The Blog

THE TRIUMPH OF CLINTONISM

11:00 PM, Nov 15, 1998 • By DAVID FRUM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts



There's no blinking the truth: Campaign '98 was not only a bad Republican defeat, it was a personal triumph for the president. Some happy-talk Republicans will want of course to deny the magnitude of the president's victory. They will point to the exit polls showing that voters still disapprove of his character; they will argue (as Newt Gingrich has) that the media are willfully ignoring the big news of a third consecutive Republican House majority; or perhaps (like Senate majority leader Trent Lott) they will repeat post-election the Democratic pre-election spin that the '98 results were the product of hundreds of local races rather than one big national campaign.


Well, phooey. Throughout the campaign, the Democratic party made clear that a vote for them was a vote to let the president off scotfree. (At this writing, the Democratic ads are still posted at the party's Web site, www.democrats.org.) The ritualized condemnations of the president's "inappropriate" behavior that congressional Democrats unhappily summoned up in August were nowhere to be heard in October. They nailed their colors to the mast. "All Republicans talk about are investigations," an actress complained in one radio spot. "They are obsessed with getting rid of the president. There is one way to stop this." "Yeah," replies a second female voice. "It's time to get rid of those Republicans." The last round of Democratic national television ads put the message even more bluntly. Against a background of the Capitol dome, the ads intoned, "This is no ordinary time. Republicans have made removing the president from office their top priority. Vote Democratic and tell Congress we're ready to move on."


The Democrats offered the voters the promise of 100,000 new unionized public-school teachers and the abolition of the laws of arithmetic insofar as they apply to Social Security. All they asked in return was that the voters overlook the multiple perjuries and other crimes of the party leader, and vote for one of his local henchmen. And the American public took the deal -- or at any rate enough of them did to break with the ancient sixth-year curse (according to which the president's party loses congressional seats during his second term).


The president and the Democrats achieved this notwithstanding a Republican ad campaign intended to reassure voters that they too meant Clinton no real harm. The idea that the Republicans were a party of sex-crazed investigators -- an idea we'll be hearing a lot of over the next few days -- is almost delusional in its revisionism. Whatever one thinks of Kenneth Starr, the Republican congressional party looked on the Lewinsky scandal with about as much appetite as a French parliamentary delegation encountering its first dish of Senate bean soup. Throughout 1998, the Republican leadership in Congress ducked and squirmed and prayed -- both silently and out loud -- that the scandal would somehow go away on its own, perhaps through a quick and tidy presidential resignation in the wake of the Starr report, perhaps through one of the apology-censure deals broached by Sen. Orrin Hatch or Gerald Ford. Republican congressmen are human, after all, and they very understandably wanted to be spared the embarrassment of talking about so squalid a scandal on national television. They were human, too, in being sensitive to the likelihood that the famously vindictive Clinton White House would pry into the personal lives of its opponents to convince the public that the president should be excused because, after all, "everybody does it."


It was not the congressional Republicans but the media -- unable to stomach an endless diet of lies from the president and the White House -- that drove this scandal, and it was conservative activists and not the local Republican parties who responded to it. Until the very last week of the campaign, national Republican ads made scant reference to the Lewinsky scandal, and all but a handful of individual campaigns shunned it altogether. Only at the end did the Republicans raise the matter, and then in the most gingerly way. "In every election there is one big question to think about," began a television ad over black-and-white footage of voters lining up at an old-fashioned booth. "This year, it's, Should we reward Bill Clinton? Should we reward not telling the truth? Reward Bill Clinton or vote Republican."


No Republican and mentioned the impeachment inquiry voted in the past session of Congress, although plenty found time to mention the apparently much more noteworthy micro-regulations in the Republican version of the Patient Bill of Rights. And all the ads that did touch on the scandal were careful to make plain the Republican belief that an enlarged Republican majority would in itself constitute full and sufficient punishment for the president. "Republicans are the balance we need," spot after spot concluded. But of course, you don't balance somebody you intend to remove from office. If the mission of the 106th Congress was to "balance" Clinton, that clearly implied that Clinton would still be sitting on his end of the teeter-totter as long as Congress sat on its.


The Republican strategy yielded abject failure; the Democrats' succeeded. The losers will now take part in the ritualized debate over whether they lost because they went too far or because they didn't go far enough. But before that debate begins, it's worth pausing to consider how it is that the Democrats and Republicans came to enter the 1998 campaign with the Monica positions they held.


It is quite incredible, at least for those with a sense of history, that the Democrats decided to fight the election as rank apologists for the president. This used to be, after all, the party that was always viewing-with-alarm the specter of presidential lawlessness; it used to be the party of moral outrage over men who "just don't get it" -- men like the senator who put the moves on women who worked for him or the Supreme Court nominee who was accused of talking dirty. As recently as August, Joseph Lieberman gave the old act one last grand performance on the floor of the Senate, denouncing the president's "immorality." But that all went poof in the past campaign. The party of Archibald Cox and Anthony Lewis, of the furrowed brow and the excruciating constitutional scruple, suddenly morphed into the party of Johnnie Cochran: If Starr's a twit, you must acquit. The desire to win will cause people to do all sorts of strange things. But this?


Yes, even this. Despite the Democrats' good day on Tuesday, the party remains a deeply, deeply troubled institution. Its unrivaled grip on state legislatures -- a basic fact of American politics a generation ago -- has been broken. A reliably liberal federal judiciary is reliable no more. Those governors who aren't Republicans do their very best to sound as if they are. The Democratic monopoly on Congress has yielded to a new reality in which Republicans are competitive in the House and dominant in the Senate. Even the support of the national media, which for decades pampered the Democratic party, can no longer be taken for granted. The Democrats entered this election cycle with really only one last big asset: the White House. So long as they had that, they remained -- despite all their other losses -- the party in power, with all that that implies for their ability to deliver favors to their friends and raise money in return. Without the White House, what would the Democrats of 2000 be? A broken, shriveled, financially distressed party. Republicans are used to this kind of adversity: They suffered it in 1992-94, in 1974-80, and before that in 1960-68. But the Democrats had known nothing like it for decades, and the prospect of it must have seemed not only terrifying but outrageous to them.


And they were therefore prepared to pay almost any price to avoid that fate: even as high a price as defending without a visible flicker of conscience a perjurious president, his indicted cabinet officers, and his absconded Chinese financial backers. They knew that if Clinton could keep the cops at bay, he just might be able to pass on the presidency to Al Gore in 2000, saving the party from banishment to the margins of American life. They knew, too, that if Clinton were forced out, it was extremely unlikely that Gore could survive the wreck. So the fight over Clinton was a fight for the survival of the Democratic party as something like an equal force in American politics -- and fights like that are waged without scruple or restraint.


It could be said that the Democrats really had no choice. But what about the Republicans? Certainly they had a choice over whether to go to the country with a record of legislative achievement. They chose not to pass a tax cut, chose not to seize on the president's State of the Union plea to save Social Security as an invitation to go to work on a personal-retirement-account system, chose finally to bust the budget in the closing weeks of Congress.


About the Monica matter, however, they too had a path before them that left them little choice. There seems to be a mood about Washington this week that Congress can have proof of presidential criminality shoved under its nose and look away if the stock market is rising. Yet the evidence of Clinton's crimes was not gathered by Congress; it was presented to Congress as a result of a legal mechanism, the independent counsel, that the president demanded. Congress had only two options before it: either permit Bill Clinton to make himself the first chief executive in the republic's history to brazenly violate the laws protecting the integrity of judicial proceedings in the full light of day or apply the constitutionally prescribed remedy to a man presiding over a stock market that roared upward nearly 1,000 points in the month before Election Day.


These were, Republican leaders apparently felt, two bad options. So they chose to try to finesse them, just as they tried to finesse the budget. They called on the public to punish Clinton -- without ever explaining in their ads why punishment was called for; they warned that Democrats would try to shut down their investigations -- while emitting their own pitiful whimpers of eagerness to be rid of the whole mess. It was a very striking sign of how sick they were of the business that they could watch the president of the United States effectively negotiate in public for almost a month with indicted tax evader Abe Hirschfeld for a $ 1 million personal gratuity to Paula Jones to help Clinton wriggle out of his legal troubles, without even a squeak of congressional protest.


In the very short run, the Republicans' decision has brought the party only grief, and the Democrats have won a triumph. But over the longer term, it's not clear that either party will really benefit from the results of 1998. For the Democrats, it's worth remembering -- funny though it seems now -- that the great accomplishment of Bill Clinton in 1992 was to free them both from the Acid-Amnesty-Abortion legacy of George McGovern and the sniffish superiority of Adlai Stevenson and Eugene McCarthy. Clinton brilliantly repackaged the Democrats as a party that honored work, faith, responsibility, and family; a party that an ordinary person could belong to without shame.


All that has now gone with the wind. The faculty radicals, Hollywood artistes, and New Yorker contributors that Bill Clinton locked in the party basement six years ago have now been set free, to take to the airwaves and the glossy magazines to denounce the idea that anyone might ever be permitted to make a moral judgment about anything except smoking. Clinton gained the Democratic nomination by promising to free the party from its thralldom to the values of Barney Frank, Jesse Jackson, and Patricia Ireland; now, in order to excuse the boss's vices, the party is more deeply committed to those values than ever.


But the Republicans, too, have been tarnished by the campaign they have just finished. A few weeks ago, an article in a liberal magazine complained that there is as yet no such thing as a philosophy of "Clintonism," in the sense that there is such a thing as "Reaganism" or "Jeffersonianism." Alas, this complaint is mistaken. There is indeed such a thing as Clintonism -- it just doesn't happen to be a philosophy. It describes a style of politics, a style characterized by slavish poll-reading and shameless lying. It describes too a mode of governing characterized by the ducking of responsibility and the prostitution of the powers of the state to the shabbiest sort of personal advantage.


Politics, of course, is about deals; Clintonism believes that law and justice are about deals, too. Clintonism is a disease, not a belief. Unfortunately, Republicans are no more immune to it than Democrats. In attempting to wring political advantage from the Lewinsky scandal -- in attempting to use it to enlarge their congressional majority while simultaneously failing to argue its real seriousness -- the Republicans convinced the public that the matter was for them nothing more than a partisan device, which would be turned off as soon as it ceased to be convenient.


And in fact, in the election's aftermath, it has ceased to be convenient. It is extremely unlikely that we will hear very much more about it from the leaders of the Republican party. The president has confessed to crimes; the Congress is now almost certain to let him off the hook. If it does so, the Lewinsky matter will indeed recede into history. But the bridge to the twenty-first century that the president keeps promising will be built at the end of a very crooked road.




By David Frum