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THE TRIUMPH OF CLINTONISM

11:00 PM, Nov 15, 1998 • By DAVID FRUM
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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.