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Politics -- May 1996

The Protean President

Changed, changed utterly

by Thomas Byrne Edsall

Bill Clinton was elected President of the United States on the promise that he would reform and restore order to Democratic liberalism. For his re-election campaign Clinton has established a new purpose: to reform and restore order to Republican conservatism. The Clinton agenda of 1992 required a level of will and determination seen in recent years only on the right, in such figures as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Once in office, Clinton largely abandoned that mission, and in the election of 1994 the bottom fell out for the Democratic Party. What he did not do for the left, he will do for the right. His bid to lead a reborn Democratic Party into the twenty-first century may have imploded on November 8, 1994, but his responsiveness to an ever-changing electorate has found new means of expression--as a brake on the excesses of an ascendant right.

With the Republican Congress claiming a mandate to end spiraling deficits, subsidies for the undeserving poor, and violence and illegitimacy in the underclass, Clinton now stands apart from both parties, accepting the shift to the right but determined to protect the elderly and the innocent. To establish his new persona and purpose, Clinton has acquired a fresh set of advisers. The 1992 team of deeply partisan Democrats--James Carville, Stanley Greenberg, Paul Begala, and Mandy Grunwald--has been replaced largely by a crew of the politically ambidextrous: Dick Morris, a Democrat turned Republican turned Democrat who does not think in terms of partisan gain; Morris's favored pollsters, Doug Schoen and Mark Penn, who, with roots in New York rather than Washington, are less mired than other pollsters in the partisan battleground; and the media consultant Robert Squier, who has watched his clientele of centrist Democratic senators become roadkill for the new Republican majority.

politics picture The 1996 campaign will test whether it is possible to win re-election amid the wreckage of the lost opportunity of 1992. Clinton's victorious drive to the White House--a campaign infused with explicit and symbolic messages on race, values, taxes, responsibility, and the work ethic--laid the groundwork for a revival of a competitive Democratic Party. Clinton drove home the message that the party, embroiled in the upheavals of multiple rights revolutions, had allowed liberalism to become a constrictive orthodoxy, unable to set priorities or to foster responsibility.

The politics of identity--of race, ethnicity, sex, and sexual orientation--had taken over the moral core of liberalism. The Clinton campaign sought to subordinate identity politics to more broadly held beliefs and goals. The genius of Clinton's confrontation with Jesse Jackson over Sister Souljah, in June of 1992, for example, lay in his use of the event to affirm integrationist principle, not to reject it.

Clinton's opportunity upon election was to relocate Democratic liberalism within a distinctive and resonant American ethic, and to stanch the bleeding of a political left that had come to stand increasingly in opposition to the culture and values of a crucial Democratic constituency: working men and women without college degrees, with incomes at or below the median. In the 1992 campaign Clinton had taken a first step toward bringing white working- and lower-middle-class voters back to the Democratic Party. These voters stand at the fulcrum of American politics. When they lean to the right, they empower a conservative, top-down majority. When they shift to the left, they make possible a restoration of the bottom-up coalition that led the Democratic Party to victory for two generations.

These voters determine the shape of the majority coalition in American elections. When they are persuaded, as they were by the brand of liberalism that arose in the mid-1960s, that the function of government is to collect tax dollars in order to finance an agenda tilting private and public workplaces and schools away from their interests, these voters become a powerful ally of the Republican Party. When they are persuaded that government can work to take care of their future and their families, to foster a workplace with the potential for security and advancement, and to enlarge educational opportunity for their children, these voters become the mainstay of the Democratic Party. Republicans scare these voters away when their policies are seen as favoring the rich at the expense of the working and middle classes. Democrats lose these voters when they focus on the politics of redistribution on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

The rhetoric of Clinton's 1992 campaign reads like a prose poem directed to this crucial constituency:

"As President, I'll see that [young people] get the same deal everyone should have: [they've got to] play by the rules, stay off drugs, stay in school, and stay off the streets. Don't have children if you're not prepared to support them, because governments don't raise children, people do."

"I can't be for quotas. . . . I'm for responsibility at every turn."

"I do want to say something to the fathers in this country who have chosen to abandon their children by neglecting their child support. Take responsibility for your children or we will force you to do so."

There is a wealth of poll data to document that Clinton, despite winning with 43 percent of the vote, was positioned in the period immediately after the 1992 election to transform American policy. In January of 1993 the Republican Ed Goeas and the Democrat Celinda Lake together conducted one of a series of "battleground" polls on a wide range of issues, testing the relative strength of Clinton and the Democratic Party on one side, and Republicans in Congress on the other. By huge margins the public favored Clinton and the Democrats over the Republicans on reforming welfare (by 39 points), on reducing the deficit (28 points), on improving health care (55 points), and on improving education (46 points). Clinton and the Democrats even held an eight-point advantage on the traditionally Republican issue of "holding the line on taxes."

The climate was ideal for an incoming Democratic President. The real opportunity awaiting Clinton lay in the potential his campaign had established to break the racial logjam that has become the defining quandary of American politics. An important subtext of the election had been the preliminary formation of a black leadership structure committed to policies, rhetoric, and coalition strategies far less confrontational than those of Jesse Jackson. Prominent among the new black leadership were the Democratic U.S. Representatives John Lewis, of Georgia, Mike Espy, of Mississippi, and Bill Jefferson, of Louisiana; an emerging generation of black mayors, including Michael White, of Cleveland, and Norm Rice, of Seattle, who were winning office just as such past leaders as Wilson Goode, David Dinkins, Eugene Sawyer, and Coleman Young faced defeat or retirement; and growing numbers of state legislators and city-council members. The new leaders were acutely aware that Democratic majorities were dependent on biracial coalitions, and that holding too tightly to liberal social and racial orthodoxies often alienated white supporters. In addition, these blacks were the linchpins of any Democratic strategy to enact substantial welfare reform.

In the weeks before the 1992 election the black political community was undergoing constructive upheaval. "I think what we are witnessing is what I call a quiet revolution in American politics," John Lewis said. "In the communities I deal with, people want to win; they want to see a Democrat in the White House. . . . They understand that in order to win, it is necessary to bring back those [white] individuals who had left the party." Kay Patterson, a state senator from South Carolina, praised Clinton for his confrontation with Jesse Jackson over Sister Souljah. "I think it helped him," Patterson said. "He didn't have to bow down and kowtow to Jesse, and personally I like that. Hell, be your own man, not bowing and scraping, getting splinters in your head. . . . Jesse Jackson can shake the apples from the tree, but he doesn't know how to make the jelly from the apples." Arthur Blackwell, then the chairman of the Wayne County [Detroit] Commission, who differed with Clinton on trade policy and the death penalty, asked, "Is it more important for him to appeal on every single thing and lose, or sixty to seventy percent and win? I would argue the latter. Having someone like Mondale and Dukakis say exactly what you want them to say and losing? You should never compromise your integrity or principles, but you are in the business to win. You have to evaluate how to win."

INSTEAD of capitalizing on his election victory to secure the gains he and his party had made, Clinton undermined both in the initial months of his Administration. Misled into thinking he had won the war, he began to distribute the spoils of victory: For gays, he locked himself into providing access to the military. For women and blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities, he set what amounted to fixed goals for filling not only symbolic Cabinet seats but also appointive positions throughout the federal political structure. For the nation's big cities, he proposed a $16.3 billion economic-stimulus bill. In support of the goal of empowering women, Clinton turned over to his wife what would be the most important initiative of his presidency to date--health-care reform.

The image of a presidency committed more to liberal orthodoxy than to the public welfare was created not by any single act or order but by the accumulation of decisions and events: the failed appointments of Kimba Wood and Zoe Baird as Attorney General, and of Lani Guinier as the assistant attorney general in charge of civil rights; the immediate recision of executive orders issued during the Reagan and Bush presidencies which had curtailed the use of federal dollars in abortion counseling and fetal research; the early presence of Barbra Streisand and other leaders of the Hollywood liberal community--the so-called lifestyle left--at the White House; the continuing emphasis by Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders on the most controversial dimensions of human sexuality; the abandonment of the pledge to cut middle-class taxes and its replacement by legislation raising gasoline taxes.

Clinton not only overestimated the magnitude of his election victory but initially proceeded to govern as if cultural and social post-sixties liberalism had won, when in fact a moderated centrism had won. The primary criticism leveled by the American public at the two parties is that each submits excessively to interests with disproportionate power in its coalition. Such interests inside the Democratic coalition are seen as blacks, Hispanics, feminists, the social-welfare lobby, homosexuals, urban political organizations, government workers, peace and anti-nuclear activists, criminal-defense and civil-plaintiff lawyers, and regulators indifferent to the costs, incentives, or market impact of regulation. The interests inside the Republican coalition are seen as wealthy corporations seeking still greater power, including unchecked access to natural resources; those who would restrict opportunity for women or blacks; those who would impose oppressive moral values on others; and free-market purists who recognize no need for government protection of consumers, workers, the disabled, or the elderly.

Within this context unbridled contemporary Democratic liberalism becomes functionally conservative, in that it drives the electorate to the right. When such liberalism dominates the Democratic Party, as it did in 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988, and 1994, conservatism is the victor.

In the decades from 1968 to 1988 Clinton watched, participated in, and came to understand the underlying logic of the defeat of Democratic liberalism. In office, however, he was not prepared to impose on his own party--on his own friends and colleagues--the costs of reform. The cumulative effect of events during Clinton's first two years in office was the loss of an opportunity to revive and enlighten the Democratic Party. A Goeas-Lake battleground poll conducted in April of last year documented the collapse of public support for Clinton and his party. The 39-point advantage they had held over congressional Republicans on the issue of welfare had shifted to a 21-point disadvantage--a 60-point swing. Their 28-point advantage on reducing the deficit had become a 23-point disadvantage--a shift of 51 points. Their advantage on health care dwindled from 55 points to 12, and their advantage on education fell from 46 points to nine. Their eight-point advantage on holding the line on taxes had become a 22-point disadvantage--a swing of 30 points.

In the process Clinton lost control not only of the budget and welfare debates but also of the larger agenda of restoring government to its role as the ally of those "who work hard and play by the rules." The Republicans captured the public's interest with their criticism of the Great Society, of cultural, moral, and racial liberalism, of social engineering, of welfare, and of the welfare state itself.

Clinton demonstrated in his detailed preparation for the 1992 campaign a full understanding of the liabilities of liberalism, and he failed as President to sustain the struggle to reform liberalism.

IF Clinton has a central strength, however, it is the capacity to adapt politically to adversity and the threat of defeat. He has responded to the Republican sweep of 1994 by radically altering the goals and character of his presidency. He has adopted the role of a tactician facing a larger, better-equipped, but not necessarily better-led army. His daily task is to determine how much ground to cede to his adversaries on the right while maintaining his image as the defender of certain core liberal values. The ground Clinton is prepared to give up encompasses both spending and principle. During last year's budget negotiations the Administration proposed four spending plans, each more stringent than the last: the first accepted red ink deep into the future; the second called for a nominally balanced budget in ten years; the third provided for balance in seven years, using the favorable economic forecasts of the Office of Management and Budget; and the fourth acceded to Republican demands for a balanced budget by the year 2002, using Congressional Budget Office projections of growth, inflation, and national savings.

Although Clinton vetoed the first welfare-reform measure sent to him by the Republican congressional majority, he has signaled a willingness to accept legislation abandoning the federal guarantee of support for impoverished children.

The danger facing Clinton is that his presidency will not provide a brake on conservatism, a fire wall against the challenge from the right, but rather--even if, and perhaps especially if, he is re-elected--it will first fuel and then legitimate a revolution that Clinton in no way endorses.

Clinton's presence in the White House has facilitated the work of the conservative revolutionaries in a way that a fully Republican-controlled government could not have. In his bargaining with the congressional leadership Clinton has moved much further to the right than Ronald Reagan would have considered doing. In the past year Clinton has attempted to structure his Administration as a rearguard holding action, protecting whatever possible of the liberal state. In practice, however, he has been a crucial, if unknowing, participant in an assault on that very state. For both the public and the press, the bipartisan nature of the debate in Washington gives the prospective outcome a legitimacy and a protective cover that would not be possible if a Republican were in the White House with Republican majorities in the House and the Senate.

The Clinton Administration and congressional Democrats are prepared to treat the mere survival of a severely cut back Legal Services Corporation as a victory. The President has signed into law measures that cut spending on the Appalachian Regional Commission from $282 million to $170 million, that reduce subsidies for the operating costs of mass transit by 30 percent, and that bar the use of federal money to pay for abortions for workers covered by taxpayer-subsidized federal health insurance--except in cases of rape, incest, or a threat to the life of the mother.

Clinton had by the start of this year acceded to the goal of a balanced budget within seven years--which by the account of his own chief of staff, Leon Panetta, "cost us $400 or $500 billion" in future spending authority. That loss removes any chance of pressing for the kind of social investment in infrastructure and human capital that Clinton has repeatedly called for in order to improve national competitiveness and to counter trends toward growing inequality of income.

The force most likely to prevent Clinton from inadvertently assuming the role of facilitator is the compelling drive on the right for political, as opposed to policy, victory. The Republican leadership and freshmen in the House, a substantial segment of the conservative foundation and interest-group community, and most of the many pollsters, consultants, party managers, and campaign operatives are so deeply committed to a partisan takeover of Washington that they do not see the potential in Clinton to serve as an unsuspecting ally of their cause. The partisan intractability of these forces has prevented the leaders of the conservative revolution from taking full advantage of Clinton's weakened position to win policy achievements in the budget, on entitlement programs, and on welfare which would have been inconceivable during the Reagan or Bush Administration. Instead the leaders of the Republican Party have, through intransigence, given the impression that they, too, are bound by the orthodoxies of their party, just as the Democrats are bound by the mandates of liberal interest groups. As Republicans have pressed partisan interests over policy gains, their party's poll ratings have declined. In the most recent (at this writing) battleground poll, conducted last January, Clinton had gained a slight but not comprehensive advantage over the Republican congressional leadership and prospective Republican presidential candidates.

The election of 1996 will be driven, then, by forces that the central actors, Clinton and his Republican adversaries, do not themselves understand--including their own roles in the grand debate. Largely through his actions in the first two years of his presidency, Clinton politically empowered conservative Republicanism. In the second two years he has provided crucial authorization to the conservative majority in its revolutionary challenge to the social contracts of the New Deal and the Great Society. Clinton won election as an agent of change, but the change to be wrought during his tenure is very different from what he envisaged when he took the oath of office, on January 20, 1993.

Illustration by Bill Nelson


Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May, 1996; The Protean President; Volume 277, No. 5; pages 42-47.

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