A Stalwart Says Goodbye

Politics and policy.
Jan. 19 2001 5:01 PM

A Stalwart Says Goodbye

[Editor's note: Jacob Weisberg will be filing all weekend from the Bush inauguration in Washington, D.C., including an analysis of President Bush's address Saturday. Check back here for the latest. In the meantime, click here to read "Clinton's Last Ride," about President Clinton's final days in office and his plans for life after the White House.]

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In keeping with my departure theme, I paid a call on Bruce Reed, for a few more hours chief domestic policy adviser to the president. Reed is truly the iron man of the Clinton White House. A policy maven of New Democratic bent, he worked for Sen. Al Gore in the 1980s before joining the Democratic Leadership Council during the period when Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton served as the organization's chairman. As a result of that connection, Reed became one of the first people to climb aboard the Clinton presidential campaign in October 1991. Reed served Clinton during the campaign as policy guru, political counselor, and sometime speechwriter. His most notable contribution was probably coming up with Clinton's classic formulation of his promise to "end welfare as we know it." After the election, Reed joined the administration's Domestic Policy Counsel and tried to fulfill that pledge. When he leaves work today, it will be after more than nine years in Clinton's service, or 11 if you count his time at the DLC.

Reed is a moderate guy in every sense. Rail-thin, with fine, almost epicene features, he looks considerably younger than his 40 years. His approach to work is often contrasted with that of Gene Sperling, his friend and suite-mate on the second floor of the West Wing. Sperling, who is unmarried, works in a state of perpetual emergency, seldom leaving the office until late at night. Working for him can be a punishing assignment. Reed, by contrast, is a fellow of calm and orderly habits. He heads home to his wife and kids at 7 p.m. sharp. His assistant told me that he was such a good boss that she was leaving the civil service after 26 years to follow him. In an administration where exhausted officials often stagger around like the walking wounded, Reed told me he wasn't planning to take more than a few days off before starting his new job because he's not feeling especially tired.

He says the best advice he got when joining the administration was from a friend who told him to write down the four things he wanted to get done so he'd remember what he came to do. And Reed did so, jotting his goals on a yellow Post-it note that he attached to a full-page list of Clinton's campaign promises published in the Washington Post on Inauguration Day in 1993. He took me over to his desk and showed me the note, still attached to the yellow newspaper. It reads:

1. End welfare as we know it.

2. Cut 100,000 bureaucrats.

3. Put 100,000 cops on the street.

4. Take government away from the lobbyists and special interests and give it back to the people.

--B.R. 1/21/93

Below it is a list of Reed's goals for Clinton's second term.

1. Move 2 million more people off welfare.

2. Every state embrace world-class standards in reading and math.

3. Finish the job of putting 100,000 cops on the street and lower the crime rate four more years in a row.

Each of these goals involved a protracted struggle that Reed says, "taught me patience and persistence." But looking over these lists now, he can feel a sense of accomplishment. By signing the bill passed by Congress in 1996, Clinton did end welfare as we knew it. During his second term, an additional 6 million people left welfare rolls nationwide. The administration met its goals for reducing bureaucrats and crime while increasing the number of police and speeding the adoption of educational standards. Of the goals on Reed's list, the only conspicuous failure was the attempt to take government away from the special interests. The culture of Washington remains much the same as it did when Clinton arrived. For this, Reed blames Democrats in Congress who weren't interested in campaign-finance reform and some of Clinton's advisers who were intent on avoiding Jimmy Carter's fate of locking horns with members of his own party on Capitol Hill.

The high point of Reed's service in the White House was Clinton's signing of welfare reform legislation in 1996. An earlier welfare bill he was primarily responsible for drafting went nowhere, thanks mainly to Democratic opposition in Congress in 1994. After Republicans took control of Congress, they passed a far more punitive version of welfare reform, one that stuck with Clinton's idea of time-limited welfare but also cut off a variety of benefits for legal immigrants.

Administration officials divided on the question of whether Clinton should sign the bill. White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta led the majority arguing for a veto. Reed argued in favor of signing, arguing that Clinton had to keep his campaign promise and that there would be an opportunity to undo some of the punitive aspects of the bill after the 1996 election. "I argued that the bill would work," Reed remembers. "We could fix the problems, and we might never have this chance again." Clinton took Reed's advice and signed. The result has been a reduction of the welfare rolls from 14.1 million when Clinton took office in 1993 to around 6 million now.