Washington Parody: Small Government, Ira Style

October 31, 1996 • Commentary
Distributed by Copley News Service.

During his first three years in office Bill Clinton governed like a traditional liberal. The results were not pretty, but no matter. Since then the president has exhibited the ideological flexibility that has made him such a successful politician.

Thus, there was little surprise at his latest announcement — strangely ignored by the media — of a new commission, headed by Ira Magaziner, the millionaire big thinker in an administration full of millionaires, if not big thinkers. (Bob Dole responded by saying that, if elected, he would keep the panel, but would head it, in order to demonstrate leadership.)

The commission, Expanding Economic Opportunity and Doing Other Wonderful Things in an Era of Small Government, is tasked with crafting new federal education programs. Explained the president: “Obviously government isn’t doing enough. So I’m asking Ira Magaziner to find new and even more expensive ways for the federal government to help the economy and education.”

The commission includes as members several administration officials, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, and an assortment of liberal academics. The first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, will serve as honorary table (“more important than a mere chair,” one aide explains).

With the election approaching, Magaziner had been telling friends that he expected a “high‐​level economic post in the next administration.” Although perceived as falling out of the administration’s inner‐​circle when his 1,342-page health care plan crashed and burned, he publicly expresses no regrets over his losing effort: “The public just wasn’t ready,” he opines, “and the plan was too complicated. We should have simply nationalized everything.”

Privately, friends say, he most resents his eclipse by Labor Secretary Robert Reich. “If this project goes well, I think he hopes to take over the Commerce or Education departments — or maybe both at once — and push that short‐​stuff Reich off of his pedestal,” said one White House aide.

Magaziner says he’s excited by the project: “We have to decide what kind of world we want to live in.” He says he sees no limits for education “so long as we get over this outmoded suspicion of government.”

Thus, he says he plans on turning to “the best and the brightest” across America to help the study. Colleagues say that phone calls have already gone out to hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people to serve on task forces. Among the topics of study include school uniforms (a presidential imperative), empowering children politically (a favorite of panel member Marian Wright Edelman), student jobs (an apparent grab for Reich’s territory), drug policy (Marion Barry’s credentials were too good to pass up), the Romanian experience (reportedly suggested by economic adviser Laura D’Andrea Tyson, a long‐​time admirer of executed dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu’s economic policies), Medicare (Rep. Gephardt insisted on the opportunity to highlight Republican “extremism”), and “a whole lot more,” in Magaziner’s words.

Magaziner refuses to discuss the commission’s internal operations. In fact, he allowed, he planned to staff the working groups with government officials “so we don’t have to open the meetings to the public.” His job “is to draft the plan,” he explained, while “the public’s job is to accept it.” Staff members were equally closed‐​mouthed: “We don’t want any more trouble” said one, alluding to Magaziner’s near miss with a perjury charge over his statements about the composition of the health care task force.

Although Hillary Clinton testified before Congress on the health care proposal, aides say that is unlikely this time.

“We’re just hoping to keep her out of jail, to tell you the truth,” says one. “Anyway, none of us believes her on anything, so why should we expect anyone else to do so?”

For this reason Magaziner — one of the few Clinton officials so far without his personal special prosecutor — is expected to take the lead on selling the proposals to the public.

“If I can talk to them, I’m sure I can convince them,” he says he told the president. But Reich, among others, has reportedly been lobbying to keep Magaziner out of the limelight. “If only we could get him on one of (Energy Secretary) Hazel O’Leary’s trips. He could study education in Acapulco while her aides investigated beachfront solar power and we wouldn’t hear from him for months,” explained one Reich aide.

The president dismissed reports of staff infighting: “Members of my administration get along great, just like Hillary and me.” He says he is especially excited about the task force: “Ira is so good at creatively feeling people’s pain.”

Magaziner says that the administration will be ready to push the commission’s proposals through Congress. If opposition develops, he explains, “The president can flip‐​flop. Or simply lie. Those tactics have worked fine so far.” But Magaziner says he doesn’t think it will come to that, at least not “if I have a chance to explain the plan directly to the people.”

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