Entries from February 1999

Books In Review

David Frum February 16th, 1999 at 12:00 am Comments Off

> >“Here I come, my name is Jowett.

it’s knowledge, then I know it.

am the Master of Balliol College.

If I
don’t know it, it isn’t

> >That ditty was composed by some now-forgotten Oxford wag
about the great Oxford classicist Benjamin Jowett; substitute the line “If
he’s a writer, then I know him,” and it might work as an epitaph for
Norman Podhoretz. Over the past forty years, Podhoretz has in one way or
another managed to meet just about everybody worth meeting in the realm of
literature and ideas. Many of these people became his friends. Alas, not all of
those friendships lasted.

> >“I have often said that if I wish to name-drop, I have
only to list my ex-friends.” It’s a funny line, and, as Podhoretz adds,
“it has the advantage of being true.” In this remarkable book,
Podhoretz describes how six of those friendships were born and ended: with
Allen Ginsberg, with Lionel and Diana Trilling, with Lillian Hellman, with
Hannah Arendt, and with Norman Mailer. “Remarkable” is a much
over-used reviewer’s compliment, but this book fully deserves it. It is
simultaneously a collection of uniquely vivid descriptions of some of the most
outsized characters of our time and an oblique autobiography of the describer.
Most impressively of all, Podhoretz has managed to tell these old and probably
painful stories without bitterness, rancor, or score-settling, while at the
same time avoiding the opposite (if lesser) sins of sentimentality and

> >Here is Allen Ginsberg, who chose to fix Norman Podhoretz
near the center of his paranoid fantasies–there’s a line denouncing him in
“Howl,” Ginsberg’s most famous poem–and then mysteriously warmed to
him in old age:


> >I had a very funny experience a couple of years ago when
I dropped some Ecstasy…and I suddenly remembered Norman Podhoretz. And I
said, Gee, good old Norman, we went to college together… If he weren’t there
like a wall I can butt my head against, I wouldn’t have anybody to hate… But
did I ever really hate him or was I just sort of fascinated by him?

> > >The young Podhoretz was in turn fascinated by Ginsberg:

> >As against the law-abiding life I had chosen of a steady
job and marriage and children, he conjured up a world of complete freedom from
the limits imposed by such grim responsibilities. It was a world that promised
endless erotic possibilities together with the excitements of an expanded
consciousness constantly open to new dimensions of being: more adventure, more
sex, more intensity, more life.

> >The two men have a series of bizarre confrontations–the
worst being a late night argument in 1958 that began with Ginsberg inviting
Podhoretz downtown to hear directly the poet’s complaint against an unfavorable
review and ended with Ginsberg shouting at the departing Podhoretz from the window
of his apartment, “We’ll get you through your children!” And it was
that line that echoed in Podhoretz’s mind as Ginsberg flattered him in the last
years of his life. For Ginsberg had gotten–if not Podhoretz’s own
children–all too many of America’s:

> >Having kept that promise, he decided to be magnanimous
in victory and forgive me. But it was because of them, as well as all the
others who I feared might be waiting in the wings, that I still could not bring
myself to forgive him, not even now that he was dead.

> >Even more improbable, perhaps, than Podhoretz’s weird
acquaintance with Ginsberg was his friendship with Lillian Hellman. (She was
for almost a decade one of his very closest friends, and catapulted him into a
world of movie stars, conductors, and famous writers.) She was the sort of
woman who knew where to find the best black bean soup in Puerto Rico, how to
make the most perfect iced mint tea, and the private phone number of Leonard
Bernstein. She was also an unrepentant Stalinist of the very blackest sort–and
in the 1950′s, that damaged her reputation and caused her to hunger for the
attention and approval of people on the non-Communist left, where Podhoretz
then resided. It didn’t hurt, too, that he personified the high-brow New York
intellectual world that had never much liked her plays and that she hoped to
woo through him–the 1950′s being pretty much the last time that aesthetics
trumped politics in American cultural life and that the opinions of people with
demanding aesthetic standards counted for anything at all. And woo Hellman did!
She invited Podhoretz to all her glamorous parties, cooked for him, even lent
him her summer house to write a book (leaving behind a detailed memo titled
“Notes to a Jewish Traveler”; the first item read: “To your left
on the wall you will find a circular glass-covered object with numbers on it.
This is known as a thermostat”).

> > >Alas, the balmy politics of the 1950′s heated up tragically
quickly into the feverish 1960′s and 70′s. Hellman’s Stalinism flared up again,
as did her habit of lying about her past. Her friendship with Podhoretz had
been waning since 1970, and when her book Scoundrel Time was published in 1976,
Podhoretz commissioned a review by Nathan Glazer that methodically exploded
Hellman’s myths both about the McCarthy period and her untruths about her own
conduct. That was that. The dying friendship lay dead:

> >Shortly before she died, I saw her yet again, and for
the very last time, being carried in the arms of a young man into her building
on Park Avenue from a car. The pity of it hit me hard, and I had a powerful
impulse to run over and plant a kiss on her forehead. By this time, however, we
had become not just estranged friends who retained a lingering fondness for
each other, but passionate and bitter enemies, and I had long since forfeited
the right to make any such tender offer or affectionate gesture. Besides, I was
pretty sure that if I were foolish enough to try, she would have summoned
enough strength, even in the moribund condition she was clearly in, to tell me
to go f–k myself.

> >As the Hellman stories suggest, death is this book’s great
theme: the death of Podhoretz’s friends (only one of the people discussed in
this book, Norman Mailer, is still alive) and the death of the world they
together constituted. The idea that there was a time when novels mattered more
than op-eds, when Broadway still existed for the editors of intellectual
magazines to look down on, when the intellectual life of the nation was
gathered in New York among a comparative handful of people–virtually none of
them employed at a university, and a surprising portion of them Jewish–it all
now seems as vanished as Ur of the Chaldees.

> >As editor of Commentary >, Podhoretz was for years that world’s broker, and in his
memoirs he was its best chronicler and publicist: first triumphantly, in Making
It, then defiantly, in Breaking Ranks, and now elegiacally. The great quarrel
that shattered Podhoretz’s world–the civil war among the literary left which
drove most into radicalism and a dissident minority into neoconservatism–has
talked itself into irrelevance. The left has not vanished of course, but it has
ceased to be literary: Barbra Streisand has taken the place of Susan Sontag and
Alec Baldwin has replaced Irving Howe. To the extent that books and art matter
at all, the values by which they are judged are entirely non-aesthetic: Is the
author black/female/gay? Are the characters black/female/gay? Does the book
have a positive message about being black/female/gay? The idea that Norman
Podhoretz won his early celebrity as a reviewer of novels now seems as
incredible as would the idea that Colin Powell began his rise through the
military hierarchy as the commander of an observation balloon.

> >Podhoretz visibly misses that world. He makes plain his
discomfort with more regular conservative Republicans, who (he quips)
“seemed to conceive of the Soviet Union as one huge regulatory agency, a
sort of gigantic Federal Trade Commission with nuclear weapons.” And yet,
he cannot quite lament his exile from Paradise. As he says at the end of his
chapter on Norman Mailer, describing a recent failed attempt at reconciliation,
“having spent the last thirty years and more trying to make up for and
undo the damage I did in cooperation with Mailer and so many other of my
ex-friends, both living and dead, I simply could see no way back to him, or
them, ever again.”

>These sad words must have cost Podhoretz a great deal to
write. But let’s all be glad he did. In his mood of mingled nostalgia for the
past and confidence that he was right to break with that past, he has written a
book that is beautiful, generous, and wise; that is sweet, but not too sweet,
charitable but still just. And its final message is one that should bring hope
to us all–that as a result of doing the right thing, in defiance of every
worldly inducement for wrong, even so pugnacious a soul as Norman Podhoretz can
work his way through to something that looks suspiciously like serenity.

The Good Fight

David Frum February 8th, 1999 at 12:00 am Comments Off

>Was it worth it? Was it worth losing five Republican
congressmen in 1998 and risking more in 2000, consuming a year of the nation’s
time, dragging dozens of unwilling figures into the glare of publicity, and
depressing the party’s poll numbers, all in an attempt to punish the president
for telling a few lies about his office hanky-panky?


>That question, or some version of it, will take over the
airwaves of the nation the moment President Clinton is acquitted by the Senate,
as now seems both inevitable and imminent. Conservatives may complain that the
question is tendentious — did anybody debate whether punishing Nixon for
Watergate was worth delivering 17 million South Vietnamese to communism? — but
that won’t make it go away. Even within the Republican party — for all the
remarkable solidarity on display now — acrimony may well erupt once the trial
ends. And after all, the critics of the impeachment drive have something of a
point. Pro-impeachment Republicans did choose to ignore the polls and did
knowingly defy extreme political danger. They do owe their party and the
country an accounting of what good they expected to achieve. Here’s what such
an accounting might sound like.


>It would begin with a negative point: When people suggest
that the scandal should somehow have been wrapped up earlier, when precisely do
they have in mind? From the very first moment the story exploded last January,
it was glaringly apparent that President Clinton had perjured himself and
coordinated the perjury of others in the Paula Jones litigation. Nobody except
the most extreme Clinton partisan could be — or in fact was — indifferent to
that appalling fact. And even had Republicans somehow managed to feign
indifference, the investigation of the scandal would have proceeded anyway,
because nobody except Kenneth Starr had the power to halt it. And the only way he > could halt it was by violating the terms of the
Independent Counsel law and his own appointment.


>Indeed, though everyone now contrives to forget the fact,
congressional Republicans did remain astonishingly reticent about Starr’s
investigation for most of 1998. It was not until September — the delivery of
the independent counsel’s report — that the scandal unavoidably became
Congress’s responsibility. What should Congress have done then? Said,
“Thank you very much Mr. Independent Counsel for your evidence, but we’ve
looked at the polls and have decided that popular presidents can break the law
if they want to?”


>When an independent counsel — for the first time in the
twenty year history of the statute — refers evidence to Congress that
impeachable offenses have been committed by the president, Congress cannot just
wish its responsibility away. It must in turn refer the evidence to the only
body with the power to act: the House Judiciary Committee. As it happened,
virtually every member of the House of Representatives stood ready to do just
that last fall.


>Possibly, the Judiciary Committee could have devised some
other penalty for the president’s perjury and obstruction than impeachment. But
what? The censure deal that the doughty editorialists of The New York Times > kept touting was never more than a desperate expedient.
Leave aside the question of censure’s constitutionality. Ask only this: Would
those House Democrats who took the bus over to the White House lawn to applaud
the president on the day of his impeachment ever have voted for anything that
explicitly named the president a criminal? Of course not. So a censure
resolution would either have been hopelessly vague or, like impeachment, would
have passed the House on a party-line vote.


>In either case, is there any doubt that President Clinton,
who to this day insists that he is the victim of the most unjust prosecution
since O. J. Simpson, would have brushed it off? Censure might have been an
option had the president ever been willing to confess his perjury and
witness-tampering and declare his willingness to submit to the judgment of the
courts after his term was over. But so long as he scorned the law and denied
the facts, censure only constituted an admission that Congress was afraid to
punish a felonious president. Better, frankly, for Congress to pretend to
believe in the president’s innocence than to declare his guilt while behaving
in ways that make it clear that so long as a chief executive rides high in the
polls he may commit what crimes he pleases. That really is the way republics die.


>So Henry Hyde and his Republican colleagues had no
conscientious alternative. President Clinton’s unapologetic defense of his
crimes left them with no choice but to impeach or acquiesce. As the republic’s
only line of defense against a lawless president, they were duty-bound to
impeach and accept the consequences.


>To be sure, putting it that way makes impeachment sound
like the futile gesture of the hero of an existential novel: “The site of
the rendezvous had been betrayed to the Gestapo, but Rene put on his
trench-coat, lit his cigarette, and went out into the rainy night . . . ”
In fact, while the Republicans did not undertake impeachment for party
advantage — quite the contrary — it is mistaken to imagine they embarked on a
suicide mission. Yes, the Republican determination to enforce the law against a
popular president is perilous. But the Democrats’ determination to let that
president get away with breaking the law is at least as perilous, as they
themselves seem to realize.


>The peril is summed up in those polls by which Clinton
lives: The mid-January Gallup poll found that 79 percent of Americans believe
that Clinton perjured himself, and that 53 percent believe he obstructed
justice. Pollster John Zogby asked some more specific questions from January
19-21 and learned that 63 percent agree that Clinton perjured himself before a
federal grand jury. Henry Hyde and his House managers, in other words, have
completely won the argument over the facts of this case. They have convinced
the country that President Clinton has committed crimes — and serious crimes:
55 percent of Americans agree, Zogby reports, that grand jury perjury is an
impeachable offense and 58 percent agree that obstruction of justice is
impeachable. But the public has remained unwilling to connect the dots, and has
resisted removing the president from office.


>But will the dots stay unconnected? That depends on which
half of the public’s split consciousness endures longer: the belief that
Clinton is doing a fine job as president and should therefore stay in office?
Or the knowledge that Clinton has committed crimes that merit impeachment? One
of the Zogby polls’ findings, and it echoes that of other pollsters, is that
only 40 percent of Americans say they are “proud” that Bill Clinton
is president; 42 percent say they are “ashamed.” Isn’t that odd?
Three-quarters of Americans approve of the job Clinton is doing, but a
plurality are ashamed of the man’s presidency. If America were a patient on the
couch, a psychiatrist would be quick to diagnose some very powerful feelings of
ambivalence here — even a guilt complex. The Democrats sense that guilt, which
is why they are anxious to craft a deal that will keep Clinton in office
without seeming to condone his law-breaking.


>The presence in office of a scofflaw president is a bone in
the throat of American democracy. It won’t go away, try as the senators might
to ignore it. Years from now, in completely unpredictable ways, the country
will still be gagging on it. Great misdeeds are like that — they linger, like
the beating of Edgar Allan Poe’s telltale heart. It was the Democrats’ Cold War
weakness that prevented Clinton from following through on his
gays-in-the-military promise: He lacked the moral authority to bring the
generals to heel. Similarly, but in entirely unpredictable ways, the Democrats’
support for a president who defied the laws will haunt them and the country for
years. It has, at least for the moment, deprived them of their usual
trustworthy base in the media. The Monica Lewinsky story is the first
Democratic scandal since the Alger Hiss trial to be covered by the press with
anything like the zeal and outrage it brings to Republican scandals. The early
Clinton administration enjoyed the same presumptive immunity that Kennedy and
Johnson were able to count on. When caught with FBI files on their desks,
Clintonites could smile and say innocently, “We may be sloppy but we’re
not crooked,” and anticipate — correctly — that they would receive the
benefit of the doubt. Not any more.


>It may be over-optimistic to hope that the press will
subject future Democratic administrations to the same skeptical scrutiny that
Republicans expect as a matter of course. But the public will. In the long
series of polls that show the Clinton-led Democrats have overtaken the
Republicans as the party most trusted on Social Security, education, and other
issues, and have pulled even with them on crime and taxes, the Republicans for
the first time in memory have taken a big and widening lead in one crucial
domain: morality and ethics.


>All too many people in Washington these days hear the
phrase “morals and ethics” and think sex. But it’s not the
president’s accusers who are obsessed with sex: It’s the president’s defenders.
They feared that allowing Clinton to be punished for perjury would undermine
the dogma that sex, so long as it’s consensual, ought never to be subject to
moral or legal scrutiny.

>Kenneth Starr never set out to win a putative culture war;
it was Clinton’s defenders who feared that by letting their man be impeached,
they would lose a culture war. “The president must not lose his job,”
wrote Maureen Dowd, the New York Times’s
bellwether columnist, in her remarkable September 1998 pivot in favor of the
president. “Not over this.” Not because a “middle-aged married
man has [an] affair with [a] frisky and adoring young office girl.” A
failure to defend the president, she feared, would jeopardize everything won in
the 1960s. Apparently, requiring presidents to tell the truth under oath is the
first step on a slippery slope to the prosecution of fornication and the
outlawing of abortion.

>Poor Richard Nixon. If only he’d thought to say that he
wanted to wiretap Larry O’Brien’s telephone at the Democratic National
Committee because he had reason to believe O’Brien was using it to receive
pro-life marching orders from the Vatican. Then Nixon, too, might have gotten a
pass from the Times op-ed page!

>Dowd had it really exactly backwards. One of the things
that the Lewinsky affair illuminates is how very difficult it is to sustain any
idea of public virtue in a society unable to agree on what constitutes private
virtue. Clinton committed a public wrong. But he got away with it in very large
part because it was connected to a private wrong, at a moment when Americans
seem to find it uniquely difficult to express judgments about private
wrongdoing. It was not conservatives who used perjury as a way to punish
adultery; it was the Clintonites who saw they could use adultery to excuse

>A cunning trick, but one likely to leave behind a certain
odor. Nevertheless, for the moment it has been effective. Fearful Republican
senators are now looking for some “exit strategy” that ends the trial
rapidly. There is only one exit strategy that will work: Call the final vote
and be prepared to lose. Impeachment was unpopular primarily because voters
interpreted it as a cynical partisan gambit. For once, this suspicion was
entirely misplaced, and it would be an act of self-betrayal for Republicans now
to do anything to justify it. Cutting short the trial of a felonious president
because the polls oppose it may seem like smart politics. But ending the trial
hastily for political reasons only lends credence to the charge that
Republicans started the trial for political reasons.

>And once over, Republicans must not disown the trial. When
they permitted Jennifer Dunn and Steve Largent to appear on national television
after the president’s State of the Union address and chirrup that the trial
involves no big issues that justify disrupting the cozy comity of the capital,
they raised the question: Well then, if the trial was so bogus, why did the
Republicans start it? If Clinton feels no need to apologize for breaking the
law, why do the Republicans feel the need to apologize for enforcing it?


>President Clinton deserves to be convicted and removed from
office. His popularity has saved him. Very well: Let his party go on record, in
the Senate as in the House (and on Lincoln’s birthday too!), that lying under
oath and corrupting justice just do not seem to them to be impeachable
offenses. Let them identify themselves as Clinton’s apologists and defenders.
And let Republicans retain enough of their old and deserved confidence in the
American people — who are seldom deceived for very long — to believe that
there will be a reckoning. Those same polls that show Clinton’s popularity as
president also show how little Americans like or trust him personally. A man
who might have gone down in history as the Democrats’ Eisenhower — a likable,
cautious character who presided over an era of wonderful peace and prosperity
– has instead been exposed as their Nixon.


>Was it worthwhile to impeach Clinton? The impeachment
proved to the American people that the charges against Clinton were in every
particular true. It blackened the name of a law-breaking president. It
destroyed the Democrats’ quarter-century moral upper-hand and exposed the
party’s cynicism in pursuit of power. It gave American liberals one more
opportunity to display their disdain for the law when it threatens to curb
their appetites. It has ended in at least momentary defeat. Oh well. For a good
cause, even defeat is worthwhile. But it’s funny about good causes: Somehow,
the defeats rarely last for long.

When The Economy Turns

David Frum February 1st, 1999 at 12:00 am Comments Off

>Everything will be different eighteen months from now. It’s
one of the oldest rules of politics, and also one of the hardest to remember.
The present is so real, so glaring; the future so murky, so contingent. Who
could believe in 1991 that the triumph in the Gulf would immediately fade? Or
that the recession would end before Clinton’s inauguration? And as Clinton
ascended the rostrum of the House on Tuesday to boast of the country’s wealth,
take the cheers of his party, and bask in his skyscraping poll numbers, it
seemed equally far-fetched to imagine that anything could tarnish his amazing
political success.

>Certainly the Republicans who replied to the State of the
Union seemed unable to imagine it. Jennifer Dunn and Steve Largent delivered
two of the most abject speeches ever to make a late-night viewer wince — first
denying that the impeachment of a president for multiple felonies ought to
concern the American people very much and then implicitly apologizing for having
impeached him.

>The Dunn and Largent speeches seemed to take for granted
that the salient political fact of the next election cycle will be the
continuing overwhelming popularity of Bill Clinton. And of course it is
possible that in 2000 the president will be as popular as Ronald Reagan was in
1988. But is it not equally possible that the Republicans are once again
getting ready to fight the last war?

>The Republicans were hammered in 1996 because they had
started and lost a budget fight with President Clinton. So they entered the
1998 election cycle determined never to wage another budget fight — only to
get hammered again in 1998, as the federal surplus piled up and high-income
voters revolted against the Republicans’ unwillingness to press for broad tax

>In the aftermath of 1998 and with the acquittal of the
president looming, the GOP is buzzing with advice from friends and foes alike
as to how to reposition the party for the 2000 election. That advice tends to
build on the premise that the country’s condition in eighteen months will be
essentially what it is now. Yes, many economists are predicting something of a
slowdown in 1999. But with the stock market roaring, interest rates plunging,
and the Asian, Russian, and Latin American financial crises a faraway and
confusing menace, those same economists have decided that the 1999 slowdown
will probably be only a prelude to the recovery of 2000.

>And maybe that’s right too. But here’s something to
contemplate: The U.S. economy has been growing for more than six years, since
the middle of 1992. It’s sixteen years since the end of the last severe
recession. Question: What happens to American politics if the economy turns?

>The cynical answer is: oh, nothing much. The Clinton
administration’s critics have so often predicted its imminent destruction –
from the recession that was supposed to follow the 1993 tax hike, from the
White-water and campaign-finance scandals, from public reaction against a
humiliating foreign policy — that by now we tend to assume nothing short of
the finger of God pointing to Clinton himself as the cause of tidal waves,
typhoons, and locusts could do much to damage him.

>But just for a moment, let’s try the crazy experiment of
imagining that Clinton is vulnerable — if not to proven charges of
criminality, then to economic disappointment. What happens to him and to
American politics if, despite the stock-market euphoria, the East Asian,
Russian, and Latin American depressions do crimp the American economy this year
or the next? U.S. exports, especially high-tech and agricultural exports, are
already tumbling — by some 20 percent to the worst-hit market, East Asia.
Meanwhile imports are rising, as the collapse of currencies from the Thai baht
to the Canadian dollar slashes the price of goods made in those countries. This
puts pressure on American manufacturers to reduce their own costs, by, for
example, laying off workers. The United Steelworkers and the big steelmakers
have already formed a coalition, "Stand Up for Steel," to lobby for
even thicker barriers to Japanese and South Korean metal. Clinton (naturally)
pandered to them in his State of the Union address. Subsidizing U.S. jobs,
however, aside from its other demerits, will prolong and aggravate the slump
overseas and enlarge the threat that slump poses to the U.S. economy.

>A potentially even more menacing danger is taking form
across the Atlantic. On January 1, the European currencies ceased to move
freely against one another and were fixed relative to one another for the three
years remaining until they are scheduled to disappear and be replaced by the
single European currency. Fix any of those rates too high, and it will have a
deflationary impact; fix any too low, and it will tend to create inflation. And
since eleven currencies are joining the European Monetary Union, there were
fifty-five exchange rates for the Euro-wizards to set accurately, creating
many, many opportunities for error — and further international monetary

>None of this necessarily means that the End is Nigh for the
U.S. economy. It’s possible the United States may muddle through, with no worse
shock than a slowing of growth in 1999. On the other hand, the outlook is not
exactly confidence-inspiring. And an economic downturn would have considerable
political significance.

>The 1990s have been an unusually serene time for the
American economy and thus an unusually uneventful period in American politics.
It’s not true, as President Clinton likes to say, that this is "the best
economy in thirty years." Actually, the 1992-98 expansion has had the
lowest average growth rate of any since the end of World War II. What it has
been is an unusually untroubled expansion. Compare the Clinton prosperity to
the Reagan boom. The expansion of the 1980s began in 1983, just as the great
surge of people born in the peak years of the baby boom, 1957-62, were looking
for their first jobs. The number of women seeking full-time work peaked in the
1980s too, and immigration from war-torn Central America and an oil-busted
Mexico surged.

>With so many workers to absorb, the economy of the 1980s
was always attended by relatively slack labor markets. Not until 1987 did the
unemployment rate push below 6 percent, and in only a single month of the
Reagan boom — March 1989 — did unemployment fall as low as 5 percent. The
cohort entering the labor market in the mid-1990s, however, was the small
generation born in the 1960s and early 1970s. As a result, even though the
economy grew less fast in the 1990s than it did in the 1980s, and even though
real interest rates were not much lower, unemployment rates fell much further:
Since May 1997, they have remained between 4.6 percent and 5.0 percent.

>These numbers — with a little help from news media that
have inexplicably lost interest in such once-favorite topics as homelessness,
deindustrialization, and the (still-growing) gap between the incomes of the top
5 percent and bottom 20 percent of households — may explain why voters have
been consistently more likely to say that Bill Clinton’s relatively sluggish
America is on the "right track" than they were to say so of Ronald
Reagan’s much more dynamic America. That feeling of economic well-being, in
turn, has protected Clinton from being wounded by his administration’s scandals
and crimes. So far anyway. But now suppose that those happy conditions were to

>Since 1994, Clinton has offered the Democratic party a
devilish bargain: Accept and defend policies you hate (welfare reform, the
Defense of Marriage Act), condone and excuse crimes (perjury, campaign finance
abuses), and I’ll deliver you the executive branch of government. But this
bargain can hold only so long as Bill Clinton’s grip on the presidency does. If
that grip falters — if a weak economy threatens to cost the Democrats the
White House in 2000 — the Clinton bargain will cease looking like clever
politics and start looking like a disgusting betrayal of Democratic principles.

>Nor will Clinton’s standing in the country be more secure.
Again since 1994, Clinton has survived and even thrived by deftly balancing
between right and left. He has assuaged the left by continually proposing bold
new programs — the expansion of Medicare to 55 year olds, a national day-care
program, the reversal of welfare reform, the hooking up to the Internet of
every classroom, and now the socialization of the means of production via
Social Security. And he has placated the right by dropping every one of these
programs as soon as he proposed it. Clinton makes speeches, Rubin and Greenspan
make policy; the left gets words, the right gets deeds; and everybody is

>But if unemployment lines were growing, how long would the
AFL-CIO and Clinton’s supporters in black America stomach this president’s
hands-off economics? If incomes and asset values were tumbling, would
middle-class Americans continue to yawn at Clinton’s penchant for dreaming up
new ways to spend their money? Worse, for all of Clinton’s invocations of a
"Third Way," it’s quite clear that in hard times, the Third Way rapidly
deteriorates into the old hardhat-and-steamshovel First Way. Look at the advice
the Clinton economic team is administering to depressed Japan: Build highways!
Dams! Pave over the entire island! It’s as if they’d been clipping Felix
Rohatyn articles from the 1981 New York Review of Books > and saving them for just this emergency. Clinton’s Third
Way is a skiff that floats only in balmy weather.

>Nor is it just the Democrats who need to worry about the
politics of a downturn. The successful politics of the 1990s for both parties
have been symbolic politics. For Democrats: V-chips, school uniforms, free cell
phones for community-watch organizations, a patients’ bill of rights,
whoop-whooping against the evils of tobacco. For Republicans: the balanced budget
amendment, the gauzy weepiness of the ’96 convention, the congressional reforms
in the Contract With America, whoop-whooping against the evils of marijuana.
These gestures have achieved their political purpose because in good times,
Americans expect relatively little of their government.

>In bad times, however, micropolitics suddenly looks
absurdly inadequate. Remember the fate of George Bush’s "thousand points
of light" in the recession of 1991? Or how silly Jimmy Carter’s cardigan
sweater looked after Iran took Americans hostage? In bad times, Americans rally
to big ideas: to an Eisenhower who promises to "go to Korea," to a
Kennedy who promises to "get the country moving again," to a Reagan
who promises a 30 percent tax cut, and — yes — to a Clinton who promises
health insurance for all that can never be taken away. That same opportunity
may well beckon in 2000.

>There are at least three grand issues or themes whose
politics could look radically different in the wake of a slump: Social
Security, taxation, and Clinton’s personal style.

>Social Security first. The Bulletin of the Atomic
still posts on its cover a
doomsday clock, graphically illustrating how close the world supposedly stands
to nuclear Armageddon. It may be time for the board of governors of the Social
Security system to borrow this attention-getting device. The crisis in Social
Security is due in less than 10 years: in June 2008, when the first of the baby
boomers turns 65. What should be done? President Clinton’s State of the Union
proposals are probably gambits: It seems incredible that he could believe that
any Congress would let the government buy up industry. Clinton’s main idea
seems to be that if he can pile up big enough budget surpluses now, he will
reduce the strain on the system in a decade. This squirrel-in-winter approach
to pension finance is laughed at by most economists, but it has helped Clinton
achieve his real goal — avoiding an across-the-board tax-cut — while (as a
bonus) making it seem as if he were actually taking some action on the crisis.

>Now suppose the economy turns down. The budget surplus –
which owes its existence to the fantastic increase in federal tax revenues of
the past few years (up from $ 1.154 trillion in fiscal 1993 to $ 1.743 trillion
estimated in fiscal 1999, a 51 percent increase, with much, much more projected
for the years ahead) — will shrink, even vanish. If it does, so do the Clinton
administration’s not-very-convincing-to-start-with claims to be doing something
about Social Security. Clinton’s verbal formulas worked politically because
they gave people the comforting sense that somebody was keeping a careful eye
on their financial future, and the mountain of money in the surplus was the
tangible proof. No surplus, no proof. No surplus, and all the allegedly radical
ideas of those who actually want the problem solved rather than evaded suddenly
cease to look so radical after all.

>Now think about taxes. In 1999, federal revenues will
exceed 20 percent of gross domestic product for the first time since 1945.
(Federal revenues were only 17 percent of gross domestic product when George
Bush left office.) Federal, state, and local taxes combined now consume 40
percent of the income of the median family: an all-time record, more even than
during World War II. Unlike in the last period of tax creep, the 1970s,
middle-class wage-earning households have been insulated from the rising burden
of the Clinton years by a proliferation of new, targeted, phased-out tax
benefits. These benefits have minimized middle-class tax resentment: There has
been no 1990s version of Proposition 13. And with business conditions seemingly
so favorable, it’s hard to convince Americans of the value of tax cutting for
the economy in general, as Bob Dole found out when his promise of a 15 percent
across-the-board tax cut so badly flopped.

>If business conditions were not so favorable, however, the
Clinton tax increases would not be so readily ignored. People get more anxious
about where their dollars are going when they feel they have fewer of them.
More urgently, in a recession the deflationary impact of high taxes will not be
as easily brushed aside as it was in 1996. We’ve all watched the Japanese
economy trapped for half a decade within a seemingly inescapable recession by
its government’s unwillingness to significantly lower tax rates: It’s easy to
imagine such a thing happening here — and easier still to explain why it
should not.


>Finally there’s the Clinton style. Probably not since John
F. Kennedy has a president so influenced the way other politicians dress, talk,
and emote, and not only in the United States, but around the world. Think of
Gerhard Schroder and Tony Blair as much as George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich.
(Well, where else did Gingrich get the idea to pose for his last book in hiking
boots and open-necked shirt?) But unlike Kennedy, this much-mimicked president
is not much admired: One of those polls he lives by, CNN-Gallup’s poll for
January 8-10, shows that by a 55-42 margin, the public does not respect him as
a man. A "Kennedyesque" politician is glamorous and witty; a
"Clintonian" politician is a shameless liar.


>The Clintonian style is pervasive because it seems to have
achieved fantastic results: Here’s a politician who — if the law were strictly
enforced — might easily be in the slammer, and instead he boasts 70+ percent
job-approval ratings. It’s tempting to infer from the Clintons’ repeated
success in overcoming the most gaping self-inflicted wounds that there’s
something about this style that is especially well suited to a postindustrial
economy, to a female-majority electorate, to — well, name whatever fancy
theory you like. And it’s equally tempting (or depressing, depending on your
point of view) to believe that the Clinton style will therefore be with us


>But again: the politics of Clintonism may look very
different if the economics do. If eighteen months from now we are all talking
about mistakes that were unnecessarily stumbled into, avoidable dangers that
were inattentively not avoided, tough but urgent decisions that were evaded or
fudged — we may find that about the last thing any ambitious pol wants is to
be confused with the man whose most quoted remark is destined to be, "It
depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is."


>This is all speculation, of course. Clinton has enjoyed
amazing luck throughout his career, from his escape from the draft to the stock
market rally that immediately followed his disastrous August 17 speech. His
luck may yet hold just long enough to get him out of town with most of his
secrets still intact and his job-approval ratings still at record highs. Since
1995, the coin has come up "heads" just about every time that Clinton
has tossed it. Who knows? It may come up "heads" a dozen times more.
Personally, I wouldn’t bet my life on it. But Clinton has.