President Clinton sought Tuesday night to vault above the partisan impasse that grips the nation’s capital, embracing conservative themes and values and arguing in a prime time electionyear address that the State of the Union is “strong” despite the failure to balance the federal budget.
“The era of big government is over,” Clinton said. He peppered his remarks with bows to traditional values, speaking out against divorce, teenage pregnancy and violence in the media and calling for crackdowns on urban youth gangs, illegal immigration and turmoil in the schools.
But in a possible preview of the 1996 presidential contest, Bob Dole, Senate majority leader, gave the Republican response to Clinton’s speech and bluntly challenged the president’s sincerity.
“While the president’s words speak of change, his deeds are a contradiction,” Dole said.
“The president has chosen to defend, with his veto, a welfare system that no one can defend,” Dole said. “He has chosen to defend the status quo in Medicare, a system on which lives depend and a program in urgent need of rescue.
“He has chosen to defend and increase a tax burden and has pushed countless families into their own personal recessions,” Dole added. “And he has chosen to veto the first balanced budget in a generation, offering only a fantasy in its place.”
The face-off showed how the two leaders’ styles and beliefs differ. Clinton’s speech was an hourlong epic, an unfocused catalog of liberal programs and conservative values. Dole’s response, though not as smoothly delivered, was concise and steely, replete with patriotic imagery and partisan criticism.
“Big government does not have all the answers … but we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves,” said Clinton, defending both his vision of an activist government and his dogged, yearlong opposition to GOP balanced budget plans.
“We know there is not a program for every problem,” Clinton said. But “self-reliance and teamwork are not opposing virtues. We must have both.”
In what Republicans dismissed as political grandstanding, Clinton urged GOP leaders to return to the bargaining table for one more try at a balanced budget deal, and he challenged them to pass a welfare-reform bill to replace the one he has vetoed.
“Now it is time to finish the job,” Clinton said. “Permanent deficit spending must come to an end … I am ready to meet tomorrow.”
Dole responded, “We will challenge President Clinton again and again to walk the talk he talks so well.”
GOP lawmakers in the chamber, ordered by their leadership to refrain from outbursts of scorn, gave polite applause to both Clintons. Dole did the talking for them, savaging the president as “the rearguard of the welfare state … the chief obstacle to a balanced budget” and a liberal elitist.
“President Clinton shares a view of America held by our country’s elites: a nation of special interest groups united only by a dependence on government, competing with each other for handouts,” Dole said.
“For three years, this administration has valued dependence on government over self-reliance … It has put liberal judges on the bench to war with our values, and it questions the participation of religious people in public life, treating them as fanatics out of step with America.”
Clinton addressed the GOP-controlled Congress at a time when the relationship between the executive and legislative branches is strained by partisan tensions over the Whitewater affair, the stymied negotiations over a balanced budget and other issues.
“We live in an age of possibility. A hundred years ago we moved from farm to factory. Now we move to an age of technology, information and global competition. These changes have opened vast new opportunities for our people, but they also present stiff challenges,” Clinton said. “More Americans are living better lives, but too many of our fellow citizens are working harder to keep up, and they are rightly concerned about the future of their families.”
Clinton urged the Republicans to pass temporary spending legislation and avoid another government shutdown this week. He also warned the GOP that if they did not extend the federal debt limit, the government faces the prospect of default at the end of February, endangering payments for Social Security, veterans and other federal benefits.
“I challenge all of you in this chamber: Never - ever - shut the federal government down again,” Clinton said. “And on behalf of all Americans, I challenge Congress to preserve the full faith and credit of the United States, to honor our obligations as we have for 220 years.”
The president used his speech to announce that Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, now head of the US Southern Command in Panama, will take office as the administration’s new drug czar.
Because of the budget impasse, and his promise to stem the flow of federal red ink by the end of seven years, Clinton could not go before Congress with the usual menu of crowd-pleasing programs and election-year initiatives offered in speeches by previous presidents.
Clinton’s list of new offerings was meager. He proposed:
Establishment of a $1,000 merit scholarship for college-bound students who finish in the top 5 percent of their high school graduating class;
A tax break for businesses who agree to clean up and reclaim abandoned industrial sites in distressed urban areas;
Expansion of the administration’s college work study program from some 700,000 students to more than 1 million in the next five years.
He urged the lawmakers not to
repeal the two gun control measures enacted during his first two years of office - the Brady Bill controls on handguns and the ban on assault weapons.
Clinton also announced several modest crime-fighting initiatives. They include a “one strike and you’re out” provision to oust drug dealers and violent criminals from public housing, an executive order to deny federal contracts to companies that hire illegal aliens and a coordinated war on urban street gangs, led by the FBI.