THE TRIUMPH OF CLINTONISM
11:00 PM, Nov 15, 1998 • By DAVID FRUM
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