Okay, okay. I know the question you're asking. "What does Bill Clinton say in his memoirs about welfare reform?" Your interest is understandable! It's a rich subject--welfare reform was one of the major achievements of the Clinton years, and provided one of its moments of high drama and mystery.
After he lost the Congress in 1994, if you remember, Clinton had to somehow get the Republicans to send him a bill that wasn't so draconian he'd have to veto it. Finally, after two vetoes and as the 1996 election approached, Congress sent him a bill that had some of the roughest edges taken off--but that still ended the federal welfare "entitlement" and cut benefits to legal immigrants. Would Clinton dare veto it too? Liberal FOBs like Marian Wright Edelman, and many Democrats (including some who voted for the bill) were desperate for a veto. Clinton's New Democrat aides like Bruce Reed and Rahm Emanuel wanted Clinton to sign. It all seemed to come down to a big, multi-hour White House session on July 31, 1996 at which Reed and HHS secretary Donna Shalala duked it out, with Al Gore (for signing) Leon Panetta (against) then retreating with Clinton into the Oval Office.
Why did Clinton sign? Did he think, as Time reported he said at the time, that it was a "decent welfare bill wrapped in a sack of s---"? Did he trust states to take over welfare because he'd been a governor? How much politics was involved? A veto would have given Bob Dole a major issue in the 1996 race. Liberals--and Clinton-bashing conservatives, for that matter-- have long maintained Clinton signed because Dick Morris told him it would win him the election. What did Hillary think? To this day, nobody really knows for sure--some liberals persist in thinking she must have been for a veto. Hillary was mysteriously out of town for the climactic meeting. Was that meeting just for show--a bit of elaborate "Kabuki theater" with pre-ordained outcome? Or was Clinton really potentially undecided, as at least some of the participants thought? Does Clinton now feel the ultimate outcome was better or worse than what he would have gotten if (as Senator Moynihan wanted) he'd pushed his own welfare bill in his first two years instead of Hillary's health care bill?
Historians will want to know these things. What does Clinton have to tell them? I've read all the pages listed in the index* under "welfare reform," and must admit I was shocked by the answer. Clinton says virtually nothing--at least nothing that even uninterested readers of headlines wouldn't know. In 957 pages he brings up welfare reform about twenty times, usually to note that, oh yes, then he vetoed the GOP bill and then he signed the bill, then he did this, then he did that. There's nothing about the big meeting, nothing about Hillary, only the most cursory treatment of the considerations that went into deciding to sign the bill. ("Though we had pursued welfare reforms through granting waivers from the existing system to most states, America needed legislation that changed the emphasis of assistance to the poor from dependence on welfare checks to independence through work.")
Clinton's one interesting admission comes in a paragraph on page 631, where he says (correctly, I think) that he might not have lost either house of Congress if in 1994 he'd put off his stalled health care reform and "taken up and passed welfare reform instead." That "would have been popular with alienated middle-class Americans," he notes. Yep! But Clinton doesn't go into why he failed to make this obvious move--was it, say, because Hillary didn't want to and he didn't stand up to her? Because the Democratic Congressional leadership was bitterly opposed? Nor does he even bring up the larger issue of why he'd given health care reform priority over welfare reform in the first place.
I've always thought Clinton knew quite a bit about welfare--when he talks about it, he seems familiar with the territory. He chaired a gubernatorial task force on the subject. When I opened My Life, I didn't expect a discussion of the (often crucial) legislative details--"caseload reduction credits," "participation rates," and the like. I did expect some textured, insiderish discussion of the general considerations:
Republicans who are loath to credit Clinton with reforming welfare have tended to portray him as a poser who only signed the bill for superficial political reasons (even if aides like Reed had a deeper understanding). I've resisted this conclusion. Clinton's book is the first thing I've seen that suggests the Republicans might be right.
*Note: I'm relying on Clinton's index to steer me to all the book's discussions of welfare. I'm told the index is lousy--but regarding welfare, I'm pretty confident that it lists all the major relevant passages. 2:01 P.M.
Saturday, June 26, 2004
Zarqawi Aides Increasingly Confident, says LAT: The Iraq war has already been lost, to read today's L.A. Times. ("Iraq Insurgency Showing Signs of Momentum") There are five reporters credited with contributing to this front-page lead story, and nothing in it backs up the subhead's claim* that "some U.S. commanders say it could be too late to reverse the wave of violence." You would expect, after this build-up, to see, say, quotes from some U.S. commanders saying it could be too late to reverse the wave of violence! No such luck. The best the LAT comes up with is Maj. Gen. Petraeus saying "I think we're going to continue to see sensational attacks." But Petraeus is obviously dispelling any expectation that the attacks will stop soon--he's not saying its too late to defeat the insurgency and reduce the violence in the months ahead. ... Is this story the Times' alternative-universe equivalent, for Iraq, of its famous hed in the final stages of the successful campaign to recall Gov. Gray Davis race: