A Secret Agenda?

BILL CLINTON'S LATEST SELF-APPOINTED ROLE IS AS America's futurologist. He's been telling us -- at the Democratic convention, in a new book and in interviews -- that he's building ""a bridge'' to the 21st century. To The Washington Post he brags that he's overseeing America's transition into a ""global economy and a global information age.'' He suggests that he deserves to be compared to Theodore Roosevelt, who tempered America's adjustment to industrialization a century ago. Does anyone believe all this presidential blab?

We can't predict the future, but we do know one trend that will profoundly affect us in the new century: an aging baby boom. It will create a collision between promised government benefits -- mainly for Social Security and Medicare -- and the steep taxes (possibly 50 percent higher than today) needed to pay for them. Averting this collision, or dealing with its consequences, is inevitably the stuff of tomorrow's politics. But somehow it fails to make Clinton's futuristic radar screen.

It's not in his 178-page book; nor was it in his 67-minute convention speech. Instead, Clinton's vision deals mostly with issues that are old hat and nonpresidential. Education. He favors more of it, even though there's no evidence that America underinvests in education. In 1992, the United States spent 7 percent of its gross domestic product on education, while Japan spent 4.8 percent, (Western) Germany 4.9 percent and Sweden 6.8 percent. Perhaps we don't spend wisely, but in any case education rests mainly with states and localities.

Another favorite Clinton theme is solving ""the big social conundrum of our time, which is how to balance work and family.'' That, too, defies presidential solution. Government rules (on parental leave, flextime) might ease some tensions, while also creating opportunities for abuse. And every family and firm would still face the basic conflict, which is as simple as it is unavoidable: people can't be in two places at once. Choices have to be made. If people devote more time to their children, they're almost certain to devote less time to their work.

Clinton poses as our national therapist -- sympathizing with our every anxiety and offering pseudosolutions to all of them -- federal government, led by his inattention to Medicare and Social Security. Clinton is evasive because he has enormous confidence in his command of language. He thinks he can seduce almost anyone with words. As a result, he constantly disguises disagreeable realities and overstates modest accomplishments. Even his most casual claims need to be tested for truth and relevance.

Consider this boast, made to The Wall Street Journal: ""I mean, I'm the first president since John Tyler before the Civil War [1841-1845] to reduce the deficit in all four years of his term.'' Technically, this is true. It's also completely irrelevant, because before World War II, presidents usually ran budget surpluses, except for wars and depressions. Between 1800 and 1860, there were 41 surpluses. After the Civil War, there wasn't one deficit between 1866 and 1893. Even after World War II, Truman ran four surpluses and Eisenhower had three.

Clinton's reluctance to discuss Social Security and Medicare is, of course, calculated. After all, he's spent a year pounding the Republicans for their mild effort to overhaul Medicare. But Clinton grasps the larger issues, which have been illuminated by countless studies. In a recent report, for example, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected that paying for Social Security and Medicare, in their present form, would require a tax increase of almost a third by the year 2030. Eliminating the present budget deficit would require an additional tax increase of roughly 10 percent.

The only way to avoid (or minimize) much higher taxes, the CBO said, would be a mix of an older retirement age, reduced benefits and a shift of Medicare toward managed care. On Medicare, the Republicans proposed precisely such a shift. The impact on today's recipients would have been small and, quite possibly, beneficial. Clinton's demolition of this effort confounds the CBO's sensible advice. Changes in these programs, it suggested, ought to be made soon ""before the boomers retire'' because ""delay will only make the necessary actions more severe'' and ""gradual changes would give people more time to plan and adjust.''

Pressed on these issues by reporters, Clinton dodges. To The Washington Post he said that the problem is overstated and that he'd appoint a bipartisan commission in his second term to study changes in Social Security; a similar suggestion appears in The Wall Street Journal encompassing Medicare. But wait. Didn't Clinton once appoint such a commission? Well, yes. In 1993 he named a Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement Reform at the urging of Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. But then Clinton effectively sabotaged it by ignoring it; the commission reached no consensus.

To dismiss a new commission, though, as another Clinton ploy may underestimate the man's capacity for strategic deceit. It's conceivable that Clinton would spend a second term addressing Medicare's and Social Security's long-term problems -- that is, trimming future benefits -- even though the entire Democratic campaign is premised on the idea that only Republicans threaten these benefits. (Indeed, the AFL-CIO is now running ads attacking Republicans over Medicare.) The reason for the turnaround would be simple: the problems are so large and inevitable that if Clinton avoids them, his ""place in history'' might be irreparably damaged. So he may harbor a secret agenda that's exactly the opposite of his public posture.

With Clinton, it's impossible to predict. His blab is not his bond. Words do not express unshakable commitments or firm convictions. They are simply expedient observations intended to aid the maneuver of the moment. If he ultimately arrives at the correct policy on Medicare and Social Security (changing them), he might justify his reversal by claiming that he hasn't shifted at all. Who knows whether he could convince the public of that and execute needed changes? But the mere possibility puts the lie to his present pose: he's neither candidly describing the future nor forthrightly leading us into it.