Comment: Love-Hate Relationship

With the possible exception of Lyndon Johnson, no modern Democratic president has divided his own core constituency more bitterly than William Jefferson Clinton. The conversation between Clinton's loyalists and critics, some of it published in these pages, often reads like a dialogue of the deaf. About the only thought both camps share is that Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky was not helpful--and that may actually be wrong.

The loyalists think the critics are giving short shrift to Clinton's genuine accomplishments in arduous times. The critics fault Clinton for turning expediency into principle, pushing politics farther to the right than circumstances required.


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The loyalists' litany goes something like this: Clinton freed Democrats of the unfortunate legacy of a party that was seen as soft on crime and welfare dependency, beholden to narrow interest groups, hostile to business, and unable to balance a budget. Economically, the loyalists credit him for the longest uninterrupted boom ever, one that did far more for working and poor people than explicit income transfer programs. Yes, he gave us tough welfare reform, but by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and presiding over a full-employment boom, he left most former welfare recipients on a ladder to self-sufficiency. As a good progressive, he resisted the temptation to partially privatize Social Security. Politically, he gets credit for pre-empting the center and exposing the right's agenda as marginal rather than mainstream.

The loyalists fault the critics for overstating how easy it might have been for Clinton to govern farther to the left, and for understating the consequences of Republican control of Congress. It took a lot of nerve, for example, for Clinton to face down Gingrich and company and put the onus on them for shutting down the government. Clinton also took real political risks to advance the gay rights agenda at a time when it seemed far less mainstream than it does today, and to keep alive even a softened version of affirmative action. Clinton's strong support among black and gay leaders is no accident.

True, say the critics, but in too many cases Clinton committed overkill. He stole the conservatives' clothes--only to end up dressing like a Republican. In the process, he affirmed a lot of conservative assumptions about government and the economy. He changed the party's image on crime, but only by validating perverse lock-'em-up policies and appalling assaults on civil liberty. He ended welfare as we know it, but at the cost of suffering that will worsen in the next recession. By putting forth a politically naïve form of universal health insurance and then bungling the politics of its enactment, he set back the issue for decades; similarly, by embracing NAFTA, he needlessly accepted laissez-faire assumptions about the global economy and widened divisions in his own party. The two episodes taken together probably cost his party control of Congress. And by using triangulation to place his own political hide "above party," Clinton fed a lot of myths about the Democrats being as out of touch with the country as the Republicans.

For critics, the prime example of Clinton overkill is the budget, and here the critics have the stronger case. In 1992 everyone agreed that the deficit was excessive. Clinton's 1993 budget aimed to cut the deficit in half, and he fought successfully for tax hikes on the wealthiest 2 percent rather than relying just on program cuts. Liberals and centrists alike applauded. But by 1997 Clinton was embracing outright budget balance, by 1998 he was celebrating endless surpluses, and by 1999 he was pledging to pay off the national debt. The damage of this excess is revealed in Vice President Gore's attacks on Bill Bradley as a spendthrift. Thanks to Clinton, any Democrat who talks about actually spending the money necessary to carry out the vision of Clinton's own State of the Union message is at risk of being branded fiscally irresponsible.

As noted, both camps agree that the president let down his party and his country in the Lewinsky affair. But did he? It is hard to imagine politics turning out much differently in 1997 and 1998 had the president resisted temptation. In the event, Republicans overreached and Democrats picked up congressional seats; the public found the assault on the president's privacy more heinous than the sexual activity. Leading Republicans contend that the Lewinsky affair kept the president from supporting Social Security privatization. In his darkest hour, the argument goes, Clinton couldn't afford to alienate his (somewhat dubious) liberal defenders in Congress. So he became their captive on key policy issues and actually moved left. Thank you, Monica. However, the Lewinsky affair did feed the general disgust with politics, which in the long run helps the party of privatism.

So who's right? Both camps, I think, have a piece of the truth. Clinton did accomplish a good deal, some of it progressive--and he did tack farther to the right than necessary. He leaves his party better defended, more conservative, and engaged with a broader share of a narrower electorate. As James MacGregor Burns and Georgia J. Sorenson correctly observe in their book Dead Center, reviewed in these pages last issue, whatever else Clinton's centrism has accomplished, it has not revived American politics. Turnout continues to decline, and a great many down-scale, disengaged voters who might support progressives see no good reason to vote at all.

The McCain Temptation

Which brings me to John McCain. Lately, I've heard more than one liberal Democrat say that it might be salutary to shift registration, vote for McCain, and sack both party establishments. Given McCain's voting record, this boomlet is both astonishing and a commentary on the sad state of the Democrats. But free-floating, spectrum-wide disaffection with politics-as-usual explains such seemingly disparate phenomena as Jesse Ventura, declining turnout, the volatility of the primaries, and now McCain. Until recently, this disaffection had no credible champion and was up for grabs. With the divided government--some might say the co-dependency--of the past two decades, both parties were in effect the incumbent party and an outsider candidate of either party had a shot at tapping the disaffected. The Bill Bradley of last fall certainly did.

Now, however, only McCain stands a chance of becoming a major party outsider nominee. My liberal McCain-supporter friends are warming to McCain in spite of his stands on most issues. They are definitely not, contrary to Republican conspiracy theorists, pro-McCain because he'd be easier to beat. McCain, if anything, would be tougher against Gore than Bush would. Rather, the McCain Democrats would actually like him to be (gulp) president. Why? President McCain would be a dramatic break from politics-as-usual. And he would leave the Democrats in the hands of the far more liberal congressional party rather than the party of Gore and the Republicanized Democratic Leadership Council. There is also a nontrivial chance that McCain is still a man in political and personal passage. The Republican attacks on McCain as a closet liberal seem to be pushing him left. He just might live up to the GOP charge that he is becoming more liberal--a latter-day Eisenhower.

The usual conversation-stopper is, "What about the Supreme Court?" But even here, a McCain who got the Republican nomination based on a groundswell of mass support would not be beholden to the usual right-wing interest groups. His Court appointments might be only a shade worse than Gore's, and maybe better. It was Eisenhower, recall, who gave us the most liberal Court of the century. If we've been governed by a liberal Republican administration of nominal Democrats for the past eight years, maybe it's time for the real thing.

Steady now. This is only a thought experiment, but a rather liberating one, no?

Net Loss

How ironic that for a few days in February, hackers shut down some of the most prominent commercial Web sites by overwhelming them with incoming data, causing a brief stock market free fall. Enthusiasts of the Internet have celebrated its wonderfully supple decentralization. But contrary to much happy theorizing, its decentralization is paradoxically a source of great vulnerability since anyone clever enough can hack right in.

Small-is-beautiful theorists of decades past argued that big, brittle technologies such as nuclear power plants and jumbo jets were uniquely susceptible to systemic failures. The more complex and elephantine the technology, the argument went, the more it was at risk of unanticipated, complex failure. But these large, centralized technologies, it turned out, had one very big advantage. You could guard them. Moreover, the act of willfully sabotaging them could not be rationalized as merely "hacking," much less doing them a favor by exposing security weaknesses. Deliberately knocking out a jumbo jet or causing a nuclear power plant to melt down was just plain unthinkable. You couldn't deny what you were doing. Shutting down AOL or Yahoo! for a few hours or hacking into the National Security Agency, by contrast, gets rationalized as an innocent, or even constructive, sport.

We survived the age of mutually assured nuclear destruction thanks to very careful command and control systems. The new systems of the Internet, celebrated by Net hippies as free and democratic, turn out to be dangerously vulnerable to kooks who see themselves as merry pranksters--a source of potential catastrophe from a totally unanticipated and improbable quarter. As our economic infrastructure becomes ever more integrated with the Internet, we are rushing headlong into a dependence on the most insecure technology since the dawn of the industrial age.¤




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