What Clinton Did to the Left
He tamed them -- but their animal spirits may be returning
Jan 15, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 17 • By DAVID FRUM
"Naderites comfort themselves with the notion that Al Gore will win anyway and that a Green Party vote will push him to the left. And here is where they make their biggest error of all. For how did Clinton and his administration come by their achievements? By the skin of their teeth. Clinton never won 50 percent of the popular vote and was always politically vulnerable because of it."
"Let's pretend it's the day after the election, and the votes are in. Bush got 49 percent, Gore got 46 percent, and Nader hit the 5-percent jackpot (not gonna happen). Do you really believe the Democrats are going to smack their foreheads and say, 'Oh, my God, let's move to the left and snap up that 5 percent!' Don't be an idiot. The Dems will look at the numbers and say, 'Let's move to the right and try to peel some of that 49 percent off Bush.' If Gore loses the election by less than the percentage Ralph picks up, we'll all be watching the Dems run right, not left."
Ralph Nader is "under the naive impression that [a Bush victory] will heighten social contradictions and lead to what he has called 'a progressive convulsion' -- that is, the worse, the better. This is sectarianism of a familiar sort in the century just past -- a sectarianism that has reaped nothing but political catastrophe."
"Careful studies have never been able to identify the so-called silent progressive majority -- the Nader voters who otherwise wouldn't make it to the polls."
BILL CLINTON did something that neither Richard Nixon nor Ronald Reagan ever managed: He convinced the American left that the United States is a conservative country.
For eight years, Clinton steered his party in a rightward direction. Maybe he didn't begin intending to steer that way. Certainly he didn't steer that way all the time. Still and all, you'd have to search pretty hard to find an important national Democrat who today believes that the federal government should regulate oil prices or allocate capital to startup industries, or that domestic industry should be protected from foreign competition, or that welfare is a fundamental constitutional right -- all things that Democrats did believe in the 35 years up to 1992.
In years gone by, Democratic presidents who defied liberal orthodoxy in this way provoked insurrection on their left: Harry Truman had his Henry Wallace, Lyndon Johnson had his Eugene McCarthy, and Jimmy Carter had his Ted Kennedy. Yet even as Clinton inked free-trade pacts with Mexico, surrendered to welfare reform, increased the number of federal death-penalty offenses, signed the Defense of Marriage Act, acceded to the Republican capital-gains tax cut -- despite a slew of policies almost calculated to give liberals heartburn -- the political and intellectual left side of the spectrum stood by its man with the devotion of so many Chicago aldermen. Clinton plucked his renomination without opposition, almost without criticism, and held the Democratic party and its sympathizers in the press virtually unanimously behind him through the deadliest political storm since Watergate.
Now obviously liberals gained things from the Clinton presidency: an unyielding defense of abortion and racial preferences, an expansion of some social welfare provisions, and a grand new health care undertaking -- the Children's Health Insurance Program (or CHIP), which encourages states to offer Medicaid to all under-18s -- that may someday mature into the large domestic program that otherwise eluded Clinton. On the whole, though, Clinton was to liberalism what Nixon was to conservatism: a leader who demanded much from his supporters and delivered little.
Like Nixon, Clinton was able to hold his supporters in part because he so enraged their enemies. It's hard to avoid feeling that a leader is on your side when he makes the folks on the other side go purple in the face. Like Nixon, too, Clinton benefited from his political weakness. Democrats feared to pressure Clinton to move leftwards lest they erode his shaky political position.
Likewise, Gore's core supporters didn't like it when he criticized the entertainment industry or elevated debt-elimination to first place among his economic priorities or campaigned in Florida's white neighborhoods rather than its minority districts. But what could they do about it? George W. Bush and his terrifying henchmen -- Ken Starr, Jesse Helms, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay -- were pounding on the doors. If they broke in, children all over the United States would have to chew tobacco and go to school barefoot, as they do in Texas. It was more urgent to keep that crew out than to get all fussy about whom one was letting in.
This feeling of weakness on the left explains something otherwise odd about the politics of the 1990s: the simultaneous ebbing of ideological passion and intensification of party feeling. Liberals aren't as liberal as they used to be -- but they are far more reliably Democratic. Can anyone imagine a Harvard professor taking to the airwaves on behalf of Lyndon Johnson during the Bobby Baker scandal as avidly as Alan Dershowitz championed Bill Clinton during the year of Monica? Or a leftie as zealous as Sidney Blumenthal signing up to swap conspiracy theories with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter? For that matter, does anyone remember John Anderson suffering anything like the hail of abuse from liberals that Ralph Nader took? (The same New Republic that sneered at the ludicrous pretension of the Nader campaign actually endorsed John Anderson in 1980.)
But how long will this pragmatic mood last? Has the liberal wing of the Democratic party after all these years at last been converted to lesser-evilism for keeps? Did Clinton euthanize his party's left -- or merely anesthetize it? It would be foolish to give any assured answer. But there are some reasons for thinking that the discipline maintained against the Nader temptation will not last:
(1) The fact that the combined Gore-Nader vote amounted to 52 percent of the ballots cast dispels much of the feeling of weakness that sustained Clinton. You can already hear bolder voices speculating that a new Democratic majority coalition may be aborning -- and that spirit of confidence may embolden liberals to new political adventures.
(2) The willingness of Democratic liberals to tolerate the hands-off economic policies of the post-1994 Clinton administration will not necessarily translate into a willingness to tolerate similar policies from a Republican administration. Benjamin Disraeli quipped that it is the duty of an opposition to oppose. It's also a psychological necessity. And to explain and justify that opposition, Democrats in Congress will be tempted to resurrect the interventionist ideas that they put aside during the Clinton administration.
(3) The politics of the Clinton years were cushioned by the great puffy heaps of money strewn about by the prosperity of the 1990s. It was hard to muster much ire against welfare reform when $ 7 an hour jobs were going begging. It sounded silly to call for protection against foreign competition when American factories were working at capacity. And with colossal budget surpluses lubricating the work of Congress, the clash of interests tapered off to a gentle scraping. But that prosperity seems, if not to be ending altogether, then certainly diminishing.
(4) One of the reasons that the pre-Clinton Democratic party had such difficulty adopting moderate policies was that it had such immoderate beliefs. The 36-day recount battle exposed how strongly wild and paranoid beliefs still pulse inside the party. Party supporters are willing to describe a seatbelt checkpoint as the functional equivalent of a poll tax and the malfunctioning of a voting machine as the moral equivalent of Bull Connor's dogs -- and the party's leaders let such talk go unrebuked because they half-believe it themselves. When people's vision of the world is this distorted, it is as difficult for them to stick to the policies of a Robert Rubin as it is for a man who hears voices in his head to carry on a normal conversation. The madness on the inside must sooner or later affect the behavior on the outside.
(5) Finally, there's the malign presence of Bill Clinton himself. Clinton is the first ex-president since Theodore Roosevelt to be simultaneously popular, vigorous, and ambitious. Clinton probably possesses even more power than Roosevelt did, because TR's ability to meddle in politics was constrained by his party's weariness of him despite the public's affection for him. It was in President Clinton's interest to prod his party toward the center on economic issues at least. But ex-president Clinton? He will be governed by very different imperatives, not least the very Clintonian desire to see his replacements stumble and fail.
What would a revived Democratic left look like? The country has changed a lot since 1988. Foreign affairs has receded to the point of vanishing from politics. Private-sector unions count for little if anything. Gays are replacing Jews as liberalism's most important source of money. More significantly, American society has evolved in ways that give people on the left less cause to feel culturally alienated: They may still hate the American past, but it is probably less and less accurate to describe them as "anti-American" in the present tense. They have largely remade America, and they are naturally pleased with their handiwork.
But the eternal issues remain: freedom vs. statism, old moral codes vs. new ones, self-government vs. the rule of experts. Those issues divided the country -- though often in very unfamiliar and surprising forms -- through the Clinton years. They will continue to divide it in the future. Of course, the Democrats will be on the wrong side of all those issues. How wrong? That's the question that the fate of the party's left will answer.
David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.