The Magazine


Apr 20, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 31 • By RAMESH PONNURU
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REPUBLICANS HAVE ALMOST AS MANY facile explanations for President Clinton's success as he does for the allegations against him. They credit -- i.e., blame -- his personal emotive skills, shameless dissembling, and sheer good luck. They complain about a biased press, that hoary excuse for conservative failure, while accepting the conventional wisdom of that same press about their "overreaching" during Newt's Days of Rage in 1995. They console themselves with Republican electoral victories in state capitols and in Congress and brag that they are setting the agenda, that the tides of history are still on their side.

But Republicans don't really believe their own bluster. Just look at their legislative calendar, with its record low number of days in session. It's a schedule that reflects a congressional majority more worried about the November elections than confident about its ability to enact laws. Legislatively, conservatives are going to spend most of this year playing defense, blocking bad ideas on the minimum wage, campaign-finance reform, health care, and spending.

Nobody in the GOP can be happy with this state of affairs. Not the congressional leaders, not the back-benchers who hold those leaders in contempt, not the activists who will probably soon weary of the backbenchers too, not the conservative voters who wonder why nothing much is happening.

Perhaps all of them should, for the first time, consider the possibility that it is the substance of Clinton's politics that accounts for his success and the Republican paralysis. Political observers tend to scoff at the notion that Clinton's politics has any substance. But Clintonism exists, and it is both a reasonably coherent program and a powerful political formula. So powerful that it may outlast Clinton himself.

If one were to define Clintonism in a phrase, it would be something like " cultural moderation combined with government activism for the middle class." Clintonism differs from McGovern-Dukakis liberalism in that it coldly jettisoned the latter's cultural baggage on race, sex, crime, and welfare. But Clintonism is not the same as the politics of a New Democrat, since it demagogically opposes entitlement reform and indeed seeks to extend the entitlement strategy of hooking the middle class on government.

Clinton ran on this platform in 1992 and won. During his first two years in office, he wandered away from it -- think of gays in the military, Joycelyn Elders, the urban stimulus, and crime bills -- and Democrats paid the price. He returned to the successful formula defensively in 1995-96, and more aggressively since then. It has worked like a charm.

Its success should have taught conservatives that they have overestimated public resistance to big government per se; what the public rejects is big government tied to liberal cultural values. By breaking that link, Clinton is relegitimizing government activism. It's on probation now, so the president must think small, but several more years of good behavior will earn it freer rein. If the Democrats keep practicing Clintonism, they will be able to move on to the more ambitious projects of which they never seem to have a shortage.

Republicans have responded to Clintonism by grabbing the nearest security blanket: the memory of Ronald Reagan's career. But they have in fact misremembered that career. Many Republican officeholders, thinking of Reagan's geniality and optimism, have adopted a politics of blurred edges and feel-good gestures that is actually modeled on Bill Clinton. The logical candidate of the Clinton Republicans is Elizabeth Dole, someone with no distinct political profile who can run for talk-show-host-in-chief.

A second response, favored by conservative activists and intellectuals, cites Reagan's fixed ideological positions, but in fact harks back to Barry Goldwater. Reagan applied conservative philosophy to specific problems facing the country in the late 1970s: stagflation, the energy crisis, the Soviet threat. Goldwater offered a set of Platonic ideals culled from conservative philosophy and blissfully unrelated to whatever conditions happened to obtain in America in 1964.

Today's conservatism has again become anti-political in this sense, offering solutions in search of problems. The flat tax is a prime example. If the problem is inefficiency, it's hardly an urgent one; and if it is the tax code's complexity and compliance costs, simplification need not involve a single rate or lower taxes on savings. This is not necessarily to deny that the flat tax is desirable as an ideal, but to say that its present advocates are engaged in something other than politics. The logical candidate of the Goldwater Republicans, it need hardly be added, is Steve Forbes.