Democrats Suffer From a Bad Case of Clintonism

When Al Gore recently joined conservatives in supporting a special law to award Elian Gonzalez permanent U.S. residency, his maneuver was straight out of the playbook that has governed eight years of Clintonism: "Fake left, go right."

If a play like this works, Clintonites get to position themselves as thoughtful moderates between congressional Democrats and Republicans. This "triangulation" strategy was the brainchild of blissful bipartisan Dick Morris, a Clinton advisor who also worked for Republicans like Trent Lott and Jesse Helms.

Predictably, Gore's Elian move outraged many Democrats in Congress, especially those who have long criticized immigration policy for discriminating against Haitians and Dominicans while giving Cubans privileges.

No Democrat was more angry than powerful Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel (D.-N.Y.), who attacked Gore for being "purely political in order to appease the voters in Miami." Yet Rangel is in a bind when it comes to Clintonism, for he--like many other liberals--has chosen to wed himself to it while reserving the right to occasionally grouse. It was Rangel who helped launch the New York Senate candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton, a co-inventor of Clintonism, who promptly displayed her talents for unprincipled flip-flopping on a range of issues, including Israel and Puerto Rico.

While Clintonism may be good for Bill and Hillary and Al--all of whom seem willing to say or do anything to win the next election--it's worth asking whether Clintonism is good for the Democratic Party.

Let's do the numbers. When Clinton entered the White House, his party dominated the U.S. Senate, 57-43; the U.S. House, 258-176; the country's governorships, 30-18, and a large majority of state legislatures. Today, Republicans control the Senate, 55-45; the House, 222-211; governorships, 30-18, and almost half of state legislatures.

The Democrats under Clintonism resemble a house of cards, with the Clintons and Gore inhabiting the White House atop a party structure crumbling because of an ever-shifting foundation.

Democrats were once a majority party standing on some firm principles--helping the little guy, economic security and, to some degree, standing up to corporations on behalf of workers, consumers and the environment.

But Clintonism has come to mean coddling big money (except guns and tobacco), financial scandals, winning at any cost, flip-flopping and prevaricating.

In 1992, en route to the White House, Hillary Rodham Clinton dismissed questions about dealings between her Little Rock law firm and Bill Clinton's Arkansas administration with a widely quoted feminist appeal: Instead of baking cookies, "what I decided to do was pursue my profession." That same day, she also made a corporatist appeal: "For goodness sakes, you can't be a lawyer if you don't represent banks." That's Clintonism.

In November 1994, Republicans triumphed after White House policies--the North American Free Trade Agreement, urban neglect, the health reform fiasco--had dispirited and demobilized the Democratic Party's grass-roots base. That's Clintonism.

On the eve of the 1996 election, Democratic momentum to regain majority control of Congress was halted by revelations of Clinton-Gore fund-raising abuses. That's Clintonism.

The Clintons and Gore came to national power in alliance with the Democratic Leadership Council, an outfit underwritten by corporations that prods Democrats to support a wish list of proposals (free trade, admitting China to the World Trade Organization, Social Security privatization) that are as popular with big business as they are unpopular with ordinary Americans, especially rank-and-file Democrats.

Despite long-standing disagreements with the president on issues, left-liberals in Congress felt compelled to defend him in 1998 against impeachment and what they saw as "sexual McCarthyism." That forced unity behind Clinton has helped enforce unity behind Gore.

Now, seven months before the election, many Democratic activists and some Congress members can add Elian Gonzalez to the list of issues on which they march to a different drummer than the man heading their ticket.

Yet, come August, rather than obey party unity behind Gore's zigzagging party line, some activist Democrats will join protests outside the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. Some will explore Ralph Nader's Green Party campaign.

And a deeper reckoning is inevitable when enough Democrats realize that Clintonism can survive while the rest of the party and its core beliefs are slowly triangulated to death.

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