The last-minute liberal

President Clinton has refused to go quietly. This is no duck, least of all a lame one. He has been spending his final days using his power to the maximum to invoke that hallmark of effective politics, the art of the possible.

In these last days, Mr. Clinton has let the secret out of the bag. He is a closet liberal who has just burst out of the closet. His so-called centrist "third way" was a doctrine of political convenience to invigorate a Democratic Party in trouble, and an administration confronting the realities of global corporatism, "free market" dogma, and movement conservatism. For eight years, he's had to buck the flow, and now, on the final leg, he is using the current to get somewhat closer to where he really wanted to go.

With a new, more-moderate Congress sworn in, the outgoing president is doing things that many Americans wanted.

In the final days, he announced a ban on logging and road-building on a third of national forests, a boon to hikers, campers, and sightseers.

His Agriculture Department issued standards to protect the purity, safety, and quality of organic foods. Hundreds of thousands of American consumers campaigned against efforts by big food combines to adulterate and exploit hazy standards. With the promulgation of the new standards, organic producers cannot spread sewage sludge over fields, irradiate vegetables, or genetically engineer plants and label the results "organic." In a free market, marketers often must be protected from themselves. In this case, the new regulations will ensure that the organic products the US exports will find a ready market in Europe, where shoppers are more discriminating about food than some Americans.

Clinton also came to the aid of our air. He approved pollution-control standards over the next decade on big diesel-powered semis and buses. They are called "smudge pots on wheels," and the industry has used its clout in Congress to keep them free of environmental and health regulations - until now. Particles from diesel combustion are tiny, and can cause health problems. The smog that big-truck emissions produce and the soot they create poison clean air. The sulfur they belch out aggravates the warming of the planet. The industry has invoked its ancient protest: that the regs will add grievously to the cost of producing their vehicles. But the numbers it uses to make the case do not calculate the enormous costs to the public health or to the environment.

The Clinton administration also issued a new set of rules to protect the privacy of citizens' medical records. Patients must give their consent to doctors, insurance companies, clinics, and hospitals before this information can be shared. The absence of strict standards has led to the easy pilfering of health records, which can be used to violate privacy, including preventing applicants from getting jobs or insurance coverage. The healthcare industry, too, complains that the new regs will add to medical costs. It registers little concern about the costs to real people of breaching their privacy.

The president has used his power of interim appointment to place a brilliant African-American lawyer on the all-white bench of the US Court of Appeals Fourth Circuit in Richmond. The seat has been empty for a decade, and Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina has repeatedly used his Senate privilege to shelve Clinton's nomination of a qualified black. The Fourth Circuit has legal jurisdiction over five Southern and border states, which have large black populations. Yet the chief judge of that notoriously conservative court, J. Harvie Wilkinson, has had the chutzpah to argue that it's more efficient to administer 10 judges than 11.

Before leaving, Clinton and Democratic leaders in Congress are taking steps to ensure that his temporary appointment of Roger Gregory is made permanent by the Senate before incoming Vice President Dick Cheney can break a tie and reverse it.

Clinton is giving Mr. Cheney's chief, "compassionate conservative" George W. Bush, a challenging rite of passage. There's talk that his new administration will try to roll back Clinton's final works - the protection of forests, of air, of medical privacy, of organic food, of minority rights. If that happens, Americans will get an early idea of just how "compassionate" Bush country really is.

The essence of Clinton's final gift is a civics lesson on the appropriate role of the government, which the public has been conditioned to sell short: There's nothing wrong with Washington when it acts to redress the power balance between the people and the special interests. Beneficent government is the only equalizer the people have.

Jerry M. Landay, a former White House correspondent for ABC News, writes on national issues.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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