Roundtable
Does Clinton Matter?
David Brooks
Round Three - February 9, 2000

Bill Clinton put it best. It is time to move on.

This exchange has largely devolved into an argument over whether or not Bill Clinton is a scumbag. But that argument has been going on for the past seven years, and nobody is going to persuade anybody else at this point. The bestsellers on Clinton have a metronome-like predictability. A right-winger like Barbara Olson will write a book shamelessly bashing the Clintons; a leftish type like Jeffrey Toobin will write one shamelessly bashing Clinton's enemies. It's odd that such a wavering, complex political figure should have caused such a rigid, polarized debate; I'm reminded of the old joke that when two men fight over a woman it's the fight they want, not the woman.

But I've crossed the bridge to the twenty-first century, so I'm going to stick to the issue of what the post-Clinton era will look like and what his influence will be on the next President and the next Congress. There are three main questions. How will Clintonism influence our political culture? How will it influence the future of liberalism? How will Clinton influence the future of conservatism?

Political Culture: This exchange, and the dramatic results of the New Hampshire primary, have reinforced my initial instinct that Clinton's effect on the political culture will be negative. Bill Bradley came within a few points of beating a sitting Vice President in New Hampshire because he ran, stylistically, as an anti-Clinton candidate. John McCain has risen to superstardom because he is the anti-Clinton. Clinton stayed out of Vietnam; McCain served. Clinton had a war-room style of campaigning; John McCain doesn't run a war room, he runs a love fest -- welcoming the press into every aspect of his life and being extraordinarily candid (for a presidential candidate). He makes a fetish of anti-spin.

McCain takes dead aim at Clinton's ethical corner-cutting. He mentions in almost every speech that the White House has been turned into a Motel 6, drawing to his side many Independents who supported Clinton, but who have now grown tired, as Jack Beatty hinted, at the lies and the ruthlessness. David Corn points out that my argument that George W. Bush was running as an anti-Clinton was weak. True, but maybe Bush should have been running as an anti-Clinton: his crushing defeat in New Hampshire may have been because GOP voters were unimpressed by their own version of a charming, facile politician.

Liberalism. Jack Beatty made a fascinating point. He said that while he started the Clinton era as a Robert Reich Keynesian, he finishes it as a Robert Rubin/Alan Greenspan fiscal hawk. I suspect he is not alone. That is to say, I suspect that many Democrats and many Republicans will be bound by the need to keep the budget in balance. That will limit the size of future tax cuts or spending programs. In that sense Clinton is influential. But remember that Clinton started as a daring Third Way New Democrat. If you look around, you'll see that he has failed to institutionalize that approach. Gore doesn't seek to promote the sort of entitlement reform that is the main goal of the New Democrats, and Bill Bradley doesn't either, except for Medicare. The coming liberalism will be more aggressive and less triangulated, as the country continues to move left, but it will be interested in preserving existing programs rather than reforming them or creating big new ones.

Conservatism. The conservative movement has fallen apart. Sean Wilentz is right to point out that Republican candidates have moved away from Gingrich-era policies. David Corn's point that Clinton is a phagocyte is brilliant (just don't utter that word in public). Clinton did absorb many of the best conservative themes. But I suspect the conservative movement would have fallen apart anyway. It was formed in opposition to communism and the New Left. Both those forces are defanged. It was inevitable that conservatives would begin feeding upon each other.

My only solace is that John McCain is two things: first, he is an anti-Clinton on matters of morals. Second, as Bill Kristol and I try to point out in our current story for The Weekly Standard, he is a harbinger of a conservative style that replaces the tired formulas of the old conservative establishment. McCain may still get beaten in South Carolina or beyond, but I suspect that anybody who wants to figure out what twenty-first century politics will look like would do better to study John McCain than Bill Clinton.

Round Three -- February 9, 2000
Jack Beatty | David Brooks | David Corn | Sean Wilentz

Round Two -- February 2, 2000
Jack Beatty | David Brooks | David Corn | Sean Wilentz

Round One -- January 26, 2000
David Brooks | David Corn | Sean Wilentz

Return to Introduction


What do you think?

Join the debate in Post & Riposte. We'll highlight selected readers' remarks as the Roundtable progresses.

David BrooksDavid Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and a contributing editor at Newsweek. His book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There will be published this spring by Simon & Schuster.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.