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Friday, November 1, 1996

For nearly 40 years, my grandma taught poor immigrant first-graders in Brooklyn to read. She also taught remedial reading to teenagers who had somehow never mastered the written word. She was a marvelous teacher who combined patience, affection, and phonics, which she always said was the best way to learn. And at her funeral, many of her former pupils showed up to honor her memory.

          "Your grandmother gave me a gift I will never forget," one of them told me. "When she taught me to read, she changed my life. She opened doors that had slammed shut on me. She made it possible for me to succeed."

          I thought of my grandmother when I heard President Clinton's stirring call for a national literacy campaign at the Democratic convention in August. "Let us set a clear national goal," Clinton said. "All children should be able to read on their own by the third grade." Yes, I thought, the president is right on target: Literacy is the key to all other learning. Unless he can read, a child is doomed. And Grandma would have applauded Clinton's infectious, can-do spirit. She always insisted that every child could be taught to read.

President Clinton uses the language of personal responsibility to promote and perpetuate government irresponsibility

          Grandma also would applaud the precise, measurable standard the president set for his campaign. This is not some slippery, Goals 2000-type call to raise self-esteem or ensure children enter school "ready to learn." This is a real test measuring essential knowledge, the kind of test that good teachers prize. Either a child can read or he can't, in which case some other way to teach him must be found. And it's a badly needed test because, as President Clinton reminded us, 40 percent of eight-year-olds have serious reading difficulties.

          The president's literacy proposal is attractive for other reasons. It calls not for a new bureaucratic program but rather a volunteer army of 1 million reading tutors. This is consistent with Clinton's appreciation of civil society and the American tradition of citizens stepping forward to solve the problems of their communities. So far so good.

          But wait a minute: Where's the accountability for teachers? Just what are they supposed to be doing, if not teaching our children to read? If 40 percent of eight-year-olds have trouble reading, what's wrong with our public schools? Shouldn't we hire better teachers who can teach reading the way Grandma did? And why aren't problem readers helped by the $30 billion-plus we spend each year on special education?

          The literacy proposal is typical of Clinton at his best and at his worst. He has a brilliant knack for focusing the nation's attention like a laser beam on a profound problem. He laces his solutions with culturally conservative notions such as rigorous testing and volunteerism rather than bureaucracy. But he totally ignores the need to reform existing institutions that are already expected to address the problem; in this case, he absolves the schools of their failure to teach. President Clinton uses the language of personal responsibility to promote and perpetuate government irresponsibility.

          Clinton has defined himself as a cultural conservative. There are a few issues where he is on the cultural left: abortion, where he defends even a grisly procedure bordering on infanticide, and civil rights, where he defends racial preferences that violate the principle of equality before the law. On gay rights, he sends mixed signals. But on most social issues, Clinton is the most culturally conservative Democratic presidential nominee since Hubert Humphrey, perhaps even since Harry Truman. Consider the Clinton record:

  • He has issued guidelines calling for more teaching about religion in public schools; during his presidency, National Public Radio and PBS have finally begun treating religion with respect.
  • He has promoted the V-chip for TV sets to give parents more control over what their children watch.
  • Over the objections of the American Civil Liberties Union, he has signed "Megan's Law"-style legislation to keep parents informed of convicted sex offenders living in their neighborhoods.
  • He has endorsed youth curfews and school uniforms -- seemingly small measures, but a significant rebuke to "children's-rights" activists within the Democratic party who oppose any restrictions on the freedom of minors.
  • He has said Dan Quayle was right about the irreplaceable benefits of the two-parent family.
  • He and the First Lady have spoken out frequently about the importance of adoption, and, over the objections of the National Association of Black Social Workers, the president signed GOP legislation overturning barriers to transracial adoption.
  • He has embraced the principles of the Founding in defining what it means to be an American: "If you believe in the values of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, if you are willing to work hard and play by the rules, you are part of our family."
  • He has signed legislation protecting states from being forced to recognize homosexual marriages.
  • He says that the three central principles of the Democratic Party in this election are "opportunity," "responsibility," and "community."
  • Most prominently, despite the opposition of his party's left wing, the president signed the Republican welfare-reform legislation abolishing Aid to Families with Dependent Children as an entitlement and sending a clear signal that society expects able-bodied welfare recipients to work.

          These moves to the center cannot be brushed off simply as election-year posturing or Dick Morris's triangulation strategy. Many of the president's cultural proposals reflect the work of William Galston, Elaine Kamarck, and other New Democrats associated with the communitarian movement and the Progressive Policy Institute. And Clinton targets cultural conservatism not just to swing voters but to the traditional base of the Democratic party. For instance, in 1993 at the Tennessee church where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his final sermon, Clinton imagined what Dr. King might say today:

          "He would say, 'I did not live and die to see the American family destroyed.' 'I fought for freedom,' he would say, 'but not for the freedom of people to kill each other with reckless abandon; not for the freedom of children to have children and the fathers of the children to walk away from them and abandon them as if they don't amount to anything. . . . This is not what I lived and died for.' "

Co-Conspirator in Evasion

          Clinton, in short, is guiding Democrats to a greater appreciation of family and religion and community. But he still promotes government's massive flight from responsibility. For the past 30 years, American mayors and governors have sought to deflect responsibility for failing schools, rising crime rates, and welfare dependency. "Don't blame us," the mayors and governors have said, "blame the federal government, which hasn't given us enough money." President Clinton is a co-conspirator in this strategy of evasion. He may say that "the era of Big Government is over," but he is expanding federal responsibility in a way that diffuses the accountability of public officials.

          Consider the president's much-trumpeted funding of "100,000 new police officers" for America's communities. In truth, Clinton's crime initiative has funded 20,000 new cops, a 3 percent addition to existing police forces. But the president has given America's mayors something more important than the few new officers in each city. Now the federal government shares responsibility for police protection. Cities can now cut their own funding of law enforcement with the expectation that the feds will make up the difference. Even better, the mayors can now blame Newt Gingrich and "GOP budget-cutting" for the failures of their own police departments.

          Senator Dole has contributed to this irresponsibility, too. He has campaigned as if local law enforcement were the president's job. The real issue should not be whether Bill Clinton or Bob Dole is tougher on crime. The real issue is why city governments, run mostly by liberal Democrats, can't protect their citizens. If Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and police chief William Bratton can cut crime by 35 percent in New York City, why can't Mayors Marion Barry and Ed Rendell do the same in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia? If California can cut crime by 9 percent in one year with a "three strikes and you're out" law, why can't other states? Americans ought to be asking themselves these questions, but with Dole's help, Clinton has muddied these comparisons by claiming a central role for the federal government.

          Perhaps no Clinton initiative promotes government irresponsibility more than his favorite, AmeriCorps. Modeled on the military, AmeriCorps has many culturally conservative attributes. It is dedicated to service, volunteerism, and duty to country. AmeriCorps sends its members to many fine organizations that foster personal responsibility. One such group, Habitat for Humanity, promotes home ownership, self-help, and sweat equity as it helps low-income people build their own houses.

No, Mrs. Clinton, it doesn't take a president to raise a child. If everyone's responsible, no one's responsible.

          But for all its emphasis on personal responsibility, AmeriCorps aggravates the crisis in government irresponsibility. It is a federal organization parachuting into local communities to solve local problems -- helping a charter school in Oakland, a community-service program in Dallas, a police-cadet program in New York City. Many of these are worthy causes, but AmeriCorps usurps local responsibility. Local governments and private funders have the greatest stake in the success of such programs. They are also in the best position to hold them accountable for how money is spent. But these local institutions are less likely to seek or finance promising solutions if they think AmeriCorps will do it for them.

          AmeriCorps fosters irresponsibility in another way. The federal government now does so many things that it does nothing very well. At a time when government should focus on what it does best and what it alone can do, why is Clinton inflating an already-bloated public sector with volunteer organizations such as Habitat for Humanity that can prosper without government help?

          Clinton's diffusion of responsibility is best reflected, of course, in the First Lady's breathtaking statement at the Democratic convention that "it takes a president" to raise a child. No, Mrs. Clinton, moms and dads raise children. Parents can be helped by a village, properly understood: by relatives, teachers, clergy, police, neighbors. But a village defined as a national community can't help them in any meaningful way. Children are in trouble today precisely because moms and dads -- and neighbors and relatives -- are abdicating their responsibility and expecting the president to come to the rescue.

         In his convention speech in August, the president defended welfare reform by saying, "Now there's no more 'Who's to blame?' on welfare. Now the only question is 'What to do?,' and we all have a responsibility." Therein lies the essence of Clintonism. Hold everyone responsible, hold no one accountable. When everyone has a responsibility, no one can be blamed when programs fail. And, if we take seriously the history of welfare, fail they will.

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