The Jewish Humanist, December 1996, Vol. XXXIII, Number 5
That hardly seemed possible two years ago. Newt Gingrich was on the rise. His faithful followers flooded the halls of Congress. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives were given over into Republican hands. The radical rightness of the Contract with America was popular. The first two years of the Clinton presidency featured dramatic failures, especially the fiasco of health care reform. The stench of scandal was rising up from the White House.
But the ‘miracle’ happened. Newt Gingrich overplayed his power hand. He frightened the middle class with his ‘indiscreet’ campaign to tackle the cost of Medicare. He annoyed many economic conservatives with his persistent effort to push the social agenda of the Religious Right. He angered millions of Americans by his radical attempt to shut down the American government by withholding funds. His bulldog personality, with all its insistence that change happen quickly, did not take into account the deep ambivalence of Americans about the role of government in their lives. Only a charismatic Republican candidate could reverse the damage. But, instead, the party bosses chose Robert Dole. Had he been a Democratic ‘mole’ his dull schoolteacher preachiness could not have served the cause of the Democrats more effectively. The Republican Congressional victory in 1994 was turned into a presidential defeat in 1996.
Of course we have to be aware of the realities surrounding the Clinton victory. Bill Clinton was elected by less than a majority of the Americans who chose to vote. The Republicans still control both houses of Congress, increasing their number in the Senate. Newt Gingrich is still the Speaker of the House,, with the power to dictate much of the legislative agenda. The economic policies of Bill Clinton are almost indistinguishable from that of the Republicans, a phenomenon dictated by political necessity. Many Americans who voted for Clinton expressed deep reservations about his moral character and complained about the unexciting choice they were ‘forced’ to make. Even in victory, Clinton was faced with the threat of deadly scandal.
So what does the Clinton victory really mean?
It means that the Left is dead. You can no longer win a political victory preaching the virtues of the welfare state. But, at the same time, you cannot assault the established welfare benefits of the middle class, especially Medicare.
It means that Newt Gingrich and the Republicans call the economic shots and Clinton follows. Bill Clinton was able to win the election because he embraced a large part of the Gingrich agenda, from workfare to the shrinking of the government. The defeat of Dole was not a defeat for Republican economics. While the unions were instrumental in helping remove some Republican ‘radicals’ from Congress, Clinton ignored their economic passions. The victory for North American free trade, engineered with the help of the Republicans, is a case in point. Cooperation between the President and the Republican Congress on economic issues will continue.
It means that only by embracing the moderate Center, where most Americans stand, can you win a presidential election. The Left and the Right can only ‘win’ if they ally themselves to a candidate of the Center.
It means that the ‘great reversal’ has taken place. The American South, which at one time was the reliable bastion of the Democratic party is in the foundation population (sic) of the Republicans. Twenty years ago the South voted Republican only in presidential elections. Today they vote Republican in Congressional elections. The Democratic conservatives of the past have become the Repblican conservatives of the present and the future. At the same time the Northeast, which until Roosevelt was a Republivan stronghold, has now gone over to the Democrats. The political map has been turned upside down.
It means that, while the Democrats are becoming more moderate, they are also losing their Southern right wing conservatives. Many of these conservatives always voted with the Republicans anyway, especially on social issues. The internal unity of the Congressional Democrats has been improved.
It means that racial minorities are becoming politically more important. The victories of Clinton in the Northeast and California were dictated by the overwhelming support of Blacks and Hispanics. Republican power in the past, especially its capture of the South, relied on its image as the party of white people. But, with the growth of the non-white population, that image may, in the end, prove to be counter-productive.
It means that increasing numbers of American no longer see themselves as either Republicans or Democrats. They split their vote in the spirit of independents. The stability of the old system, with large blocs of predictable party voters, is gone. Long stretches of either Democratic or Republian rule will no longer exist. The new fickle voting public has little discomfort in either mixing or repudiating. Old time party loyalty is over. Change is the name of the game.
It means that the political era dominated by World War II has come to an end. Robert Dole was the last presidential candidate who will have participated in the greatest trauma of the twentieth century. The patriotism of that era (that) carried over into the intensities of the Cold War, is now not even nostalgia. Most American have no memories of either war or conscription. World War II is ancient history. And so is the America of small towns and apple pie.
It means that Bill Clinton may have a hard time in a second term. A Republican Congress will not force the political advantages in pushing the Whitewater scandal. The political victim of such an assault will not be Clinton-who cannot run again for president-but Al Gore, the obvious heir-apparent to the Clinton mantle. The public needs to brace itself for Whitewater ‘burnout.”
Above all it means the defeat of the Religious Right. One of the reasons that Clinton took the moderate Center was his resistance to the social and ‘moral’ agenda of the Republican party. It is very clear that, outside of the South, the alliance of the Republicans with the Christian Coalition is not an advantage. For Americans who fear the Religious Right this development is good news.