The never-ending Clinton factor

Posted: Nov 16, 2004 12:00 AM

Some are touting this week's opening of the Clinton presidential library as a potentially momentous event -- not because of the library itself, but because Democratic bigwigs will be together to discuss the future of their party.

NBC's "First Read" says, "Democrats are really in the thick of trying to figure out whether the Clinton era was an aberration in a long downward slide in the party's presidential prospects, or the successful model which more recent nominees Gore and Kerry failed to live up to."

This is a legitimate question, since Clinton has been the only Democratic president since Jimmy Carter, a one-termer who squeaked through following the Watergate scandal.

I do believe the nation is more conservative than liberal and that the Republican electoral majorities would have been even greater but for stubborn Democratic Party allegiances that transcend ideology and the influence of the Old Media. And, most political issues are trending toward the GOP: We're in a long-term war, and Republicans handle war better -- and the moral issues, no matter how much you handicap them, are working in their favor.

But I don't think we should read anything permanent into President Bush's resounding victory over John Kerry. A number of things militate against the conclusion that this victory signals a seismic electoral shift from Democrats to Republicans -- even though our congressional victories give us much to be confident about.

First, though Republicans have a clear advantage on defense and national security issues and we will be at war for the indefinite future, a lot can happen in four years. We may be attacked again, or the war could take a turn for the worse.

Second, the Democrats nominated an extraordinarily problematic candidate in John Kerry. On the all-important war and defense issues, Kerry had a jaded past, a weak record and a schizophrenic message. When you add to this Kerry's manifest unlikability, voters were very reluctant to entrust our national security to this man, even though the Old Media did a masterful job insulating his record from scrutiny.

Plus, demographic trends are working against Republicans, and no one has yet emerged as a natural GOP successor to President Bush, since we're in the unusual position of having a vice president who, for health reasons alone, will not be running in 2008.

Regardless, Democrats lost convincingly, and across the board. What should they make of their stunning losses, and where should they go from here? How should they analyze the Clinton factor, and what does it mean for Hillary?

Whether or not the Democrats are in steady decline, the fact remains that Clinton represents their only recent presidential success. So they need to determine whether his victories are attributable to his ostensibly centrist policies or his cult of personality, or both.

If Clinton's victories were a result of the Clinton mystique, this could arguably work in Hillary's favor. I say "arguably" because Hillary is -- obviously -- not Bill. Indeed some find her enormously abrasive and even more polarizing than Bill. But she was, by Bill's own description, his co-president. And if enough voters believe a Hillary presidency will essentially be the couple's third term, this "cult of Clinton" could be very significant.

But what about Clinton being a centrist? I've always rejected that notion. He resisted welfare reform until he had no other choice, his budgets were balanced under the whip of Newt Gingrich despite Clinton's best efforts to further bloat them, he used the military as a glorified meals-on-wheels operation, he virtually ignored the terrorist threat, he taxed the daylights out of us, and he tried to nationalize health care.

But in the end, Clinton was able to sell himself as a centrist, claiming to be a middle class tax cutter and an opponent of abortions ("safe, legal and rare"). And that's where the two factors of Clinton's personality and his perceived centrism converge. But for his slick salesmanship, he wouldn't have been able to masquerade as a moderate.

Absent external circumstances falling into their lap, Democrats will have to continue to run as centrists in order to win future presidential elections. And since they are not likely actually to move rightward -- given that their patchwork of constituents are unabashed leftists -- they're going to have to find someone, like Bill Clinton, who can credibly dress up as a centrist for the campaign.

Doubtlessly aware of this, Madame Hillary has been studiously engaged in establishing herself as a "hawk" during the last few years. But it's going to take a more serious face-lift to mask this committed leftist's true visage.