As the post-election drama in Florida slouches toward resolution, it allows one to reflect more broadly on the American political landscape and what has contributed to its troubled scene. It seems inescapable that the major contours of the year’s partisan battles, election strategy, and even the post-election machinations were heavily influenced by the actions of one man.
He is President William Jefferson Clinton, the man most responsible for bringing politics and the American party system to where they are today. The relative power of the two major political parties is largely his doing. Each candidate’s election strategy can only be understood as a reaction to Clinton’s great political skills and personal weaknesses. And the post-election machinations are vintage Bill Clinton.
Clinton can take most of the responsibility for Republican gains at nearly every level of government in the 1990s. Consider the changed situation since Clinton’s first presidential victory in 1992. Republicans had just lost the White House, and were seven seats below the fifty-seat majority in the U.S. Senate and forty-two seats below a 218-seat majority in the U.S. House. They controlled seventeen governors’ offices and only thirty of ninety-eight partisan state legislative chambers. Today Republicans are at least even in the U.S. Senate and hold a nine-seat margin in the House, extending the duration of their congressional majorities to at least eight years. More impressively, the GOP now controls twenty-nine governors’ offices and approximately half of all state legislative chambers. All Republicans should say “thank you, Bill Clinton” for restoring parity in the two-party system.
Democrats can thank Bill Clinton for showing how to run a successful Democratic presidential campaign. Get the presidency by talking like a new Democrat, friendly to free markets and critical of minority preferences. Saying these things were necessary to win in the 1990s, and to Bill Clinton’s strategic credit he said them. That Clinton governed as a traditional liberal apparently caused him no personal intellectual discomfort. Clinton’s moves to keep the presidency were necessarily creative. Thanks go to him for making presidential assessment a two-part question. As the economy rolled along and Clinton played along, he advanced the idea that the public should evaluate him on two separate questions, job performance and personal behavior, with the former criterion the only important one. Certainly this strategy of bifurcation was a short-term necessity and stunning success, with the national media as a willing accomplice.
But the American public was uncomfortable with this split evaluation, and it shaped this year’s presidential race. Gore, apparently of stronger moral fiber than Clinton, could not honestly campaign as a Democratic centrist. To his moral credit but strategic detriment, Gore ran as a Democratic throwback, turning what should have been a walk-away Democratic victory into a nail-biter. Gore’s inability to come to terms with the dual Clinton legacy characterized his campaign, as the vice-president never figured out how to distance himself from Clinton’s behavior while taking credit for the economic abundance of the last eight years.
The final legacy of Bill Clinton is the willingness to stay in office at the expense of the dignity of the office. To beat back forced removal, Clinton claimed attorney-client privilege, executive privilege, secret service privilege, and other assertions that all failed in court. He used every tool and person under his authority to defend himself and attack his opponents. Nothing, even the dignity of the office, was more important than keeping Bill Clinton as president.
So where does the Clinton legacy leave the two major parties? First, nationally they are at virtual parity. It is a mistake to assert that the nation wants either complete Republican or Democratic rule. Republicans are especially wrong in stating that the nation is becoming more Republican. To the extent people prefer Republicans in Washington, D.C., that preference is artificially inflated by Bill Clinton’s presence. Subtract him from the equation, and there is little basis to think Republicans are the national majority. In the immediate future Republicans nationally will lose by standing still. Republicans made remarkable and more lasting gains at the state level precisely by talking like Bill Clinton (and then acting like it, too)—reasonable persons interested in solving problems, not engaging in ideological crusades.
Where does the Clinton legacy leave campaign strategy? Clinton provided the rhetorical roadmap for Al Gore, but Gore didn’t follow it. As the bitterness of the post-election contest fades into history, Al Gore, president or not, will be seen as a poor strategist, and liberal Democratic rhetoric will lose further credibility.
Where does the Clinton legacy leave post-election politics? The answer is as obvious as it is sad. In Clinton’s White House, Gore was exposed to the notion that winning is the only thing. Many folks who voted for Gore hoped that he had not accepted that notion, but his post-election behavior indicates he clearly did. Keep counting, keep litigating, keep attacking until the other side is overwhelmed or gives in. It’s a sad legacy, but it might be the most lasting one of the Clinton era.
One struggles to close on a hopeful note. If there is one, it is that both Al Gore and George Bush are better people than they are letting on, and better, especially on Gore’s behalf, than the people surrounding them. It is the hope that the presidential contest ends with a noble concession and a gracious beginning of a new presidency.
But that would be someone else’s legacy, not Bill Clinton’s.
Douglas Koopman teaches political science at Calvin College and is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.