The Magazine

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
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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.