Toward November 2000
11:00 PM, Feb 21, 1999 • By JEFFREY BELL
THE ACQUITTAL OF BILL CLINTON is a stinging setback for conservatives in the values war that has been going on in one form or another since the 1960s. But to treat this defeat as climactic would be as big a mistake as pretending it isn't really a defeat.
As congressional Democrats and various Clinton apologists made clear in their frantic pursuit of a censure resolution, this is the kind of victory that is capable of turning to dust. Most liberals and Democrats, while far from repenting of their triumph, are well aware that they are not positioned securely and feel at least an occasional twinge of guilty fear. The economy, markets, and foreign conditions may not continue as benign as they are today.
Moreover, the history of Bill Clinton suggests that for him, no escape is ever final. In the personal and legal dimensions, he has lived all his life along a precipice, and he is unlikely to see this or any other installment of his scandal saga as a warning to pull back. He never has, at least not for very long. Who would really be surprised if the remaining two years of the Clinton presidency saw some new flirtation with the abyss?
By November 2000, the electorate will have arrived at some sort of bottom line on the Clinton presidency. If the bottom line is unfavorable, Al Gore (or any other Democratic nominee tied to Clinton) is unlikely to win. If the bottom line is favorable, Republican victory will be difficult but not out of the question. In 1960, at the end of the popular Eisenhower presidency, John F. Kennedy ran a near-perfect campaign and narrowly wrested the White House from the Republicans.
For conservatives, the challenge is to accept not just Clinton's acquittal, but his preemption of such key conservative goals as reductions in welfare and crime, full employment without inflation, and an end to deficits. Incumbent Republican governors of course benefit from these trends in their own states, but it is nonsense to think these successes could translate into a winning presidential strategy in 2000. Any "Republican" trend at the state level is easily trumped by a Clinton-Gore national trend in the same category. As Democrats ruefully learned in the 1980s, benign nationwide trends, in economics or anything else, get credited by voters above all to the party that occupies the White House. That the pro-Clinton trends of the 1990s can be seen, in policy terms, as mere extensions or resumptions of the pro-Reagan trends of the 1980s may be of interest to historians and political scientists, but matters not at all to voters, or to the political landscape of 2000.
Republicans and conservatives can of course sit back and hope for some kind of bad news, or even a wave of second thoughts, that could diminish the Clinton presidency in the next two years. But a party that was serious about taking charge of the national agenda would never be satisfied with this kind of passivity. Historically, parties that benefited from success stories on one set of issues, as is the case with the Democrats today, have lost their grip when the electorate moved on (or returned) to a different set of concerns. If the issue mix of 2000 is values-related, as it has so often been in presidential elections beginning in 1968, Republican victory is quite possible and, in ways that cannot be fully anticipated, defeat on impeachment might ultimately prove to be a building block of presidential victory. If Republicans tacitly repudiate impeachment and try to engage on "safe" issues that are in fact backward-looking and therefore easily preemptible by Clinton-Gore, they will have to be very lucky to win, and will have at most a trivial mandate if they do.
Jeffrey Bell, author of Populism and Elitism, is senior consultant at Bauer for President 2000.