Does Clinton Matter?
David Brooks
Round One - January 26, 2000

A few weeks ago I took part in a series of forums on how the major presidential candidates, if elected, would govern. I learned some interesting things. In one session Dan Rostenkowski noted that during the 1986 tax-reform effort, Bill Bradley was more comfortable in the staffer's role of mastering tax arcana than in the senator's role of arm-twisting and lobbying. In another session a Democratic member of the Texas House described how George W. Bush worked to save the job of an aggressive environmentalist who was serving on one of the state regulatory commissions.

From Post & Riposte:

"[Clinton] learned to live within the framework of his political circumstances. We must remember the force of the challenges presented him: Could George Bush have contained Newt Gingrich as well as Clinton did? Could Gore, George W., or Bradley? And it's precisely this success that so irks Conservatives: Clinton learned eventually that style mattered over substance, whereas Newt and Gang were brought down by the same superpartisan overconfidence that first brought them up. The American public likes its politics entertaining, but not arrogant; challenging but not patronizing. And the fact that we've split power between Congress and the White House almost permanently should tell us that. Let's call it 'checks and balances.'"
--Kevin Gingerich, "Style versus substance?" (01/26)

What do you think? Join the conversation.

But the session that stood out was the Gore session. Two representatives from the Gore campaign -- his top policy adviser and his former chief of staff -- put on a full court spin. When asked about the Buddhist fundraising scandal, they denied that Gore had done anything wrong. When asked about the "no controlling legal authority" press conference, they insisted he was just being open with the American people. It was a jarring performance. Mary McGrory wrote a column in The Washington Post scorching the two. But it was vintage Clintonism. The Gore aides were just doing what Carville, Lanny Davis, and so many other Clintonistas had done so often before: stonewall and spin. Stay on message. Never waver. But now, judging by the audience's appalled reaction, we have all become hypersensitive to that relentless political style.

If I had been asked the roundtable's question -- how long will Bill Clinton's shadow be? -- a year ago, I would have said it would be as long as all eternity. It seemed then that all politicians would become policy triangulators. All politicians would adopt Clinton's relentless spinmeistering style. All politicians would set up war rooms. They would poll constantly and hire Dick Morris-like tacticians. They would do all the things that worked so well for Clinton.

But now it seems evident there has been a reaction against the Clinton style. His political methods, which once appeared to be his most innovative aspect, are in disrepute. The unlikely Bradley and McCain candidacies ride on a swell of anti-Clinton sentiment. Their political styles are in direct contrast to Clinton's. Even George W. Bush, who was earlier touted as the Republican answer to Clinton's charm, has tried to move toward a more antipolitical mode. He's now running instant docudrama commercials that are raw videotapes of his speeches -- the Bush Witch Project. Meanwhile, Gore dumped Clinton pollster Mark Penn, in a (vain) bid for authenticity.

Nor does Clinton leave behind much of a policy legacy. People forget how daring the Clinton 1992 campaign was. He ran as a real New Democrat, talking a lot about markets and renouncing the old Humphrey/Mondale liberalism. But neither Bradley nor Gore is running as a New Democrat. The New Democrats, like retiring Senator Bob Kerrey, talk about reforming Social Security. Neither Gore nor Bradley talks about doing that. Senator John Kerry gives New Democrat speeches about root and branch education reform, including some school choice. Bradley and Gore run away from such talk.

Clinton was, as Jack Beatty's introduction nicely captures, something of an Eisenhower/Bush Republican. He inoculated the Democratic Party against the charge that it is dangerously liberal. So now Democrats like Gore and Bradley can run further to the left without making people fear that McGoverniks are about to take over the country. They are doing so on social issues -- gays in the military -- and on fiscal matters.

Today's Democrats are also liberated by budget surpluses. Clinton's political centrism was dictated in part by the deficits. Robert Rubin, a deficit hawk, beat Robert Reich, a traditional liberal, in the crucial early months of Clinton's first term. Domestic discretionary spending actually grew more slowly under Clinton than under Bush. But now we've got surpluses, so the climate that created Clintonism is gone too. Progressives are right in feeling as hopeful as they do.

It's not as if Clinton will pass from the scene without a trace -- he reconciled the Democratic Party to the frequent use of military force -- but in general, his shadow will be short, diaphanous, and insubstantial.

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

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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.

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