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Matt Miller on Assistant to the President and NEC Director Gene Sperling

Matt Miller emails:

My secret, definitive (and unpublished) profile of Gene Sperling!

In the summer and fall of 1999, while a senior editor at The New Republic, I worked on a profile of Gene Sperling, then the chairman of the National Economic Council, a position to which President Obama is appointing him again. I'd known, worked with and closely observed Gene during my stint as a senior adviser at the Office of Management and Budget from 1993 to 1995, though we were not personally close. I thought Sperling's journey during the Clinton years was an ideal way to tell the story of the possibilities and limits of progressive policy in an era of divided government. Sperling cooperated with the profile in a series of long interviews over several months.

To my surprise and dismay, TNR rejected the original, 5,300-word draft for being "too favorable" to its subject and instead ran only a sharply truncated and lobotomized version. This reaction seemed emblematic of an editorial reflex I still don't understand, perhaps because I came to journalism after working in business and government. Having served in a White House, I can't help but try to empathize with those who serve in senior roles, and it's always struck me as odd that journalists are supposed to pretend they don't admire certain public figures even as they honestly assess their strengths and weaknesses and render a verdict on their actions.

Anyway, reading the piece now, over a decade later as Sperling takes the helm at the NEC again, I believe it stands up well as both a story of the man and a study of a situation that is (again) bound to frustrate progressive hopes in the years ahead. Since a writer naturally never wants anything on which he worked so hard to go to waste, I'm delighted to share the original version for those looking to better understand the evolving White House team. You can find the piece here. Thanks, President Obama, for making the piece relevant again.


Matt Miller Online: Unpublished profile of Gene Sperling: November 1999.

Originally rejected by the New Republic because it was "too favorable," then run in shorter form:

It's 4:30 on a Wednesday in mid-October, and, as on most of the more than two thousand days that Gene Sperling has worked for Bill Clinton, the schedule has exploded. The president's press conference started late and ended later, which meant Sperling, head of the White House's National Economic Council, had to scrap lunch with a Democratic senator and leave a gaggle of European trade officials cooling their heels. Now, at the end of the conference table in his wood-paneled West Wing lair, from whose tiny windows one can hardly detect the crisp fall air outside, the president's top economic adviser is working the phone. Sperling instructs an aide on how to navigate the latest bump in talks with Republicans on the banking bill. He plots Clinton's coming visit to Newark to promote urban development with a New Jersey billionaire. Between sips of Diet Coke and absent nibbles on a fingernail, Sperling calls for data, cracks jokes, and drums the table restlessly with his fingers. As plans for evening strategy meetings on the budget take shape (and for Gene Sperling there is always a night shift), Sperling, who turns 41 next month, seems in his element. It's been a year since Clinton was humiliated and then impeached, when the good fight Sperling came to Washington to wage seemed near an end. Now the capitol is full of possibilities again.

"Policy is back!" Sperling announces, to no one in particular.

But not in the way he once would have hoped. On Sperling's wall is a framed copy of the 1994 State of the Union address. "To Gene," reads the inscription in the president's looping hand, "whose dreams and ideas are here." Many of those dreams are still trapped under glass. Deficits and divided government have left Sperling's tenure, a mirror of the president's, marked by paradox. Clinton roared into office in 1993 waving a Sperling-drafted pledge to "Put People First," with plans to boost funding for lifelong learning, R & D and infrastructure by some $50 billion a year. This was no liberal pipe dream but a matter of establishment consensus; Republican banker and peerless deficit hawk Pete Peterson, for example, joined blue ribbon panels at the time in calls to devote an extra 1 percent of GDP each year to such "public investment." That agenda was scrapped as Clinton faced worsening deficit forecasts and stemming red ink became his priority. Public investment, which dropped from 2.6 percent of GDP two decades ago to 1.9 percent in 1992, has fallen to 1.7 percent on Clinton's watch. Now, however, thanks to a mix of tough choices, GOP prodding, Alan Greenspan's steady hand and a dose of good luck, Clinton has transformed the $300 billion deficits he inherited into surpluses that could top an astonishing $3 trillion over the next decade. Yet the center of political gravity has shifted so spectacularly in the interim that the bold public investment agenda that was a winner in an era of scarcity can't even be discussed by a Democratic White House when it could at last be funded.

For Sperling the irony gets personal. Known to colleagues, as former White House press secretary Michael McCurry puts it, as the embodiment of "the pure, idealistic, best side of Bill Clinton," Sperling has given seven years of hundred hour weeks largely out of a desire to help poor people. His rare blend of political savvy, policy smarts and communications skills have long since made Sperling one of the most powerful White House officials—a fact many reporters, unable to dislodge their stereotype of the disheveled "war room" spinner, don't fully appreciate. "He's the premier advisor at the interface between politics and economics of his generation," says Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers.

In this year's budget endgame, however, the last hour before posturing for the 2000 race swamps further chances for substantive legislation, Sperling's ample talents have been devoted to assuring that virtually all of the surplus he's helped create is locked away to pay down the national debt—leaving just pennies for the training, health, or anti-poverty initiatives that might help millions left out of today's prosperity. The thought is inescapable: if the Gene Sperling of 1992 could see what the Gene Sperling of 1999 was up to, it's hard to imagine he wouldn't be disappointed.

Many prominent liberals certainly are, citing Sperling (off-the-record) as the poster boy for the Clinton administration's betrayal. Truth is, they're wrong to. To be sure, much has changed for Sperling as he's risen to the job previously held by Wall Street titan Bob Rubin and academic star Laura Tyson. The once-schlumpy staffer now sports tailored suits, Hermes ties, and the occasional French cuff. His shorter, styled hair sweeps back off his forehead in banker's fashion, sometimes aided by a dab of gel.

But beneath these trappings, as several hours of conversation recently with Sperling reveals, breathes a pragmatic, battle-scarred liberal whose journey, more than that of better-known White House aides, captures the limits and possibilities of progressive policy as the Clinton era ends. If George Stephanopoulos personified the administration's cynical glamour, and Dick Morris its lust for power, Gene Sperling has been its heart.


The striking thing about Sperling's rise is how fragile and therefore privileged it seems to him; more than most young Washington men in a hurry, Sperling knows his story is one of character and serendipity, of talent colliding with luck. Sperling was raised in an upper middle class home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His mother, a teacher, had a forty year career in the public schools. His father is a plaintiff's lawyer [ck] who mainly represents injured workers. Sperling's parents were deeply committed to racial justice, a passion they passed to their four children. "You would see kids your age living in such bad conditions, " Sperling recalls of drives through Detroit to baseball games as a kid. "It always seemed extremely unfair to me."

A diehard University of Michigan fan, Gene didn't miss a home football game between ages 6 and 18. But tennis was his life. In high school Sperling ranked in the top ten statewide, with a grueling baseline game that wore down opponents. He was lured to the University of Minnesota by a full athletic scholarship. There began Sperling's intellectual awakening. He spurned economics, which was taught in a way that "discourages people who have lots of ideas," and majored instead in political science, where Sperling felt free to think creatively. He pulled down a perfect 4.0 grade average while playing varsity tennis four hours a day. Soon he was off to Yale Law School. At that point, a friend recalls, "he didn't know a thing about economics."

This would change. Sperling had been upset by Ronald Reagan's election, offended not only by the cuts Republicans sought in programs that served the needy, but by the fashionable GOP ethic that poor folks had only themselves to blame. Democrats did a terrible job talking about the economy, Sperling felt, letting themselves be cast on the wrong side of false choices between "the free market" and "government." Why shouldn't Democrats be champions of free enterprise and entrepreneurship, he thought—just because you want money for Head Start doesn't mean you're anti-growth.

Robert Reich was among those urging Democrats to recast their economic message this way in 1981. After reading Reich's essays in The New Republic, Sperling got in to see him at Harvard's Kennedy School, and soon talked himself into an unpaid research job, commuting from New Haven to Cambridge. His law school classmates were baffled. Reich was little known at the time; his work was scorned by academics. But politicians were lining up to hear Reich's ideas. "I was really fascinated by the way he was able to be relevant," Sperling recalls.

Torn between civil rights law and a career in public policy after Yale, Sperling enrolled at Wharton Business School, determined to become hard-headed in his approach to economic issues. A semester short of his MBA (which Sperling still vows he'll finish), he left in hopes of landing on a 1988 presidential campaign. Reich set up a meeting with Gary Hart but Donna Rice intervened. Al Gore was supposed to see him but didn't. At home in Ann Arbor, Sperling sulked and worked on legal articles to keep open the option of teaching law. Then the Dukakis campaign called with an unpaid grunt job covering legal issues.

Sperling's break came the day he got lunch for a meeting of campaign bigwigs who were crafting Dukakis's economic plan for the industrial midwest. Allowed to sit in after serving the food, Sperling raised his hand tentatively as the meeting broke up. "Look," he said, "I think we ought to do it this way, this way, and this way." The group, a little stunned, told Gene to write it up. Within days Sperling was one of the campaign's key economic staffers, doing nightly conference calls with Reich and then-Harvard professor Lawrence Summers, who were advising Dukakis. These calls became a crash course in presidential-level policy development for Sperling, forcing him to integrate Summers' rigorous but often abstract economic analysis with Reich's strength at framing issues in compelling, real-world terms. It was a heady, if insecure, time. "If Dukakis wins," Gene joked to colleagues, "they're gonna say back in Ann Arbor, 'did you hear about that Gene Sperling? Guy went to Yale Law School, Wharton Business School, and now he's just turning 30 and he's got a policy job in the White House'...and if we lose they're gonna go, 'that Gene Sperling, sad case, kind of a professional student, went from law school to business school, hear he's living at home now.'"

Dukakis' blowout settled that question. Sperling worked briefly as a researcher for Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe. Then, thanks to the notice he'd gained in Democratic campaign circles, Mario Cuomo came calling. Everyone thought the New York governor would run for president in 1992. Sperling leapt at the chance to serve on his Albany staff. Cuomo speaks warmly today of Gene's long hours, intellect and jump shot; he also chuckles, as do other former bosses, at the "hovel" Sperling worked in, with its buried three-month-old sandwiches.

When Cuomo decided not to run in 1992, Sperling was crushed. He'd missed another shot at the bigtime. As Clinton raced toward the nomination, Sperling waited by the phone. One day George Stephanopoulos called. Sperling, no rookie by this point, meant to negotiate like an adult. He told Stephanopoulos he was concerned about salary, access to key strategy meetings, and the like. There was a long pause. "Gene, I'm offering you the job of Economic Policy Advisor for the general election for the Democratic nominee," Stephanopoulos said. "You and I both know you would crawl down on your belly for free for this job." Sperling crawled to Little Rock, co-wrote "Putting People First" in two weeks, launched the blur of 18 hour days that's lasted since, and followed Bill Clinton into the White House.


When you ask people like Summers, Reich and Robert Rubin why Sperling has risen to wield more power than other sharp campaign aides, they invariably cite Sperling's unusual ability to "do" three things at once: politics, policy and the press. This blend wasn't as relevant back in, say, the Lincoln Administration, when knowing how a proposal or debate would "play" in the media wasn't central to governance. Today it is indispensable. There tend to be two breeds of White House aide: wonks who view politics as a constraint on rational policymaking, and politicos who thrive mainly on combat. "Gene bridges the gap," explains Reich.

Sperling has also been nervy and relentless. As Rubin's deputy and "keeper of the campaign flame" in 1993, for example, Sperling, at 34 still a junior member of the economic team, went toe to toe with Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and more than doubled the size of the Administration's boost in the earned income tax credit—beyond the level the campaign had promised, even as the deficit was cut. During Clinton's chaotic first two years, the staffer who got his hands last on a memo could often determine what arguments and analyses the president saw. Those opposing Sperling knew they had to be ready to work until 3 a.m. to make certain the boss saw their views. Sperling was "immovable," recalls one staffer, when it came to asserting his turf. He was also manic about access to key meetings, not only to have a voice, but to stay "in the loop" in the eyes of reporters, with whom he spoke for hours spinning coverage of Clinton's policies.

At the same time, Sperling lowered his expectations for public investment in ways that diehards like Reich never did. "He always showed me that he was pragmatic enough," recalls Leon Panetta, Clinton's first budget director. At first Sperling saw deficit reduction mostly as a political imperative, a prerequisite if Clinton were to avoid being "Carter-ized" as an undisciplined spender. But as the strategy bore fruit, Sperling saw that the growth lower deficits helped spark did more for the disadvantaged than the left had imagined. With today's record long expansion, unemployment at 4.1 percent, the poverty rate down, and wages rising even at the bottom of the income scale, it's hard to argue with Sperling's conversion. In any event, after the health care fiasco brought a GOP romp in 1994, any resurrection of "Putting People First" became academic. "I didn't create November 8," ran Sperling's mantra after the disastrous midterm election. "I'm just trying to deal with it." Though he couldn't know it then, "dealing" meant that much of Clinton's tenure would henceforth be a matter of playing defense.

Meanwhile, the chaos spawned by Clinton's drive to hold power in the face of Newt Gingrich's "revolution" gave Sperling the chance to prove he was ready for the top job. By 1996, Dick Morris was everywhere. Panetta (by then chief of staff) and the economic team barely spoke to Morris. Sperling was the one person on decent terms with all camps. On Hope Scholarships (for community college), tutoring programs and school construction, Sperling ran policy processes that managed to square the soundbites the political season required with the sound policy design that kept the economic team at peace. Clinton was grateful. After a brief internal debate over whether Sperling could make the step from staffer to "principal," he was tapped to lead the NEC for Clinton's second term. Eight years after fetching lunch for Dukakis aides, Sperling had cabinet rank. He was 38.


By this point the bigger-name liberals had bailed out. Reich wrote a memoir blasting his Oxford pal Clinton as a triangulating sellout. Stephanopoulos cashed in on his celebrity and plotted his own nasty kiss-and-tell. Why did Sperling stay? In part because it's unclear he'd find other work as satisfying. "Of everybody in the administration, including the president," Reich says with affection, "Gene will have the hardest time adapting to civilian life, because he's constitutionally made for what he's doing." Sperling's answer is simpler. "I've always thought we were fighting the good fight," he told me, "even in divided government." Rebuffing Gingrich's drive to scrap basic guarantees of food stamps and Medicaid, he explains, had as big an impact (albeit in defensive terms) as expanding the EITC. And if dramatic initiatives have been off the table, he adds, Clinton has nonetheless racked up progressive victories. What, Sperling seems to imply, is the nobler alternative? Taking your marbles and going home?

The budget deal Sperling helped negotiate in 1997 makes his point. The year began with a poisonous atmosphere, after the White House's shameless Medicare demagoguery helped Clinton win re-election. Now Clinton wanted a deal to finish off the deficit. "Suddenly," Sperling recalls, laughing at the irony, "whatever good tactical thinking I had was being used to reach out to the Republicans." After the inauguration, Sperling suggested that Clinton unilaterally increase the amount of Medicare cuts he would accept; the surprise gesture worked, bringing a thaw that eventually led to negotiations. Democrats had to swallow capital gains and estate tax relief that favored the rich. But they won $24 billion to expand health coverage for poor kids, HOPE scholarships that made most community colleges free, and billions more to reverse the welfare bill's punitive treatment of immigrants. They also got the deal's $500 per child tax credit extended to 13 million low income children the GOP meant to exclude. Now at the table with the likes of Gingrich, Trent Lott, John Kasich and Pete Domenici, Sperling's push for the last five million kids nearly derailed the talks. "It was a very nerve-racking moment," he says.

It also paved the way for a new era. A few months later, in late 1997, forecasts began showing that honest-to-goodness budget surpluses lay ahead, and on a scale that would have seemed unthinkable a few years earlier. Momentous choices loomed. For the first time since Clinton had been elected there was cash, in theory, to fund big new public investments, or to ramp up others (like x or y) that had received token sums. The Republicans who controlled Congress would never sign on to this, of course; they'd want to return surpluses to voters via huge tax cuts skewed toward the wealthy. Meanwhile, Social Security and Medicare soon faced a potentially bankrupting rendezvous with the baby boomers' retirement. What to do?

Sperling led a series of secret meetings in his office to figure it out. The result was Clinton's call to "Save Social Security First"—i.e. to leave the surpluses untouched (and therefore used to pay down debt) until the retirement program's long-term solvency was assured. The Sperling-orchestrated plan was "substantively sound, politically brilliant, and didn't leak, [which is] almost unheard of in Washington," says Michael Waldman, then Clinton's chief speechwriter. It was Sperling at his best.

Yet Sperling's best meant that Clinton would not use this pot of gold for the things he had sought office to accomplish. The gods must surely have laughed: here was the Democrat who pooh-poohed the deficit in his first campaign now saying it was time we went further and actually paid down the debt! This while evidence of the public investment gap mounted: one in four children in poverty; two in five eligible kids in Head Start; 44 million Americans with no health insurance; ancient public school buildings, overcrowded airports—plus R&D, air and water quality, and other infrastructure investments lagging those of other advanced nations.

Clinton's journey, and that of his alter ego Sperling, had come to this. They knew they would never get Republican assent for large public investments; if Clinton opened the door to use the surplus for things he wanted, they feared, there would be no stopping a feeding frenzy that included the GOP's tax cuts and mountains of useless pork from both parties. But Clinton thought Republicans just might want a deal on Social Security and Medicare; the GOP stood to gain, after all, if a Democrat like Clinton pulled a Nixon-to-China, and put the inevitable long-term fix for these programs behind them. Blocking both sides from pursuing their priorities in the interim—the essence of "Save Social Security First"—might force the process. They'd use non-surplus sources like a tobacco tax to fund modest initiatives (like smaller classes) and hope the political equation after 2000 would make the world safe for bigger thinking. It was an ambitious, even brilliant, strategy for a sixth-year president facing a hostile Congress, meant to keep the case for public investment alive while casting Clinton for history as the savior of his party's signature social programs. Who knows? Given a clear shot, it may even have worked. Then Ken Starr's men confronted Monica Lewinsky at the Ritz-Carlton and started scripting a different legacy from the one Clinton intended.

In his office last month, I asked Sperling to reflect on the frustrations and consolations of his tenure. As the Washington press corps knows, this is not an easy task. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Sperling is the perception gap between the officials he works with and the reporters he spins. When Bob Rubin says Sperling is among the top talents he's encountered in any setting, that's high praise; when one of the capitol's respected reporters then tells me, "I don't think of Gene as having an incisive mind," it's hard to reconcile. As it happens, I'm in an almost unique position to arbitrate these views, having observed Sperling both as a budget office aide from 1993 to 1995 and as a journalist since. I watched Sperling in hundreds of meetings back then, from the vantage point of a "deficit hawk" who found him (ridiculously, as things turned out) insufficiently committed to balancing the budget. Still, I marveled at his dedication and talent. One time, after Republicans won the Congress in 1994, top officials were brainstorming in the Cabinet Room about ways to smoke out GOP hypocrisy on the budget. Republicans were calling for Medicaid, then growing at double-digit rates, to be sent in block grants to the states. "Why don't we block grant it at 8 percent," Sperling erupted, "and let 32 Republican governors explain why more than twice the rate of inflation isn't enough?" I nearly gasped; it was hard to imagine a White House asset more valuable than someone who knew policy and could go for the jugular in equally sophisticated doses.

Sperling proves, however, that the art of crafting policy for political impact and press consumption is not the same as impressing reporters; the face Sperling shows the press often masks the qualities the president plainly prizes. "I've only got a minute," runs a reporter's typical complaint, "but 20 minutes later he's still droning on." Another calls this treatment "the Gene fog." When Sperling invariably has the 47-page fax of White House 'talking points' humming into the newsroom before Clinton has even finished a speech, he seems almost a parody of himself. "He's so relentless in harassing reporters that they may not appreciate how effective he is," says Wall St. Journal bureau chief Alan Murray. That's not to say he isn't an object of affection. "He cares so much about what he's doing," notes Andrea Mitchell of NBC, "and he's very funny." Loyalty to Clinton, concern over a potential gravitas gap, and a keen sense of how to survive in a ruthless town, however, leave Sperling so cautious about his public image that he frequently comes off as canned and robotic. When he agreed to give me a ride after one late night talk, Gene even told me the condition of his car was off-the-record.

Back in his office, Sperling ponders the question, gazing at the University of Michigan paraphernalia atop the TV. Given the consuming pace of his job, he quips, this is like therapy. There's an endearing quality to Sperling that's hard not to like; his youth and accessibility make him a kind of Everystaffer's dream, the tireless worker who actually got his reward. He'll never calm markets with a crisp word on TV like Bob Rubin, but then who can? Just as Clinton was a little hard for baby boomers to get used to because he seemed no more presidential than they did, Sperling's easy manner cuts both ways. For better and worse, he's no Lloyd Bentsen.

"When you're in the middle of a split government it's hard to do new things," Sperling says, with the weariness of one who's been trying.

There are times where you long to take what seems a purely moral, purely just position. But if the real world impact is that less will actually get done, then you have to ponder whether you're choosing your own sense of self-righteousness over actually helping someone who really needs help.

Sperling mentions Clinton's technology literacy initiative as one of a thousand examples.

"In my heart of hearts I would have liked to do that entire program just for poor neighborhoods and disadvantaged kids—or you could make it for everybody but weight the [funding] formulas more toward disadvantaged neighborhoods. When you do the latter, people will say 'why are you spreading the money around when there's people in poverty, when we really need to tackle this digital divide?' You want to say 'you're right, we should,' but the reality is that having a more broad-based initiative has made it a politically viable proposal that gets new funding every year. In the end it's almost certain that more poor children are getting aid than if one had run out and said 'this is a program that doesn't affect any of you that live in the suburbs.'"

On a larger scale, Clinton's failed bid for universal health care haunts Sperling for related reasons. "There was a very intellectually consistent and bold initiative," he says.

"There wasn't a great desire to compromise much. I wasn't one of the key decision makers, but you're there and you always could have spoken up more. That's a situation where people have to wonder if maybe a little less purity, a little more so-called moral compromise and maybe 15 million more people would have health care right now. Those are the responsibilities you face when you're in these jobs—to have a certain humility when you're thinking about these things. It often is not clear what was the best strategy and sometimes you never know, you can never run the clock back to see. It's agonizing."

I ask Sperling how he responds to critics who say the public investment agenda has been abandoned. "I think what you really had was a scale issue," he says. "The criticism was that there was a vision of something very big and bold...You say, 'hey look, we've doubled WIC [the womens' and infants' nutrition program] or we've practically doubled Head Start.' You can have six runs up the middle for five yards or you can throw one 30-yard pass. We never threw those 30-yard passes, but we stayed at things and we pushed."

"You have to realize," he continues, 'that there are certain issues that are not capable of one or two-year fixes. A major new urban program with huge amounts of funds that's not well thought out could fail and set the clock back. What you thought was your major achievement in year one, by year four is being used to discredit all similar efforts. The community development initiative that only has $100 million a year but is producing good results may be paving the way for more things like that. I've had moments where I have felt an absolute internal high when I've thought of the numbers of people one may have helped through fighting for certain initiatives or funding. I've also felt the hollow pain in my stomach from the thought that I've been here seven years and why haven't we done more in this area or that area and will I look back and be forever frustrated with myself. I know both those feelings."

He stops for a moment. Then he continues more quietly. "When you're in college," he says softly, "you want to save the world. You scoff at anything that's incremental as being almost meaningless. When you're here there's still that part of you that wants to fix all the injustices. But there's also another part that says 10,000 people are 10,000 people. 100,000 people are 100,000 people. I have my own little personal thing. I always think of Chrysler Arena in Ann Arbor where Michigan plays basketball. A lot of times what we have is an initiative on [say] youth opportunities for poor kids where there may be a need for 1-1/2 million slots, and you get 75,000 [out of the Congress]. It's really pretty small compared to the need, but then you think about filling up Chrysler Arena four times with people you help, that seems like that's pretty good for a year's work."

"I go back and forth," Sperling says.


"It's not a fair criticism of Sperling to say he wasn't progressive enough," says Andrew Cuomo, Clinton's liberal Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Cuomo says the Clinton Administration "had a different role in history. It had to bring the Democratic party back to the mainstream." His father agrees. "What we did for eight years," Mario Cuomo tells me in speech-like cadences, "was lift the albatrosses one at a time." Democrats were big spenders? They've solved the deficit problem beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Democrats were soft on crime? Crime is down dramatically, helped by Clinton's 100,000 new cops. Democrats coddled the poor? Welfare has been reformed; the rolls have plummetted.

"They have made a case for economic credibility," runs Cuomo's thundering peroration. "Now, at last, our hands have been freed to do the real work!"

But have they been? Sperling's "save Social Security first" notion has proven so politically potent that, like Richard Darman's 1990 spending caps, it could shape public debate on resource allocation for years. For three decades both parties spent Social Security surpluses without a qualm (and without, for complicated reasons, hurting the retirement system one bit). In the budget just put to bed, however, both made a fetish of saying that trillions in coming Social Security surpluses shouldn't be touched. Once you realize, as many experts note, that (1) spending a good chunk of this surplus would have no effect on Social Security's health, and that (2) contrary to both parties' hype, there may not turn out to be any surplus beyond what Social Security brings in, the result is that Sperling may have substituted one progressive straitjacket for another.

It's possible this fetish for chaste surpluses could be revisited by Democrats if they held the presidency and won the House in 2000; Sperling, ever "on message," gives no hint that he's open to the idea. But the portents for progressives are ominous. Al Gore is plainly hoping to win the Democratic nomination from Bill Bradley by discrediting universal health coverage as an impractical liberal dream. If the strategy works, the casualty won't just be Bradley, but the very idea of non-incremental progressive initiatives for which Clinton's long odyssey, according to Cuomo and others, should set the stage. [To be fair, Gore has issued a quieter call for universal pre-school, a significant step that could help give poor kids a leg up. Still, on the higher profile health issue,] it's as if Gore were already resigned to the inevitability of divided government and timid steps.

We'll have to wait until he leaves government to see what Sperling, unbound, really thinks about this dilemma. That won't be until at least the end of Clinton's term; Sperling insists he's too busy to give the future much thought. Getting a life may be part of the agenda. Gene's had two near-misses on marriage; W magazine helpfully anointed him this fall as "Washington's most eligible bachelor." Bob Rubin expects Sperling will find a way to join the handful of diverse but savvy private sector operators—he cites Peter Peterson, Milton Friedman, Jimmy Carter and poverty advocate Robert Greenstein —who successfully move the political process from the outside. Given his comittment and experience, and especially his loyalty, it's a safe bet that Sperling will be in and out of senior posts in Democratic administrations for the next thirty years, on route to one of the more unique and enduring public lives of his generation.

In the meantime, on the second floor of the West Wing, the lights are on late again. If you think life is unfair, and that government should help create opportunities for those born with the odds set against them, you should sleep better knowing that Gene Sperling is in there scheming, coaxing, plotting, conniving and generally working every angle he can think of to move the ball another three yards down the field, with a cloud of dust. In a world of divided government at the edge of the millenium, that may be the most a liberal can hope for.

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