President Clinton has a warm, endearing look and a nice, blow-dried haircut. You can even see most of his teeth when he smiles. Often, he can be seen schmoozing with movie stars and singers. Other times he is hard at work hugging single mothers. As a celebrity he excels, while still managing to seem like one of us. And, of course, this is the most seductive and appealing thing a leader can do in a representative democracy.
So, at least for a while, it did not matter that Clinton stood for nothing. He got by on pop star appeal and derived his legitimacy largely from his image. Which is perhaps why he left in his wake a government more confused, misdirected and red of tooth and claw than any in recent memory.
Ironically, with the close election and questions of legitimacy floating around the zeitgeist, most pundits predicted that Clinton's successor would have to embrace many of the same populist tactics. The thinking was straightforward: Congress was so equally divided that no leader could wield bipartisan support. With each side willing to dig in their heels and simply wait it out for another four years, the best the president could hope for was a few ceremonial victories. Deeply sensible about poll numbers, many political advisers reasoned that a few ritual victories would surely be better than tethering oneself to significant losses on key issues.
Get it? They thought that if the president stood for nothing, that he could still ascend in the popular consciousness as anything. That, in effect, the public could fill him in however they wished, just so long as he avoided any controversial stands. Consequently, they urged President Bush to scale back his campaign promises on faith-based initiatives, education reform, tax cuts and missile defense.
Shockingly, President Bush took the opposite approach. That is to say, he refused to be a political toady and instead did something rather extraordinary - he displayed some genuine leadership.
Six months later, it may be said with certainty that this proactive approach has solidified his legitimacy as our leader.
A brief recap:
In May, President Bush scored a major bipartisan victory when his $1.35 trillion tax cut plan breezed through both the House and the Senate. Despite no small amount of liberal finger-wagging, Bush dug in his heels, thus ensuring that he would become the first president in two decades to make good on a promise to significantly cut taxes.
Bush adapted a similar pose abroad, circling the wagons around a few core issues like a universal missile defense shield and a refusal to entertain the Kyoto Treaty. Though the latter empowered the eco-pessimists to snort and snarl, it ought to be noted that the U.S. Congress had already rebuked the treaty, as had every European country except Romania.
As for the missile defense shield, Bush rightly noted that the anti-ballistic (ABM) treaty was a vestige of more hostile times between Russia and the United States. By augmenting these guidelines, Bush confronted the real threat to modern international security - rogue states. This rousing point was not lost on Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who promptly scrapped his anti-missile plan in favor of the broader proposal that Bush was toting.
Most recently, Bush willed through the House a patients' bill of rights that enacted consumer protection for patients without inflating the cost of health care or glutting the courts with frivolous lawsuits - as would have been the case with a competing version of the bill.
Most tellingly though, Bush has, along the way, taken definitive stands on controversial issues like faith-based initiatives and stem cell research. Whereas his predecessor always consulted the polls and played for the next two weeks. President Bush has made clear his intent to move forward without compromising his principles. By establishing a set of core issues, Bush has not only re-animated the national dialogue with meaning he has created the conditions for genuine debate.
It is through such honest friction that these legislative victories have unfolded and progress has been born.