are all that is needed. Nothing draconian.

Then tell Americans the truth about education. It's not your problem as President. Responsibility for the sorry state of schooling in this country lies with the 50 governors, not with the White House. It always has. The U.S. spends more than $240 billion a year on education, with only a tiny fraction coming from Washington. Governors have had the freedom to encourage vouchers and charter schools for decades. They have been afraid to offend teachers' unions and religious groups opposed to mandating standards in curriculums and teaching. In fact, you, as President, should use your office as a bully pulpit to pressure the governors to reform education. Remind them that one major reason for income inequality is educational inequality. Go on the offensive. Tell the governors to stop whining about devolution and start making it work for the people of this country.

Then, simplify taxes and give the people a tax cut. A modest one, across the board, on marginal rates. If entitlements are curbed and interest rates fall, there should be a bit extra to share. Economic growth should be higher, while interest payments on the old debt left from the 1980s should decline. Return the revenues to the people. But please, the last thing America needs is a big tax cut not paid for with serious spending cuts.

Finally, Mr. President, with victory on the budget deficit in hand, you should tackle the trade deficit. That means leading European trading partners in a battle against closed markets, especially in Asia. America's support for free trade is eroding because working people see only its costs, not the benefits. This is a serious crusade that can be led only by someone not seeking reelection and therefore not vulnerable to the powerful pressures of influential lobbies.

The second term, should you get one, President Clinton, is for the history books. Govern where the people want you to--from the center.