latimes.com: Can Clintonism survive without Clinton?
LOS ANGELES (Los Angeles Times) -- Barely five months from now, Bill Clinton's presidency will pass into history, his all-too-human struggles into the bloodless stuff of museum exhibits and academic essays.
But Monday night, the question of Clinton's legacy, its magnitude and meaning, was
anything but academic for the president--or for Al Gore, his would-be successor.
As Clinton's passionate defense of his record suggested, this election stands as a test
not only of Gore's electability but also of Clintonism's durability. And as the president sought to make clear, the voters' choice is not only who will move into his Oval Office but also whether the unfinished policy agenda of his two terms will be pushed forward in a third.
"This is a big election with great consequences," Clinton said in his speech. "Choose
This November's results, in both the presidential and congressional elections, will
begin to determine how Democrats finally assess Clinton's impact. Can Clinton
bequeath his magic to Gore, his less dazzling apprentice? Or is the Democratic
resurrection merely the transient product of one brilliant politician's gifts--a brief
interruption in an era of Republican dominance?
From any angle, Clinton's bequest to Gore and his party looms as a mixed blessing.
Clinton leaves Gore a roaring economy and a long list of positive social trends that the
president highlighted in his speech Monday night. But he also leaves an ethical cloud
over his--and Gore's--administration that provided the central target for Republicans at
their convention earlier this month.
Politically, the picture is just as mixed. Only a decade ago, the Democratic Party
appeared incapable of electing a president and was trapped in a clogged outside lane of
the American mainstream. But Clinton, who began 1992 as a longshot, showed his
party a path back to the Oval Office, becoming the first Democrat since Franklin D.
Roosevelt to win two full terms.
He did it by moving his positions relentlessly toward the center without ever quite
alienating his base, a feat made possible by generous doses of tactical brilliance and
rhetorical skill. But on the ledger's other side, missteps early in his presidency helped produce the 1994 Republican landslide that cost the Democrats control of Congress and saw the GOP control most statehouses as well.
Clinton overcame a strong GOP advantage
No matter what happens this fall, it's difficult to overstate the scale of Clinton's
achievement in restoring the Democrats' capacity to compete. Before Clinton's victory
in 1992, Republicans had won five of the six previous presidential elections, establishing an advantage so intimidating that political scientists spoke of a GOP "lock" on the electoral college.
Indeed, in the three elections of the 1980s, Democratic nominees won, on average,
only 58 electoral votes per election against Ronald Reagan and George Bush. That
means Democrats captured less than 11% of the total electoral votes available--the
smallest share the party had won in any three election sequences since the founding of
the modern party system in 1828.
"We were marginalized in the public eye as a presidential party," says Walter F.
Mondale, who lost 49 states to Reagan as the Democratic presidential nominee in
1984. "What Clinton did is an enormous accomplishment. I myself even wondered if
we'd do it again."
Clinton recaptured the White House largely by retaking the center. His "new
Democratic" message was explicitly intended to reach centrist swing voters who had
abandoned the Democratic Party as too liberal during the 1980s. For the most part, the
formula worked. While holding the Democratic base, Clinton became the first
Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 to carry a plurality of independents; he
also minimized or erased the GOP advantage among groups such as white men and
married women that had been central to the Republican dominance of the White House
during the 1970s and 1980s.
At the core of Clinton's agenda was a belief that he could reconcile liberal and
conservative ideas previously considered incompatible. From the start, he argued that
social policy should both provide opportunity (the historic liberal priority) and demand
personal responsibility (that conservatives wanted). And with increasing force after
Republicans seized Congress in 1994, Clinton maintained that the activist government
that liberals supported was compatible with the fiscal discipline that conservatives
Through his first term, Clinton faced enormous resistance from the left as he walked
those twin tightropes. House liberals condemned his call for a balanced budget in 1995,
and fully half of House Democrats voted against the welfare reform bill he signed into
law in 1996.
Some on the left still maintain that Clinton, in his pursuit of the center, has
surrendered too much ground to Republicans. That sentiment is evident in the support
Green Party nominee Ralph Nader is showing in some states with strong progressive
traditions, such as California and Wisconsin.
But as Clinton prepares to leave the stage, his party actually appears more united
than at any time in his presidency. Even liberals such as Rep. David E. Bonior
(D-Mich.), the House minority whip, now say that "on issues, Clinton has done quite
well positioning us."
Democrats are still divided over his support for free trade. But the rifts over welfare
reform have narrowed as the strong economy has swallowed up millions of recipients
leaving the rolls. And the economic good times have at least temporarily erased the
divisions over spending by allowing Clinton (and now Gore) to propose significant new
spending in areas such as health care and education, even while pledging to keep the
budget in balance and pay off the publicly held national debt by 2012. From Gore
through the Senate and the House, Democrats this year are running on virtually identical
Even many Republicans acknowledge that this repositioning has allowed the
Democrats to finally banish many of the ghosts of the 1970s and '80s: the sense that
they were soft on crime, unwilling to demand personal responsibility from the needy,
and profligate in spending. "After Clinton, it's much more difficult to paint Democrats as squishy on those issues," says GOP pollster Bill McInturff.
Formula for ongoing success may be elusive
But while Clinton can claim credit for neutralizing many of his party's largest
vulnerabilities, it's less clear that he's found a formula that will allow them to regain the upper hand in the coming years. After the 1994 debacle, Democrats have in some ways
climbed back--regaining 14 House seats--in the two elections since.
Yet Democrats still face an uphill drive to regain control of either chamber in
Congress, Republican dominance of governorships in the largest states and a
presidential race that heads into its final stages with Bush holding a steady lead over
Gore. At least in part, this is because of voter distaste over Clinton's personal behavior.
As Clinton, the permanent campaigner, runs for his place in the history books,
scholars are already handicapping his stature. He can't realistically aspire to rank as high as Roosevelt, who--by lifting the nation from depression and winning a world war--built a Democratic majority that spanned most of the 20th century.
But neither is he likely to be seen as the inconsequential, accidental president his
critics once predicted.
Instead, some historians suggest Clinton may rank with some of the successful
Republican presidents of the mid-20th century--Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard
Nixon--leaders who made their party viable despite swimming against the ideological
current of the time.
"In a way, [Clinton] was like Eisenhower coming in and saying we [Republicans] are
going to accept the New Deal," said Stanford University political scientist Morris
Fiorina. "And Clinton said, 'The era of big government is over;' this is not your father's Democratic Party."
Indeed, the issue may be whether Clinton's political legacy looks more like
Eisenhower's or Nixon's. Eisenhower failed to establish a lasting electoral coalition and proved to be merely an eight-year break in the Democrats' ownership of the White
House from 1932 to 1968.
Though scandal-tainted himself, Nixon shattered that New Deal coalition in 1968
and constructed a conservative majority that dominated presidential elections until
Clinton's twin victories in the 1990s. Clinton is not on the ballot himself--but
November's election will stand as the first test of whether he has built a political
coalition nearly as lasting.
Tuesday, August 15, 2000
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