The Magazine


Oct 2, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 03 • By BYRON YORK
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Republican critics have jumped all over Clinton's policies for years and have ended up being wrong much of the time. In Haiti, for example, Republicans predicted a bloodbath; it didn't happen. They predicted hundreds of thousands of Haitian immigrants flooding Florida; that didn't happen either. In the end, Clinton got rid of Haitian goon Raoul Cedras, and he did it cleanly. Of course he did not bring democracy to Haiti, but who believes Republicans -- or anybody -- could do that?

Then there's Somalia. Even though the new Clinton administration allowed " mission creep" to set in, and 17 Americans died in a fight that shouldn't have happened as it did, the bottom line is George Bush got us into it, and Bill Clinton got us out.

On Bos nia, the most pressing foreign policy issue of the day, at this point one can simply say that Clinton appears to be learning. And the cost has been much lower than, say, the loss of 243 American lives in a misbegotten mission in Lebanon.

Most of Clinton's failings can be attributed, at least in part, to his weakness for multilateralism -- or, to put it less flatteringly, his penchant for hiding behind the United Nations and subordinating American interests to the UN. Some observers trace that to his core belief that America has often acted from imperialist and exploitative motives in the past, and any unilateral U.S. action is likely to continue that shameful tradition. There is no doubt that a Republican, any Republican, president would not share that assumption, and would thus take a comparatively dim view of taking orders from Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Whether that would result in better policy is another thing.

Besides, if they choose, Republicans can have a significant voice, even a dominant one, from Capitol Hill. Congress, a Democratic Congress, voted to nudge Clinton along on Somalia. Even though it's true that the Congress is not particularly well suited to making foreign policy, it can effectively limit what the president does. And with its constitutional mandate to raise and equip the armed forces, it can ensure that American military forces remain adequate to the needs of national security.

Unquestionably, a second Clinton term poses two potentially damaging downsides for conservatives. One is the issue of the Supreme Court and the judiciary in general; the other is the veto.

Start with the courts. Even though the Senate can limit his choices, the president still gets to pick the judges. How much control could the Republicans exercise? Theoretically, quite a lot. But doing so would mean challenging nearly every Clinton appointee sent to Capitol Hill, and even the most fired-up strict constructionist might have trouble with that. More realistically, Republican opposition would be reserved for Clinton's most egregious choices. That means Laurence Tribe is out of the question, but only at the cost of more Stephen Breyer. Given the number of close decisions from the Supreme Court this year, that could tip the court against conservatives and give Clinton lasting influence over the course of jurisprudence. Of course, if Republicans win the Whie House, there is no guarantee that more Scalias will be appointed to the court. Remember David Souter.

As for the Federal courts, Clinton got a slow start appointing appeals court judges. And from now until November 1996, Senate Republicans have no reason to move quickly on any of his appointments. So a one-term Clinton missed the chance to remake the federal courts. But several observers believe two-term Clinton might be able to name about 40 percent of the total judiciary by the time his eight years are up. Or he might remain sluggish and leave a huge backlog of vacancies to his successor.

Now for the veto. On the surface, it seems like a potent presidential weapon; very few vetoes are over-ridden. Ronald Reagan vetoed or pocket-vetoed 78 bills; Congress overrode nine.

George Bush did it 44 times; he was overridden just once. Harry Truman, the last Democratic president who had to deal with a Republican House (although just for one term), vetoed or pocket-vetoed 250 bills; Congress overrode just 12 of those. So far Bill Clinton has vetoed two bills. It is unclear whether he'll make good on his recent threats to veto more.

But vetoes don't tell the whole story. If Clinton is reelected and proves particularly combative in a second term, it might still be relatively easy for Congress to have its way with him. All Republican members have to do is take a lesson from the Democrats. in many cases during the Reagan and Bush years, Democrats in Congress made no real attempt to override the president's veto. They simply passed another bill, sometimes altered slightly from the original, and dared the president to veto it again. The president usually backed down. The plain fact is that Congress can defeat the president over the long run, particularly where spending is involved. He can only act on what they send him; if the Congress chooses to pass a budget with no funding for, say, the National Endowment for the Arts, he can't bring it back by using the veto.

Still, the veto could prove a serious threat on the biggest issues. While it is relatively easy -- although still not politically possible at this time -- to kill the NEA with one blow, what about remaking Medicare?

Or privatizing Social Security? They will involve enormous, scorched-earth le gislative fights. Winning would certainly be easier with a Republican in the Wh ite House, especially since nobody is predicting a veto-proof 288 Republican vo tes in the House next year. But if the GOP does make significant gains in '96, and a reelected Clinton suffers the traditional mid-term losses in '98, the Re publican Congress would be virtually invincible on any issue, even without reaching 288. Of course, with a Republican in the White House, the '98 losses would likely go the other way.

Given all this, conservatives face an unavoidable question: Is Clinton really so bad? Even a cursory look at his record shows he is not a dogmatic liberal; just look at how the real liberals hate him. He's certainly not a conservative, nor is he a particularly predictable moderate. He's not really anything, and with Republicans setting the agenda, he has been reduced to an often pathetic me-too-ism.

Would that continue in a second Clinton term? Would a narrow reelection victory convince him once and for all to be a centrist Democrat? Or would it give him confidence to return to his most liberal impulses -- -or perhaps more accurately, his wife's -- and come up with some new Great Leap Forward program like health care reform? Or would he continue to stumble around, hoping to gain some short-term advantage in whatever issue presents itself?

The last seems the best bet. But a more important political reality will set in: A safely reelected, lame-duck Bill Clinton will surely move into the legacy mode. It will be time to work on his place in history. And with Republicans in charge of Congress, he will most likely choose the role of Bulwark Against Extremism. While vowing to search for common ground, he will constantly denounce the right-wingers who have taken control of Washington. At the same time, out of necessity, he will have to further moderate his positions to avoid continued and devastating defeats at their hands.

What a wonderful thing that would be for Republicans. They would enjoy the benefit of having Clinton opposing them rhetorically while caving in to them legislatively. Having Clinton, the perfect enemy, in the White House helps conservatives define themselves. Losing him, and leaving everyone at least nominally on the same side, would complicate the political landscape -- and ultimately weaken the drive to reform the Federal government. Republicans should ask themselves whether they really want that to happen.

Byron York is a writer and television producer in Washington, D.C.