Project of IISHJ

1998 US Elections – the Clinton Scandals

The Jewish Humanist, January 1999

America is changing. The last election dramatized that fact. The voters of America are very different from what they were thirty years ago. The Republican Party suffered the consequences of not understanding the reality of America today.

The ‘scandal’ did not punish the Democrats. Clinton returned from the ‘dead’. The Democrats increased their numbers in the House of Representatives. They won major senatorial New York and California. They defeated two Republican governors in Alabama and South Carolina. Only in Michigan, where Fieger led the team, were the Democrats humiliated.

The Religious Right, who helped to orchestrate the Republican strategy, were slapped in the face by the voters. Two state referendums to restrict abortion freedom failed to win majorities. Two lottery proposals to finance public education succeeded.

The message to Republicans was clear. Assaulting Clinton was a political disaster. Following the agenda of the Religious Right was the path to self-destruction. The managers of this strategy were guilty of incompetence. They had to go. Newt resigned in a huff. The Democrats tasted the most delicious of victories.

What does this reality mean for us as Americans and as Jews?

It means that sexual morality in America has changed. Thirty years ago the Clinton scandal would have forced the resignation of the president. Kennedy only survived disgrace because the media were less intrusive. But, after the feminist and youth rebellions of the last three decades adultery and sexual promiscuity are ho-hum for a large part of the American electorate. Living with partners outside of marriage is respectable and homosexuality, despite fierce resistance, is gaining more and more acceptance. When behavior is no longer controversial it is called ‘private’. Most Americans believe that ‘private’ behavior, in so far as it does not produce public harm, should not be investigated or disturbed by public scrutiny. It is not the public’s business.

In a dynamic consumer culture, where individualism is triumphant and traditional families are shrinking, there is no will to punish presidents for behavior that is ‘ordinary’ in the middle and upper classes. The message for the political future is that sexual accusations are losing their intimidation power. The election revealed that the public, on sexual issues, is far more tolerant than Kenneth Starr ever imagined.

The election means that the Religious Right has power but not enough power to do what it wants to do. Their support is up to 25% of the American voters. However, that percentage is insufficient for political control. American culture is essentially a secular culture that resists religious fanaticism.

The election means that the religious Right is a liability to the Republican Party. There are two conservative agendas in America. One is economic and resists government intrusion into the work and money life of American citizens. The other is social and seeks to use the government to police the sexual and reproductive behavior of the American public. Voters on the Right believe in both agendas. Voters in the Center only believe in the first one. They are afraid of the second. Since most Americans are in the Center, parties can only win elections if they appeal to the Center. Ever since Nixon the Republicans have taken the Center and have gladly given the Left to the Democrats. But the dominant presence of the Religious Right at the Republican conventions of 1992 and 1996 frightened the Center and drove many of its voters into the Democratic camp. When Clinton embraced the economic agenda of the Republicans and rejected their social program the Democratic victory was sealed.

In some ironic way the Religious Right is the best thing that has happened to the Democrats in a long time. The people who fear and hate them have now forged a new alliance of the Center and the Left. The Democrats need a powerful enemy to mobilize their troops. And the Religious Right obliges by playing the role.

The election means that the racial composition of active voters is changing. More and more Blacks and Hispanics are voting. The Blacks helped to defeat the Republican governors in Alabama and South Carolina. The Hispanics gave Barbara Boxer her senatorial victory in California. The hidden Republican strategy to be seen as the party of white America only works if whites remain the overwhelming majority of the American people The Republican program that won political control of both the South and the West over the past thirty years no longer works.

The election means that the impeachment ‘push’ is now a retreat. The new Congress may impeach but they will not convict Clinton. Voter ‘backlash’ has already punished the Republicans. The issue now is how to abandon the campaign and save face. The determination of the Religious Right to impeach Clinton is now a political liability.

The election means that the Jews have returned to the Democratic Party. The abandonment by Jewish voters of D’Amato in New York, despite his years of support for Jewish causes, is a clear indication that Israel and reparations are not the only issues that-concern Jews. Most Jewish voters even if they are economically conservative, are in the Center. They fear the religious Right. And they fear a Republican party that is allied to them. As both Jews and Americans they do not wish to endanger a free and multicultural society that promotes affluence and opportunity. We do not need the native Anglo-Saxon ‘haredim’ running our lives.

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Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
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