Commentary

On the Political State of the Union

By William A. Niskanen
February 3, 2000
President Clinton’s unbearably long but blessedly final State of the Union address provoked me to question whether the political state of our union is as strong as our economy. You be the judge.

Our Constitution, alas, no longer seems to be even a parchment barrier to demands by either party for additional federal powers. Last Thursday night Clinton spoke for more than an hour about issues for which the federal government has no obvious constitutional authority — education, health care, gun control and livable (liberal?) cities, for example. He conveyed an impression that he could have gone on indefinitely about those issues if, like Castro, he could command the attention of the increasingly restive audience. One wonders whether there is any dimension of our lives that Clinton regards as beyond his care and attention. Almost as an afterthought, he spoke only briefly about those few issues for which the federal government has unquestioned constitutional authority — international trade, national security and foreign policy.

Our political system responds too quickly to demands for increased spending and a proliferation of programs but is slow to address the serious problems of current programs and policies. A strong economy and the prospect of large budget surpluses provide the opportunity to address those problems. But Clinton backed away from his prior commitment to “save Social Security first,” and he ignored the more urgent problems of Medicare by proposing to add coverage for prescription drugs. An increased federal role in education has not reversed the long decline in student performance in our public schools, but Clinton refuses to consider even limited school voucher programs. The federal tax code is extraordinarily complex and seriously constrains economic growth, but Clinton proposed a few more special tax preferences rather than a more thorough tax reform. Clinton’s position on international trade is generally correct, even if contentious in his own party, but he bears substantial responsibility for the collapse of the trade negotiations in Seattle. The armed forces face serious problems of recruitment and retention, despite a real total budget that is as high as it was during many years of the Cold War. And recent U.S. foreign policy has led to the worst relations with Russia and China since the end of the Cold War and to an increased terrorist threat to the United States. But we heard nothing from Clinton about these problems or how they should be addressed.

The congressional Republicans do not promise to be of much help. They distinguished themselves primarily by sitting grumpily during most of Clinton’s peroration on domestic policy. Their chosen respondents to Clinton’s message never mentioned the constitutional issues; the failure to address a major reform of Social Security, Medicare or the tax code; and the administration’s major foreign policy mistakes. Senator Collins promised to increase federal spending for education but to leave the authority with the same local officials who have presided over the progressive decline in the quality of most public schools. Senator Frist endorsed Republican versions of prescription drug coverage and a patient’s bill of rights, and he promised to save Medicare somehow by adding that program to the illusory Social Security lockbox. God save America from more such earnest blather.

Nor should we expect much help from the media. NBC, presumably in the name of balance, first asked for summary comments on the Clinton address from Bill Bradley, Robert Rubin and NBC’s own Tim Russert — as if the only legitimate debate is on the left. (I do not know, but I doubt whether the other networks were any better.) The next morning, the major newspapers focused primarily on the political theater of the address and the implications for the coming elections.

A president should be expected to do most of what he can get away with. And Clinton has pushed the limits. But where is the loyal opposition? And where is the free press on which we are all dependent? I would be more optimistic about the State of the Union if our political system was not such a mess.

William A. Niskanen is chairman of the Cato Institute and a former economic adviser to President Reagan.