By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It‘s nap time in America.
In this, the summer of our content, the nation seems blissfully oblivious of the presidential campaigns, and the candidates themselves are doing little to disturb our rest.
In the case of W., a quiet candidacy makes perfect sense. His calling card is his affability, which he can reaffirm daily with a brief, genial appearance. He’s sewn up his GOP base -- a recent L.A. Times poll shows him drawing 90 percent support among Republicans -- and can now focus solely on the centrists, taking care not to startle them with right-wing rhetoric or sudden loud noises.
In the case of Al Gore, and more broadly of the Democratic Party, such silence equals political death. Democrats don‘t win unless their base is ablaze with passion, unless unionists and students and enviros have taken to the streets on their behalf. The same polling shows Gore pulling down the support of just 80 percent of the Democrats -- meaning he not only has to reach swing voters but reconnect with voters mulling over the Nader option, with the Teamsters and turtles of American politics.
But the Democratic Party in the year 2000 -- which is to say, the Democratic Party as Bill Clinton has remodeled it -- will be hard put to mobilize its foot soldiers. Over the past eight years, the party base has swung into action largely to oppose Republican congressional folly, or its own administration’s free-trade mania.
Clinton is clearly the most brilliant Democratic presidential campaign strategist, and candidate, since Franklin Roosevelt. He has freed his party from many an election-day albatross: No longer are the Democrats the party of big government, or welfare cheats, or high taxes, or coddled criminals. While such recasting was probably necessary to the party‘s revival, it certainly hasn’t been sufficient to the task.
The president has been utterly unable to transfer his magic to Democrats in other branches or at other levels of government. When Bill Clinton took office in 1992, the Democrats held a majority 258 House seats; today, they hold a minority 210. In the Senate, they‘ve gone from a majority of 53 to a minority of 46. In the statehouses, the two-party ratio has been reversed: In 1992, there were 30 Democratic governors and 18 Republicans; today, there are 17 Democrats and 31 Republicans. Both New Democrats and Old have been felled in the age of Clinton.
Ironically, the decline of Democratic fortunes on Clinton’s watch has meant he‘s gone all but unchallenged in recharting his party’s course. Unable to pass legislation of their own, congressional Democrats have been reduced to fending off the Republicans‘ most dubious brainstorms. A truly brilliant legislator like Henry Waxman has been able to navigate a few bills through the Congress, but most of the time he’s been forced to swat down the absurd conspiracy theories of GOP Committee Chair Dan Burton, which is rather like being repeatedly compelled to chase after an escaped lunatic.
By the same token, the only major state that‘s had a Democratic governor since 1994 is California, and there only for the last 19 months. Even America’s two mega-cities have been under uncharacteristic Republican rule since 1993. All of which has rendered Bill Clinton not just the party‘s pre-eminent redefiner, but damn near its only one. And, as both politics and policy, some of those redefinitions have put the party in jeopardy.
Consider, for instance, the strange case of the vanishing debt. It began, innocently enough, with Clinton’s 1993 budget, which raised taxes on the richest 1 percent of Americans as a way to bring spiraling deficits under control. Then, confronted with a Newtster-run Congress complaining of Democratic profligacy, Clinton neutralized the GOP attack by agreeing to balance the budget at the expense of much programmatic spending, while protecting Social Security and Medicare from Republican depredations.
As the deficit turned to a surplus, Clinton came forth with a plan, Heisenbergian in its incomprehensibility, to protect Social Security by paying down the debt. This was largely a ploy to fend off the Republicans‘ tax-cut proposal, but the ploy took on a life of its own. The Social Security part of the plan went nowhere, but debt retirement suddenly became the North Star of administration fiscal policy. Today, retiring the debt by 2012 has become the linchpin of Clinton-Gore economics -- taking precedence over such longtime Democratic priorities as universal health insurance. For his part, Gore has gone one step further -- telling The Wall Street Journal that he’d not even be inclined to run a deficit during a serious recession, preferring rather to slash government spending. (A proposal that shocked even John McCain, whose understanding of Keynesianism seems farther along than Gore‘s.)
Gore, in short, is something new in the political firmament: an Andrew Mellon Democrat. (Mellon was Herbert Hoover’s treasury secretary, who deepened the Depression by counseling Hoover to cut spending as factory after factory was shuttered, and by advising business to ”Liquidate capital, liquidate assets, liquidate men.“) Gore himself is proposing to liquidate -- or at least diminish -- Democratic prospects. As policy, a program of debt reduction uber alles, or at least uber comprehensive health care and better schools, is bizarre. As several liberal commentators have noted, it‘s rather like a family electing to defer purchasing health insurance, or defer sending the kids to college, in order to pay off the mortgage more quickly. As politics, the program is even shakier. Not even the dread bond market has given any sign that the debt must be paid off in the next dozen years. And when it comes to inspiring Democratic activists or drawing the attention of the occasional swing voter, debt retirement doesn’t quite carry the wallop that health care does.