What would Clinton do?

Posted: Nov 29, 2000 12:00 AM
If Bill Clinton were the beneficiary of Sunday's Florida vote certification, you know, of course, what we would be hearing: calls, as after the impeachment imbroglio to "move on." Al Gore, certified No. 2 in Florida, hence in the electoral count, isn't of a mind to move on. A nasty and drawn-out battle looms. Bush-backers, like Bush himself, might well ask at this point: Do we really want success at the indicated cost? Why drink from this poisoned chalice? Because of it, I would suggest a half-forgotten principle: that rewarding bad behavior just incites more bad behavior. Sooner or later, you have to say "no" to people who shred rules they don't like and insist on observing only those they do like. You have to say no, that is, to Clintonism. That's what this election is about in the end -- Clintonism, meaning the pursuit of self-interest by any arguably legal channel, nevermind what distortions of truth are involved, or who gets correspondingly stomped on. The Bush campaign says one who voted in the GOP primary for John McCain was in large part about exorcising Clintonism. The Gore campaign, whatever Al Gore's inmost viewpoints concerning his presidential teammate, was about gathering in the fruits of Clintonism. The chief of those fruits is the American electorate's growing cynicism and indifference concerning vital matters like honor in high places. I said "growing," I didn't say "fully grown." Arresting that growth is the point of this election. Clintonism says, first of all, I'm so great -- just look at me if you don't think so! It says, secondarily, what's your beef? Economy not hot enough for you? Ignore the minor distractions: lies, laxity, the "perpetual campaign"; no controlling legal authority; "spin" as an art form; lawyers as a branch of government; take your campaign dollars where you find them; investigate and eviscerate your enemies; anything to win. The moral tone of the White House, under President and Mrs. Clinton, is about as low as we've seen. The Gore campaign's post-election shenanigans show just how low that is in recounts and re-recounts; hired-gun lawyers' mouthiness, threats, dogged determination ... to win. President Clinton, it is only fair to say, didn't do this to us without our consent. The united will of the people could have procured his exit, via the ballot box or impeachment. No such will exerted. We figured keeping him around wouldn't hurt. Well, it did. It allowed for the perfection of Clintonism and its entrenchment in our affairs. We said, shucks, lying, deceiving -- no big deal -- nothing worth fussing over. But it was eminently worth fussing over. That long-deferred fuss comes now -- with potential costs much higher than would have obtained earlier. Two years ago, we fought over simple morality; now we battle about political legitimacy. You could say original sin did this to us -- and you'd be right. None of us -- Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative -- are up to theological scratch. But part of being morally defective is acknowledging the need for rules, and for respecting such rules as are made. Clintonism sees no rules it very much minds bending or ignoring -- or disputing, or spinning, in novel and creative ways. Clintonism, for the country's sake, has to go. That's Bush's job -- air-freshening our political life, insofar as ability and opportunity allow. No one president can do it all. But a start must be made. Rewarding bad behavior incites more; punishing it -- well, punishing shows at least that there are rules, and that some Americans see those rules as vital: the core of what we are about as a nation. Or, at least, once upon a time, we supposed we were.