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February 23, 1999

Clinton Allies Keep Poverty Off the National Agenda

solomon.jpg - 16502 Bytesby Norman Solomon

During the past year, many liberal pundits have condemned efforts to oust Bill Clinton from the White House. After countless denunciations of Kenneth Starr and congressional Republicans, we certainly know what those pundits are against. But what are they for?

The reality is grim. With few exceptions, liberals in the mass media -- and in Congress -- are comfortable with the existing economic order. And they refuse to challenge a status quo that means dire neglect for millions of Americans.

Today, in the United States, one out of five babies is born below the poverty line. So, at this time of bountiful surplus, why not declare war on poverty?

To mainstream journalists and powerful politicians in Washington, such questions are irrelevant. Savvy commentators don't even bother to rationalize the national surrender to poverty. And they don't object to the fact that President Clinton's new budget keeps the white flag waving -- proudly.

We hear plenty of selective declarations that the era of "big government" is over. Applauded by major news outlets, the president is Mr. Frugal for the poor and Santa Claus for the military.

His latest boost of Pentagon spending will finance multibillion-dollar gift items like attack submarines, fighter planes and an aircraft carrier.

When Clinton unveiled his budget in early February, one of the few prominent Democrats to complain was Paul Wellstone. Citing "a great number of critical domestic programs that desperately require real budgetary commitment," the Minnesota senator decried "the broad and growing chasm that divides the wealthy and prosperous from the majority of Americans."

Wellstone's comments elicited media yawns and shrugs. The New York Times reported: "It was a sign of the Democratic Party's move to center on fiscal issues that his critique was an isolated one and that the official party line of the day was that Democrats stood for a smaller, smarter government."

The virtual collapse of substantive dissent within the national Democratic Party runs parallel to the baseline among elite liberal pundits. They join with the rest of the punditocracy in chanting that "the economy" is doing great and America is enjoying marvelous "prosperity."

Meanwhile, pundits across the media's narrow conservative-to-liberal spectrum rarely mention that the Clinton administration has gone out of its way to avoid putting the subject of poverty on the nation's political agenda. When the topic comes up, the avoidance is routinely explained as a matter of political realism.

According to the pundits who tout each other's sparkling conventional wisdom, the American public would reject any push for a federal anti-poverty crusade. That is supposed to be political reality. End of discussion.

But consider some polling data just released by the Pew Research Center: When American adults were asked about their preferences for action by President Clinton and Congress, 24 percent gave "top priority" to the idea of "cutting the capital gains tax." Fifty- two percent gave "top priority" to "reducing federal income taxes for the middle class."

But what happened when Americans were asked to rank the importance of the White House and Congress "dealing with the problems of poor and needy people"? Fifty-seven percent ranked it as a "top priority" -- even though such concerns have gotten very little attention from journalists covering politics.

What's more, the public response has been remarkably consistent over previous years: In 1997 and 1998, the "top priority" category for "dealing with the problems of poor and needy people" was at the identical 57 percent mark.

Is this question a fluke? Hardly. A year ago, the Pew Research Center released the results of a different poll that covered similar ground in more detail:

Perhaps our eminent journalists have concluded that the American people holding such views are out of step with the American people.


Norman Solomon is co-author of Wizards of Media Oz. His new book The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media will be published in March.


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