Entries from December 1998

The Triumph Of Clintonism

David Frum December 1st, 1998 at 12:00 am Comments Off

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) 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 style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'>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.

Winners And Losers In The American Midterm Elections

David Frum December 1st, 1998 at 12:00 am Comments Off

There
were two big winners of Tuesday’s U.S. election and two big losers. The
winners: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The losers: Newt Gingrich and Al
Gore.

Mr.
Clinton is a winner because the election result has quashed virtually any
possibility that he will be impeached, or even held answerable, for his
perjuries in the Paula Jones sex harassment case and before Ken Starr’s grand
jury. Within 48 hours of the vote, Judiciary Committee Henry Hyde had decided
to truncate his Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearings dramatically: They
will very likely be wrapped up by Christmas, with the Republicans calling only
one witness, Ken Starr. Best guess: The committee will vote in favor of one or
two articles of impeachment, but they will languish on the House floor and
never reach the Senate for trial. Once more in his astonishing career, Bill
Clinton has beaten the rap.

Newt
Gingrich is a loser for an equal and opposite reason. It was Mr. Gingrich who
– in conjunction with the equally hopeless Trent Lott, Republican majority
leader in the Senate – made the fatal decision to surrender to Mr. Clinton on
the budget and on taxes so that they could turn the 1998 election into a
referendum on the perjury scandal and only the perjury scandal. The Romans
advised that statesmen should be suaviter in modo, fortiter in re — gentle but
firm. Mr. Gingrich is exactly the opposite: Strident but weak.

The
rebellion against his leadership has already begun: U.S. newspapers carried the
story the next morning that Bob Livingstone, the powerful Louisiana congressman
who chairs the appropriations committee, had suggested that Mr. Gingrich quit.
Who do you suppose told the papers that story? And do you think he would have
done it if he feared that Mr. Gingrich still possessed the power to punish
rebels against him?

George
Bush Jr. is a winner — the winner of a 69% landslide in the second-most
populous state in the country (it passed New York in 1994). With his immense
popularity at home, his father’s fundraising network at his fingertips and his
experience as the de facto chief of staff of the Bush White House, he must now
be reckoned far and away the front runner for the Republican presidential
nomination. And Republicans almost always stick with their front runners.

It
may be surprising to hear Al Gore described as a loser. He is, after all, the
number two man in the most successful Democratic administration since Franklin
Delano Roosevelt’s. But Mr. Gore is running some 20 points behind George Bush
Jr. in CNN’s presidential preference polls — an amazing gap for a sitting vice
president.

And
those numbers reflect something real. Winning the presidency is like assembling
a big jigsaw puzzle: A successful candidate must win 268 of 535 electoral
college votes. With Republicans holding the governorships of eight of the 10
biggest states (California is the one great Democratic stronghold), George W.
Bush will begin with a daunting advantage. If he were to pick as his running
mate one of the three Republican big-state governors who won by more than 10%
of the vote yesterday (Pataki of New York, Engler of Michigan, or Ridge of
Pennsylvania) and assuming he can count on Florida, where younger brother Jeb
Bush was just elected governor with 57% of the vote, he will be one-third of
the way to the presidency before he shakes his first hand.

But
Mr. Gore’s troubles go beyond the mechanics of the U.S. electoral system. The
fact that Americans oppose impeaching Clinton does not mean that they agree
with Democrats that the man should be let off scot-free. While only about
one-third of Tuesday’s voters wanted to see Clinton impeached, more than 60% of
the voters agreed that he should be punished in some way. And if nothing much
happens to him in the next session of Congress, then the only way left to
punish him will be by casting a ballot against his colleague, henchman and
partner in illegal fundraising: Al Gore.

Don’t
you remember in high school that there was always a basically good kid who
tried to ingratiate himself with the local hood? And don’t you remember, too,
how whenever the authorities finally cracked down, it was always the basically
good kid who found himself left inside the candy store as the cops arrived,
while the hood made his escape? That’s Gore’s predicament — and it’s why
despite the debacle of 1998, 2000 will be a big Republican year.