Friends of Bill? Why Liberals Should Let Up on Clinton

Following the midterm election debacle, the conventional liberal wisdom is that Bill Clinton should now follow Harry Truman's strategy: refuse to move to the center in an attempt to find moderate votes for a watered-down agenda and instead confront the Republican majority with populist attacks on a "do-nothing Congress."


This advice ignores that prior to his "give 'em hell" 1948 election campaign, Truman spent three and a half years trying to appease conservatives to win support for a reform program. He compromised and then abandoned expansion of unemployment insurance, higher minimum wages, universal health insurance, and civil rights proposals (including anti-lynching legislation, elimination of poll taxes, integration of interstate commerce, and a Fair Employment Practices Commission). The Truman model ignores that Truman continued to pursue a strategy of moving to the center even after his devastating 1946 midterm election rebuff, when his unpopularity produced even greater Republican gains than the GOP achieved in 1994. It ignores that Truman's own re-election campaign succeeded only by the barest margin, and that he won despite significant liberal opposition. Many on the left supported Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace because they perceived little difference between Truman and Republican nominee Thomas Dewey. Truman overcame this rebuke in part because the segregationist right was equally suicidal, running Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond as a fourth-party spoiler instead of endorsing Dewey. Finally, the Truman analogy ignores that while Truman's last-minute populist crusade did get him re-elected, the 1948 vote failed to undo conservatives' sway. Truman's second term was dominated by McCarthyism, MacArthur, and Korea.


Clinton's strategy must now inevitably combine elements of confrontation and populist vision with accommodation and even appeasement of Republican leaders. What is unfortunately all too certain is that many liberals will condemn him at every turn. Many will succumb to temptation (the Henry Wallace instinct) to see betrayal in every attempt to build majority support for a more progressive agenda. Many will find in every less-than-ideal presidential action confirmation of their belief that, at heart, Clinton is little different from Bob Dole.


This pattern of liberal myopia was firmly established during Clinton's first two years. I do not suggest that a deficit of liberal enthusiasm for Clinton was largely responsible for Democratic defeats in November. Experiences of other Western industrialized nations suggest it may be nearly impossible for liberalism in the 1990s, no matter how brilliant its leadership, to forge a majority coalition in the face of economic pressures on middle-class voters brought on by technology, international capital mobility, and immigration. The 1994 elections may represent the nearly inevitable culmination of a 30-year reaction of American white male voters to black enfranchisement, liberal tolerance, and welfare state expansion--a realignment that even the most populist political program could not have withstooBd. But if we wish to learn from past mistakes, the half-hearted endorsement that Clinton's first two years earned from liberal intellectuals and activists demands earnest reexamination.


During Clinton's first two years, right-wing talk shows, Republican leaders, and mainstream journalists bombarded him without mercy, but there was no equally passionate counteroffensive by liberals. There were no "I [heart] Clinton" bumper stickers, no supportive demonstrations, few op-eds with unstinting praise for the president. The nation's liberal minority was not a Clinton constituency that judged other politicians by their loyalty to the president. But an American president needs a reliable base to press his agenda. Ours is no parliamentary system where loyalists regularly reaffirm support for a government's direction. When liberals did not back Clinton, they could not assume he could get enough support elsewhere to secure the most progressive compromises possible.


Six months into Clinton's presidency, I argued that liberals were insufficiently supportive of Clinton ("The Left's Obsessive Opposition," No. 15, Fall 1993). The narrowness of his electoral mandate and the control of Congress by a bipartisan conservative coalition even before 1994 limited what Clinton could achieve. In response, my liberal friends generally acknowledged that Clinton's challenges were overwhelming. Yet while recognizing his political difficulties, liberals continued to be standoffish about his presidency. Instead, many disparaged his real achievements (see "Clinton's Good Deeds," next page), discounted his strenuous efforts to achieve more, judged his defeats harshly, and imposed false and unrealistic tests of political constancy that no president--certainly not Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy--could ever have met.

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Clinton's Good Deeds Or, 55 Reasons Why Liberals Should Have Cheered Clinton's First Two Years


The following list includes only initiatives that undeniably represent a change in direction from previous Republican administrations. Not included is the passage of NAFTA, which some liberals opposed, and the often cited "creation of 4 million jobs," which primarily resulted from the turn of the business cycle, though Clinton policies may have played some role. Many items on this list may now be reversed by the new Congress.





1. Increased benefit levels and eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit--the biggest antipoverty measure enacted since the 1960s.


2. Restored tax progressivity with higher rates on wealthiest taxpayers.


3. Enacted gun controls, including the Brady Bill and restrictions on assault weapons.


4. Passed the National Voter Registration Act ("motor-voter" bill), previously vetoed by Bush.


5. Passed the Family and Medical Leave Act, vetoed by Bush.


6. Restored First Amendment political rights for federal employees, vetoed by Bush.


7. Passed crime prevention measures and new funding for community policing in crime bill.


8. Targeted Chapter I funds to school districts with large numbers of poor children.


9. Passed a child immunization program that provides free vaccines to six million additional children, covering over 90 percent of American two-year-olds by 1996.


10. Passed legislation establishing national academic standards (Goals 2000).


11. Enacted voluntary national service and education prepayment program for youth.


12. Federalized college loan program.


13. Enacted an apprenticeship program for teenagers not going to college.


14. Passed California desert national park expansion.


15. Passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (abortion clinic access).


16. Reformed the federal procurement process.





17. Cut federal deficit in half.


18. Increased Head Start funding by 20 percent, expanding coverage by 100,000 children.


19. Increased coverage of Women, Infants and Children nutrition and health program (for pregnant and postpartum women) by 300,000 families, and broadened food stamp aid by an additional $2.5 billion over the next five years.


20. Doubled the budget for aid to the homeless, to $1.5 billion a year.


21. Expanded housing project grants, including aid to first-time home buyers and permanent extension of low-income housing credits.


22. Increased funding by 12 percent for legal services for the poor after years of Republican attempts to abolish the Legal Services Corporation.


23. Doubled training funds for dislocated workers, to $1.1 billion a year.


24. Expanded AIDS public health services, including full funding of the Ryan White program.






25. Repealed abortion counseling "gag rule."


26. Revoked import ban on RU-486.


27. Stepped up consumer protection through Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Food and Drug Administration.


28. Revived antitrust enforcement, including first retail price maintenance cases since Carter.


29. Undertook industrial policy initiatives, such as government- industry Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, and defense conversion, including shift of federal research and development priorities to civilian technology and small-business defense conversion assistance.



30. Supported aggressive enforcement of National Labor Relations Act prohibitions against employers' unfair labor practices, including consideration of "equal access" rule permitting union representatives to respond to company anti-union propaganda on company property.


31. Stiffer fines by Occupational Safety and Health Administration for violations of workplace safety regulations.


32. Revoked Bush order for federal contractors to post open-shop notices.


33. Threatened to hold retailers responsible for violations of minimum wage and other anti-sweatshop laws by their suppliers.


34. Ended blacklist of fired air traffic controllers.


35. Stepped up response to equal opportunity complaints.


36. Toughened enforcement of Community Reinvestment Act, requiring banks to make loans in poor neighborhoods.


37. Adjusted census undercount to increase federal aid to urban areas.


38. Appointed most diverse cabinet ever, including five blacks, two Hispanics, and five women.


39. Introduced new antidiscrimination rules and procedures for gay civil service employees.


40. Redirected federal funds to scatter-site public housing.


41. Opened free internet access to federal documents.





42. Appointed Supreme Court justices who will secure the right to reproductive choice.


43. Achieved race and ethnic diversity in judicial appointments: African Americans, 22 percent (Reagan, Bush, Carter--5 percent); Hispanics, 8 percent (Reagan, Bush, Carter--2 percent); Women, 31 percent (Reagan, Bush, Carter--8 percent).


44. Appointed openly gay federal judges, subcabinet officers, and other officials, as well as persons with disabilities.


45. Supported right of colleges to seek diversity using race-based scholarships.


46. Defended public employers' consideration of affirmative action in hiring and firing decisions.

47. Supported retroactive application of Civil Rights Act of 1991.






48. Restored the democratically elected government of Haiti.


49. Negotiated a cessation of North Korea's development of nuclear weapons.


50. Signed the Rio Biodiversity Convention.


51. Accelerated compliance with Montreal Protocols on global warming.


52. Conducted tougher negotiations to open Japanese markets to American products.


53. Funded international organizations that promote comprehensive family planning.


54. Defended rights of women and reproductive choice at Cairo population conference.


55. Reaffirmed strict interpretation of 1972 ABM treaty.

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The Balance Scale Conceit

Many progressives rationalize diffidence about Clinton with a "balance scale" conception of politics. In this view, if conservatives argue flatly against reform, liberals should insist on more radical proposals in order to move the eventual compromise further to the left. However, progressive compromise results only if the center and left coalesce to provide moderate reform with majority support. The center itself cannot muster a majority simply because a left extreme offsets the right.


Consider the role of California liberals in health care reform. Last summer Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein abandoned employer mandates and universal coverage and fatally wounded Senator George Mitchell's effort to build a majority for a revised version of Clinton's plan. At no point did California's highly articulate liberals apply pressure on Feinstein to support Clinton and Mitchell. Instead, many health care advocates and liberal groups campaigned for a single-payer ballot initiative. Thousands of enthusiastic volunteers collected signatures. Most proponents knew that this radical proposal had little chance of adoption (it garnered only 27 percent of the vote). But progressives defended their approach with claims that they were "really" helping the president, though they harshly criticized Clinton's plan for retaining private insurance. By mobilizing to demand a pure measure, activists explained, they would counter conservative attacks on all reform and create "space" in the center for Clinton's efforts.


Yet if this energy had been mobilized directly for the Clinton plan (with those volunteers organizing rallies or circulating petitions), Feinstein might not have dared abandon it, and it might have survived. The "space" that progressives created was the running room for Feinstein to abandon Clinton and universal coverage.


The balance scale fallacy relies on superficial comparisons, such as the belief that union contracts emerge from compromises between extreme demands made by labor and management. Supposedly, the more outlandish proposals union negotiators make, the more favorable ultimate agreement will be. Yet contracts are never mere arithmetic sums of positive and negative proposals. Collective bargaining settlements reflect economic conditions and opposing sides' organizational strengths. If "space" for compromise could be manufactured by more extreme proposals, there would be no strikes, concessions, or other familiar results of union battles.


False New Deal analogies also feed the balance scale illusion. Some progressives suggest that just as militants inspired moderates to support the New Deal in the 1930s, so today's progressives should try to push national policy to the left. In this view, the Townsend movement for retirement benefits, Huey Long's "Share Our Wealth" committees, and Upton Sinclair's California EPIC campaign forced Roosevelt to support more modest social security and labor standards legislation, while John L. Lewis's mobilization of workers for industrial democracy made it necessary for Roosevelt to back the Wagner Act as a more modest alternative. In the '30s, however, most liberals gave loyal support to Roosevelt. Otherwise, he could not have enacted the New Deal, no matter how militant were minority supporters of radical demands. The balance scale worked only when centrists defeated radicals by recruiting the latter's base to more moderate proposals. Moreover, moderate conservatives did not obstruct Roosevelt's program for fear of the disorder that might spread if reform failed.


A similar concern about stability reappeared during the conflicts of the 1960s. Then, too, moderates embraced reform to avoid more disruptive protest. Moderates also found it difficult to ignore demands for change because racial segregation and the Vietnam War raised questions about fundamental values, and militants refused to let Americans hide from hypocrisy.


But the instability and moral urgency of the '30s and '60s are absent today. No moderates supported Clinton's programs out of fear that radicals would shake the nation's foundations. Moderate Republicans did not worry that uninsured Americans might storm the Capitol if universal coverage were not enacted. When Senator David Boren opposed Clinton's stimulus package, no public demonstrations of moral indignation tugged at his conscience.


In the relative complacency of 1993-94, Clinton's progressive reforms could have prevailed only with enthusiastic majority support. When liberals indulge themselves with denunciations of Clinton's compromises, centrists will not fill the void to support a liberal agenda. The balance scale conceit is particularly dangerous because it rationalizes political irresponsibility, justifying liberal opposition with hopes that, by grace of an invisible hand, purism contributes to progressive victory. The conceit excuses unwillingness to share the burden of morally ambiguous compromise, of deciding which promises must be violated or which treasured goals must be sacrificed when confronted with opposing political force. These unpleasant decisions become the president's alone to make, while liberal confederates flatter themselves that their hands are clean and that their refusal to share responsibility helps move the administration in a progressive direction.




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Fashionable Profunditites

Fashionable Profundities


Liberals' abandonment of Clinton has also taken cues from political fashion. Many who claim to be disgusted by biased and hostile reporting about the administration nonetheless repeat media canards as substitutes for thought.


One of these common observations is that well meaning though he may be, the president has made tactical errors that are responsible for his administration's failures. Of course, Bill Clinton has made mistakes, many of them. But too many progressives pretend that a tactical mistake is any move that happened not to succeed. Every failure cannot be anticipated; sometimes defeat comes at the hands of enemies, not from one's own misjudgments. The quick conclusion after each defeat that a better tactician could have succeeded is especially unreasonable coming from those who were no smarter than the president beforehand. For example, it's now fashionable to criticize Clinton for failing to push legislation earlier and thereby exposing his agenda to the fall 1994 Republican strategy of running down the clock. Perhaps so. But if Clinton had pushed more programs earlier, we would have criticized him for lacking focus and trying to do too much at once. In fact, that is exactly what many reporters said in his first year.



During the 1992 campaign, many criticized Clinton for being too vague about health care reform; later, he was condemned for sending a 1,352-page bill to Congress. Yet had he submitted only a statement of principles, Clinton would surely have been assailed for failing to provide the detail that could assure Americans that their complex interests would not suffer. In the aftermath of California voters' resounding rejection of the single-payer option, it requires a Panglossian optimism to insist that Clinton could have succeeded if only he had resisted the temptation to co-opt the insurance industry. Yet, today, many liberals continue to insist that Clinton's compromises were reform's undoing.


The media's demand for presidential candor has poisoned political life by imposing a moral standard we could never apply to ourselves, reporters, leaders of any public or private institution, and certainly not to past presidents. While progressives understand that we need leadership with high standards of public morality, they remain influenced by the media's obsession with leaders' private rectitude. Few believe that marital conduct has anything to do with public leadership. Nonetheless, they implicitly accept the right's definition of the terms of debate about Clinton's private conduct. Waiting for "the other shoe to drop," they have been sheepish about defending Clinton against the media's phony moralism and the rumor-mongering right wing.


Liberals frequently criticize Clinton for moving to the center after having campaigned as a populist and economic progressive. Yet the assessment of mainstream analysts is that voters repudiated Clinton in 1994 because he had campaigned as a centrist but then moved to the left. While the dicta of professional pundits should not normally be taken too seriously, it's disturbing that liberals spend so little effort examining whether there might not be some real basis for the conventional view. In truth, Clinton shrewdly assembled an electoral coalition in 1992 by positing a program that both liberals and centrists convinced themselves mainly represented their views. It was perhaps inevitable that this coalition would fray when Clinton turned from campaigning to governing. And while the record is somewhat mixed, the inventory of administration accomplishments confirms that Clinton has been the most consistently liberal leader in recent history. In this sense, the pundits, not Clinton's liberal critics, are more on the mark.


Yet the characterization of Clinton as without a center, no longer knowing what he believes, is widely accepted. Too many liberals have indicted the president for frequently shifting policy, as if every negotiation and mid-course correction represents a betrayal of principle. The behavior we condemn in Clinton as vacillation historians praise as pragmatism in Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt wavered about economic policy through his first term. Bankers, brokers, and professors competed for his ear, but Bob Woodward wasn't there to provide near-contemporaneous accounts of jockeying for influence. Liberal cartoonist Gary Trudeau depicts Clinton as a waffle. By that standard, FDR was milquetoast.



In foreign policy (at least until recent successes), it's been widely agreed that the president changed course too often, and even liberals sympathetic to Clinton's domestic initiatives all too frequently joined this chorus. But the 20 months he took to settle on Haitian policy is lightning speed when compared to Roosevelt's eight-year waffle over how to resist Japanese aggression in Asia, whether to come to Ethiopia's aid, or even whether to assist England after the Nazis overran Europe. On saving Jewish refugees, Roosevelt dithered until it was too late. Throughout his presidency, FDR changed course on foreign and military policy while juggling his views of national interest, moral imperative, and congressional tolerance. He obscured the truth about where he wanted to lead (his Lend-Lease deception is now legendary) and, far from being condemned, this dissembling is celebrated as genius.


It's silly to contrast Clinton's style with a myth of others' steady purposes. As noted above, the buck did a bit of meandering before it settled on Truman's desk. Historians now debate whether the Vietnam War would have escalated if President Kennedy had lived. From JFK's inauguration to his assassination, he waffled on Laotian and Vietnamese policy, never ultimately settling on a direction. White House decisionmaking was less transparent then; we're now aware of JFK's vacillation only from release of previously secret documents.


Whether Clinton is now seen as indecisive or forceful mostly depends on access that journalists have to deliberations before appointments or policies are announced. Reporters now pursue leaks; 30 or 60 years ago, they disclosed deliberations only in a mutually agreed, anonymous ritual: the trial balloon. That every half-considered sentiment is now reported inevitably feeds a perception of vacillation. Clinton may exacerbate his problems by excessive candor. But while thinking out loud may be undisciplined, liberals who otherwise demand openness in government should hardly complain.




Our Middle-Class Guy


Bill Clinton's relationship to progressive intellectuals is different from that of his liberal predecessors in part because he is the first modern president to come from the intellectuals' own professional and academic circles. Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy were "traitors to their class" who assembled brain trusts of intellectuals, none of whom considered himself the presidents' social equal. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes summed up FDR as a "second-class intellect but first-class temperament." Roosevelt and Kennedy were shrewd politicians, but they inherited wealth and power, if not the presidency itself.


Nobody considers Bill Clinton's intellect second class. Instead, intellectuals today recognize Clinton as a peer, "one of us," a fellow public school graduate. But ironically, this familiarity may breed contempt. FDR's and JFK's liberal advisers were honored to be consulted. In Clinton's case, social equality encourages too many to fancy, "I could do a better job," so Clinton rarely gets the adulation that effective political leaders customarily receive.


Also, the number of disappointed job seekers today is exceptionally large because of an explosion in size of this generation's professional class, particularly lawyers and professors. Clinton had 3,000 policy jobs to fill. For each, scores of qualified candidates might have been excellent choices. Many disappointed aspirants continue to believe that Clinton erred by rejecting them; each has dozens of friends who concur. This group's personal bitterness is especially damaging because many continue to wield public influence. Time Magazine's Michael Kramer, an early Clinton supporter, now calls him "Slick Willie"; Kramer, married to Judge Kimba Wood, was her aggressive promoter before Clinton chose Janet Reno as attorney general.




What Have You Done for Me Lately?


Liberal attitudes are infected with a self-centered ethos of victimization that influences both campus life and progressive politics. It may have roots in the civil rights struggles of the '60s when some black leaders rejected coalition politics and decided instead to emphasize the primacy of blacks' needs, the righteousness of their indignation, and the justice of retaliation. Tragically, many white liberals and minority activists adapted this outlook to other causes. The result on college campuses is the balkanization of progressive politics into groups and movements based on identification by ethnicity or sexual preference. Beyond the campus, activist groups too often feel morally justified in focusing on their own anger and immediate goals, with little attention to winning majority support.


Organized labor prides itself on political sophistication, yet in relations with the Clinton administration, it's distressingly self-absorbed. For example, an October 1994 front-page story in the AFL-CIO News, the labor federation's weekly newspaper, highlighted the National Labor Relations Board's (NLRB) newly intensified efforts to defend workers from employer unfair labor practices. The article described a dramatic increase in court injunctions to protect organizing campaigns and a new willingness of the board to issue "bargaining orders" without elections when firms' anti-union terror is so extreme that fair elections become impossible. Yet the article never mentioned Bill Clinton, nor did it credit him with the appointments of William Gould, the first African American and former union staffer ever to head the agency, and Fred Feinstein, the board's general counsel.


This silence is especially curious because labor publications aren't normally reticent about heaping praise on leaders. But as Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times reported, labor leaders claim "it's difficult to motivate the rank-and-file behind a president who . . . didn't exert much energy when the anti-strikebreaker bill quietly died." Yet Clinton supported that legislation, which was defeated by a Republican and conservative Democratic filibuster. Do unionists think a new bridge in Kansas could have swayed Bob Dole?


Tunnel vision is not restricted to organized labor; it's shared by other liberal groups, apparently determined to let small or imagined disagreements overshadow shared objectives, who blame Clinton for opponents' political strength. The president advocated campaign finance reform in 1992 and supported it in Congress. But when it fell to a Republican filibuster, Common Cause President Fred Wertheimer denounced Clinton, saying the bill failed in part because he "never made campaign finance reform a priority." After western rural forces defeated administration attempts to raise public grazing fees, some environmentalists faulted the administration; the Wilderness Society complained that the administration's proposal didn't recognize that some federal lands weren't "suitable for grazing in the first place."


Many African American leaders advocated an invasion of Haiti. When Clinton decided to go ahead but Congress threatened to deny funding, Jesse Jackson blamed Clinton with a venom that's all too common in progressive circles. "The widespread public skepticism about this mission is driven by an administration that has been criminally negligent in arguing its own case," Jackson said. The Haiti mission is the first time the U.S. has intervened in Latin America to defend the poor against oligarchy. Yet, in an extraordinary political slap, Amnesty International spokesman James O'Dea told the press: "When the president invokes human rights in . . . Haiti, he does a real double disservice to victims in places like Columbia and Brazil by ignoring their plight."


Clinton dropped Lani Guinier's nomination only after Judiciary Chairman Joseph Biden and 24 Democratic senators told the president that Guinier's cause was dead and requested withdrawal. Clinton had to determine whether to pursue a doomed nomination or accommodate Senate allies by sparing them the necessity of a losing vote that opponents would exploit at the next election. It was a tactical judgment that the president properly should have made with the balance of his agenda uppermost in mind. Yet many civil rights and feminist leaders were unrestrained in denunciations of Clinton's reluctant concession. People for the American Way called Clinton's "cave-in" a "betrayal of basic fairness." Roger Wilkins called it "a disgraceful performance." Black Caucus leader Kweisi Mfume said that Clinton had betrayed his pledge to bring about change. Since then, we have heard nary a peep in praise of Clinton for his subsequent choice of Deval Patrick for the post, even though Patrick has reversed 12 years of hostility to civil rights by Reagan-Bush appointees.


There may be no cause too small for liberal activists to condemn the president for not making it his highest priority or for taking half a loaf rather than none. Leaders of each liberal advocacy group understandably wish President Clinton to make their cause his highest priority, but he can't possibly fulfill each such wish.



To be sure, Clinton has his imperfections. As someone seriously interested in the complexities of policy, he may take too long deciding between alternatives. Contrary to liberal criticism that he's too quick to compromise, he may instead needlessly delay cutting his losses when faced with a probable defeat. But it's hard to imagine how any Democratic president elected in 1992 with so thin a majority could have made Congress do his bidding. If there was an easy solution to dilemmas like Bosnia or Somalia, nobody proposed it. Unfortunately, the fact that Clinton operates in both a legislative and foreign policy context that demands extensive compromise has produced judgments about his character rather than his situation.




Democracy and Majority Coalitions


Sam Rayburn said he mistrusted those in politics who hadn't, at least once, run for sheriff. In local election campaigns, candidates can't win on moral appeals without counting votes to assemble the support of 50 percent plus one. Clinton campaigned for Congress and attorney general in rural Arkansas, but most liberal activists no longer begin political careers that way. It's a shame, because most no longer have an instinctive feel for appealing to majorities.


An exception is union field organizers, habituated to seeking NLRB election victories by the tiniest of margins. They learn to suppress demands of union militants and appeal to swing voters whose alienation from their employer is more modest. Yet most contemporary progressive activists with organizing experience have backgrounds not in labor but in community action where majority support is not always at issue. Some remain influenced by Saul Alinsky's advice to "rub raw the sores of discontent," deliberately risking majority antagonism to force concessions from the powerful. This skill is poor preparation for democratic leadership.


The failure of American liberals to think in majority terms has been a theme of the Democratic Leadership Council. While the DLC's policies may be too conservative, its emphasis on building majorities is essential. Liberals need to have greater empathy for the twists and turns of Clinton's presidency and an understanding that when Clinton compromises some ideals to accomplish others, he's making our compromises, not only his own.




Politics and Leadership


Today, most liberal intellectuals are ashamed to express enthusiasm for political leadership, expect inevitable betrayal, and fear losing intellectual independence and moral purity. For some on the left, this fear of leadership is reinforced by a collective memory of disastrous flirtations with Stalinism. For others, suspicion of authority is rooted in Vietnam, Watergate, and other experiences of the 1960s and early 1970s.


But this skepticism has been carried too far. Majority movements can't be built without some sacrifice of constituents' political independence. Condemnation of compromise may not always be the most moral course. Certainly, leaders must sometimes take principled stands regardless of consequences, but more often they must compromise to advance a virtuous agenda.


Defeats of Clinton's program in the first two years did not stem only, or mainly, from liberal purists' failure to support achievable compromise. Dole and Gingrich, Boren and Nunn might well have sunk daggers into the Clinton agenda no matter how vigorously liberals supported it. Today, regardless of liberals' stance, conservatives are positioned to stop further progressive reforms, and to roll back much of what has been accomplished since the inauguration.


It will take even more self-discipline for liberals to defend Clinton now than it took before. The substantive compromises will be even harder to swallow. Liberals can balk, if they choose; Henry Wallace redux is always an option. But there's at least a chance that the compromises may be less severe if liberals provide Clinton with stronger support.


When more senior Democrats shrank from challenging a seemingly invincible George Bush, Bill Clinton volunteered to lead. He's been trying to do so ever since, despite inevitable mistakes in timing, tactics, policy, and judgment. What remains possible after the midterm election will be more limited than what we hoped for earlier. But to advance a progressive agenda, and to defend the liberal elements of our social structure from being radically undercut, liberals owe this president their support, even their enthusiasm. They may not like everything he does. But if he fails, their causes will go down with him.


Controversy: Edward Herman points instead to "Clinton's Not-So-Good Deeds."

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