The White House Scandal: Look on the Bright Side

August 18, 1998

Mark Weisbrot
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, August 18, 1998

Now that Bill Clinton has admitted to having “a relationship that was not appropriate,” most people can’t wait for the whole circus to end. I can’t blame them. Who wants to be subjected to yet another round of talking heads pondering whether oral sex should count as “sexual relations” under the definition provided by the court?

But it’s time to look at the bright side. Aside from the really funny jokes (my favorite, with apologies to Johnny Cochran: “If the dress is a mess, he must confess!”), there are some real benefits to having this thing develop into a knock-down, drag-out fight between Congress and the President. For one thing, consider what’s on their agenda if they ever get back to the business of compromising and passing legislation.

On the domestic front, it has become clear that the President would like to leave Social Security “reform” as his legacy. All of the proposals currently on the table include major benefit cuts which would eventually push millions of senior citizens below the poverty line. Most of the proposals also include partial privatization– a line that even Ronald Reagan, in spite of strong personal leanings in favor of such a project, did not dare to cross. Since President Clinton has not taken a stand against any of these changes, it is a safe bet that his legacy, if he can pull it off, will involve some major damage to Social Security and the elderly. And all this at a time when there is no financial, actuarial, or demographic reason to be concerned about the future of Social Security.

Meanwhile, the Congress is eager to slather more money on the deserving rich. As if last year’s capital gains tax cuts, which ensured that a rich stockholder could pay a lower federal tax rate than the average truck driver, weren’t enough. Like sharks, they smell blood and want more. In addition to further breaks for the capital gainers, slashing inheritance taxes for the richest 1.5% of the population is high on the docket.

Those who worry about the scandal’s effect on “American leadership in the world” might consider whether we want to be the leaders in a race to the bottom. The Republican leadership wants to bring back “fast track” authority for the President to negotiate new trade and commercial agreements like NAFTA. This maneuver, which would eliminate Congressional authority to amend such agreements, was defeated last year due to popular opposition.

The President is not so eager to fight this battle again, but he has been lobbying hard to increase the power of another regressive, globalizing institution: the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This is the group that poured gasoline on the fire of the Asian financial crisis, and President Clinton would like to reward them with another $18.5 billion of taxpayers’ money. So far, Congress hasn’t bought it. Another reason that words like “gridlock” and “partisan wrangling” don’t sound so bad.

Of course, there is a downside to having the airwaves saturated with “All Monica, All the Time.” It’s not only boring, it crowds out a lot of the important news (the space for which is already pretty limited).

And there is always the risk that if the scandal gets out of control, the President might decide to “Wag the Dog”– look for foreign adventures as a distraction. There was no doubt an element of this in last year’s confrontation with Iraq. And if things get really bad for the White House, even Kofi Annan and the good people of Columbus, Ohio, might not be able to save the world from another senseless war.

But barring unforseen consequences, this scandal is still the people’s best ally against a rotten Congressional majority (bi-partisan or not, depending on the issue) and an unprincipled President. Some people find it disheartening that we should be dependent on such sleaze to thwart much greater evils, but I don’t. After all, 160,000 steel workers wrote letters to Congress to stop fast-track the last time around. And at least that many people are working to defend Social Security from privatization and cuts.

They’re just getting a little boost in gumming up the works, from Monica Lewinsky and (ugh) Ken Starr.

So let the mud fly and the partisan hatreds fester. Just turn off the tube when it starts to make you sick, and remember that it could be a lot worse: the President and Congress could be turning their attention to important legislative tasks.

Better to have Clinton’s legacy be the stain on that dress, than a stain on Social Security that won’t wash out for another 75 years.

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