Clinton And Us

A wit once wrote that the President of the United States was a person about whom we know one thing: An awful lot of people didn’t want him to become President. After a three-way race with lots of heat but very little passion, that’s certainly true of President-Elect Bill Clinton.

The powers of the office really don’t hinge on the narrowness of victory. Extremely influential Presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Richard Nixon, all got their start, as with Bill Clinton, as a minority President — that is one elected without a majority of the vote.

What will Bill Clinton mean for the produce industry? It’s hard to say. On some produce specific issues, we can probably expect tougher attitudes as a matter of policy. Pesticide use is likely to be under greater pressure, as people such as Congressman Henry Waxman get the President’s ear.

Perhaps more important than policy, though, is personnel. The government has become so big that the President and even the Cabinet really can’t run things. Therefore, the power of a relatively low-level political appointee can be enormous. This may be where the real threat of Bill Clinton lies. On the big issues, presumably the produce industry will apply a lot of pressure and, assuming the industry has a case, President Clinton will presumably respond reasonably. But on countless small issues — issues that may never make the press — appointees can interpret rules, delay decisions and take a thousand other actions that can help or hurt an industry. If Clinton appointees are drawn not from ag groups but from, say, environmental groups, there could be real problems for the produce industry.

Of course, the most important impact on the produce industry probably will have nothing to do with produce-specific legislation. As businesspeople, members of the industry are likely to be impacted by any general legislation that is passed. Higher taxes on business or business owners, regulatory costs imposed on business and higher inheritance taxes will possibly hit family farmers and produce wholesalers very hard.

These general business issues leave the produce industry pretty much up in the air. Our industry trade associations have generally confined themselves to produce-specific issues and, as national companies, many produce firms haven’t bothered to get involved with their local Chambers of Commerce. So it’s not clear what impact the produce industry can have on the shaping of general government policy.

Of course, a lot depends on the attitude the House and particularly the Senate take toward our new President. As Jimmy Carter learned, Senators and Representatives are not bound by blood loyalty to a President from their party. In the recent election, the biggest produce state, California, just became the first state to elect two women to the U.S. Senate. But more important than their sex may be their political base. Both hail from San Francisco, a city where the produce industry still refused to hold conventions because the city endorses a grape boycott.

But politics creates strange bedfellows, and now that the election is over, the Senators who will win two, four and six years from now are planning their reelection campaigns. This means that there is always an opportunity to influence a legislator and, without doubt, growers in California are evaluating now what points of access they have to their now Senators. It may be crucial when issues such as water rights and pesticides come up.

And the Republicans aren’t out of the game either. Senator Jesse Helms acquired the nickname “Senator No” because of his mastery of Senate rules which he used to slow the progress and sometimes kill legislation he disagreed with. Senator Helms is still there and still remembers the rules. One could imagine other Senators, perhaps Connie Mack of Florida, certainly a big produce state, becoming expert in resisting legislation that stands to hurt business and the produce industry.

Businesspeople tend to be conservative and, at least in Presidential races, vote Republican, so my guess is that Bush carried the produce industry, certainly, in terms of the owners of operations. But even those who voted for President Bush did so with little enthusiasm. It was a spent administration, devoid of ideas and purpose.

So, for the country, the Presidential defeat may not be so bad. On the one hand, Clinton’s policies might just work and a stronger more prosperous America might be the result. I think all Americans should devoutly hope that they do work, and they help our country.

But if they don’t work, if the result is not prosperity and strength, but something less, then this election may still not have been in vain. As the Republicans go off to lick their wounds, they will retreat to think tanks and universities. There they will read and reflect and build a new agenda of ideas for 1996 and the year 2000.

A candidate in Ireland was once running for Prime Minister. As he was traveling down a road one day, he came across a group of laborers breaking rocks by the side of the road. When the laborers saw him approach, one man started yelling for joy, dancing and screaming and thanking the Lord that the candidate would soon be Prime Minister. The candidate called the man and told him to calm down. “Whether I win or whether I lose, you’ll still be breaking rocks,” explained the candidate.

I guess the same applies to Clinton. Vigilance is called for, there will be tough battles ahead, but it’s highly likely that be it a success or a failure, at the end of the Clinton Presidency, as at its start, we will still be selling produce.