The Winner: Clintonism

Last month, as victory slipped from Al Gore's grasp, a palpable gloom settled over certain members of Washington's opinion elite. Their candidate just wasn't all he had been cracked up to be. Sure, he had made some concessions to the base, championed a couple of core issues, even cultivated a few of the party's ideologues and intellectuals. But at the end of the day, they still had to wonder: Is he really one of us?

I'm referring, of course, to the conservatives.

Governor George W. Bush, grumbled the editors at the National Review, "has not advocated any substantial retrenchment of federal activity, and has made a lot of promises to spend tax money. He has been weak in confronting racial preferences, blind to the dangers of uncontrolled immigration and the flaws of bilingual education, and silent on the debate over the feminization of the military." Their compatriots at The Weekly Standard were even more indignant. Bush's "lily-livered unwillingness to defend small-government conservatism leaves him fighting on Gore's turf," fumed the Standard's Christopher Caldwell after the first debate. "He matches or raises every spending proposal Gore makes ... and there's not a single program Bush has recommended cutting."

To these movement conservatives, Bush's imminent victory seemed Pyrrhic. After all, small government had always been the philosophy of modern conservatism. Unvarnished small government was also America's true political faith, the right contended, the best way to mobilize voters and win elections. Recent history, they observed, shows that Republicans lose when they run as moderates and win when they run as principled conservatives. Didn't voters dump Jimmy Carter, and elect and re-elect Ronald Reagan? Didn't George Bush père lose to Bill Clinton?

And yet, as some conservative intellectuals began to realize in the 1990s, the core of the welfare state--Social Security, Medicare, mortgage subsidies, college loans, and the like--seemed almost impervious to shrinkage. The Reaganites had failed, wrote David Frum in his 1994 book, Dead Right, "wrecked by the inability and unwillingness of the most conservative administration since Coolidge's to resist the rise of social welfare spending." Newt Gingrich became the most hated politician in America, his radical antiwelfare statism rejected by voters in 1996 and 1998. And in this year's Republican primaries, the candidates who most seriously espoused ideological conservatism, like Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, and John Kasich, were risible failures.

Now comes George W. Bush. If Bush really has dumped the old-time conservative gospel as the driving force of the Republican Party, what, exactly, is he putting in its place? In a word, Clintonism. Like Clinton's, Bush's politics amounts to a series of feints that leave true believers frustrated, confused, and sometimes angry, but never quite upset enough to defect. These feints do not alienate the party's financial backers, many of whom are moderates themselves; they have convinced just enough swing voters that the candidate is essentially a nonideological pragmatist; and they thoroughly, and deliberately, blur the distinction between means and ends.

Remember Clinton's Sister Souljah moment? In the 1992 campaign, Clinton needed to signal that he would not be captive to Jesse Jackson, so he found a hard-core black rapper to denounce. The move annoyed a few blacks (who understood that Clinton was really a friend) but reassured moderates. Bush's Clintonism included a feint to the center reminiscent of the Sister Souljah caper. But Bush did not need to single out a well-known conservative extremist. Instead, he adopted the dippy language of diversity that liberal multiculturalists have so thoroughly insinuated into American politics. Notwithstanding the backlash against political correctness, such rhetoric--"I believe the strength of our nation rests on its incredible diversity, on the unique and special contributions of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans," and so on--has become cultural boilerplate, a stock ingredient of any commencement speech, corporate mission statement, or kindergarten lecture. What does it mean? Everything--and nothing. Democrats long ago took up this mystifying language, in part to dodge dicier, more nettlesome questions of racial policy. Bush just decided to get in on the act.

He posed for countless newspaper photos, surrounded by adorable black and Hispanic children in classroom settings. He lamented "the soft bigotry of low expectations," a no-doubt poll-tested phrase that nicely combined liberal antiracism and therapeuticism into one squishy package. At his carefully choreographed convention, so many speakers and performers were black or Hispanic that it was white-bread Dennis Hastert who seemed out of place when, unscheduled, he mounted the platform for some old-fashioned liberal-razzing.

Bush's father had attempted a similar rapprochement, but he lacked his son's advantages. George W. was a southwestern governor who spoke Spanish and really had earned nearly half the Texas Hispanic vote. He had a Hispanic nephew. He even had his own safe version of an affirmative college admissions policy. Thus, he didn't need to criticize a Bob Barr or a Jesse Helms. The white, centrist suburbanites Bush was appealing to have never been entirely comfortable with racial preferences, much less identity politics; they just needed to be assured that Bush, at heart, was a comforting moderate. And luckily for Bush, that was easy--because liberals had already so muddied the water with talk of "diversity" that talking the talk really was walking the walk.

Bush is even more Clintonesque on abortion. Bush's father and Bob Dole each tried to wriggle their way through the abortion issue, but without much success. George W. succeeded where they failed largely because of the emergence of partial-birth abortion as a wedge issue. While only about 12 percent of voters favor making abortion illegal, about 60 percent favor a ban on partial-birth abortions. These emergency procedures are so rare that they lacked even a name until anti-abortion activists used them to make abortion again seem synonymous with baby killing. Bush's strong stance against partial-birth abortions had a clarity and force that the previous GOP presidential candidates could never achieve; it disguised his equivocation on the far more consequential issues of RU-486 and Roe v. Wade. Without alienating his base, Bush became in the public mind an abortion moderate.

Bush has been similarly vague about how he feels about gays. Like other Republicans, Bush's official position has always been that he is "for equal rights" but "against special rights." But what exactly does that mean? In practice, Bush has flip-flopped as blatantly as, well, Bill Clinton. Should Republicans appoint open gays to government posts? "If someone can do a job, and a job that he's qualified for, that person ought to be allowed to do his job," he said in 1999. But a few months later, during a private meeting with conservative power brokers, Bush promised that he would not "knowingly" appoint open homosexuals to any top administration post. By last November, Bush had gone so far as to adopt one of Clinton's own policies: With regards to gays in the military, Bush said he favored "don't ask, don't tell."

On the environment, Bush's rhetoric is Orwellian. His support for "voluntary regulation," a splendid oxymoron, shows that whatever doubts one has about Bush's intellect, it is at least capable of holding two utterly contradictory thoughts at the same time. Bush criticized the disrepair of America's national parks even as Texas ranked 49th in per capita spending on its state parks; invited corporate lobbyists to write "voluntary" air quality standards after Texas failed mandatory federal air quality standards for four years in a row; and continues to describe himself as an environmentalist, despite the absurdly large pile of evidence that indicates otherwise. Only once did Clinton lie so baldly--and that was about sex.

All of this suggests that Bush is less a new kind of Republican than a creative obfuscator. Only on one issue, where the hard right meets the Business Roundtable, does Bush pay homage to conservatism. He has made a massive, regressive tax cut a central objective, regardless of how much it undermines the rest of his program. But this is the exception that proves the rule. Tax cuts were a loser for Dole and the Gingrich Republicans: Bush won in spite of his plan, not because of it. Tax-cutting über alles found a place in Bush's Clintonism more because of business support than hard-right support. It was business conservatives who foisted Bush on the GOP, eager to rehabilitate the organization as a vehicle for tort reform, deregulation, and environmental rollback. And business conservatism is, ultimately, the most pragmatic brand of Republicanism--the kind least bothered by means and most concerned with ends.

So what does all this mean for liberals? Bush's campaign was, at the least, a tacit admission that conservatives can no longer openly run and win on conservative issues. All through the summer and fall, Bush and his fellow Republicans could be found issuing ersatz patients' bills of rights, "choice-based" prescription drug benefits, and education spending proposals galore--in short, campaigning on traditional Democratic issues, however insincerely. And this, in turn, validates the essential popularity of New Deal/Great Society liberalism. As George Will glumly observed in a column last month, "Americans accept the ethic of common provision."

But, remember, Bush is only pretending. His agenda won't really be less conservative than that of his predecessors. It's just that he, unlike his predecessors, won't announce any crusades (except to cut taxes). Like Bill Clinton, he will aim instead for incremental change. In areas like Social Security and Medicare, Bush will slowly desocialize the safety net where he can, all the while insisting that he believes in the basic premise of a safety net. He will weaken environmental protections, smirking (appropriately, for once) as he assures voters that he wants to defend the environment. He will trumpet compassion as he ensures that social-welfare functions devolve to private, charitable, and religious institutions. And he will undermine labor rights and consumer protection in the same quiet, slow way that Clinton, at his best, bolstered them: through executive orders, appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, and the rule-making powers of agency heads and cabinet officers.

However, the symmetry between Clinton's own Clintonism and Bush's variant doesn't extend to their effect on politics. The former, by validating many conservative ideas, helped usher in the latter. When Clinton called for new defense spending and a reduction of the estate tax, he implicitly made those positions safely centrist; likewise when Gore endorsed a ban on partial-birth abortion. As a result, Bush's proposals in these areas, which are generally much more extreme, sound like mere variations on a similar theme. And while conservatives achieved long-sought policy aims as a consequence of liberal Clintonism (such as welfare reform and free trade agreements), liberals are likely to have few similar victories.

Of course, Clintonism comes in two parts: one on the campaign trail, and another in power. So far, Bush has managed to reproduce only the first--and that just barely, despite vast advantages in money, party backing, and name recognition that Clinton never had in 1992. Whether he can govern as a Clintonian remains to be seen. Clintonism, in the end, requires a Clinton, a political wizard able to hold all the contradictions together. Whatever his sins, Bill Clinton was and is a man of extraordinary political talent: a formidable campaigner, an enrapturing orator, and--when push comes to shove--a brilliant defensive tactician. Bush, to put it charitably, seems more modestly equipped.

If Bush is not up to the challenge, historians--and voters in 2004--may decide on an altogether different political analogy. They may see Bush's efforts to remake himself and his party as far too superficial; his quasi-evangelical promises to "end the bitterness in Washington" as naïve; his election as an aberrant consequence of the previous administration's scandal; and his presidency as a fluke rather than a paradigm shift.

George W. Bush, meet Jimmy Carter. ¤