Lincoln and the 1996 Campaign

Charles E. Parton

February 1, 1996

“This is no time to slash education funding…. Cutting education in the Information Age is like cutting defense at the height of the cold war”–Senator Ted Kennedy, as quoted in the New York Times, January 27.

“The era of big government is over”–President Bill Clinton, State of the Union Address.

As commentators now celebrate the Cult of the Comeback Kid, let us acknowledge that he has superior rhetorical skills to Bob Dole–complete with chin thrust forward like the oafish Master of the Universe in The Bonfire of the Vanities.

The President cleverly exploited his loyal opposition. The Republican Congress has managed to transform itself from principled revolutionaries dedicated to restoring self-government into obsessed accountants, determined to balance a budget and hence keep a government of decreasing legitimacy going. They want to feed the beast (put it on a diet, to be sure), but their focus is no longer on transforming that beast but living with it.

Dole’s biggest blunder other than appearing old is that he failed to be candid and blunt–like the Bob Dole of yore. Why didn’t he address the President the same way Dole had addressed Vice President Bush following the Dole collapse in the 1988 New Hampshire Primary: Stop lying about your wife! And about a whole lot of other things as well. Hillary had to be mentioned along with the heroes in the Gallery. After all, she bit the bullet on Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, ad infinitum. He owed her; it was a contractual thing.

From outside the Beltway, it seems astounding that Punditry should regard as the once and future President an incumbent and First Lady widely believed to be (collectively) guilty of fraud, sexual harassment, theft while in office, abuse of political power, and much more to follow. (See the recent novel, by an anonymous insider, about the Clintons, Primary Colors.) And Ms.
Rodham Clinton, mother of a latchkey child, has just begun to hawk her book on how we should raise our children.

As for the Address itself–“the era of big government is over”–what content it had (better retitle it “Minimum Wage II”) certainly belied that message. But by the time you read these words, that speech will be consigned to history, along with the pledges of the 1992 campaign.

What must never be forgotten, as we enter the campaign of 1996, is that Abraham Lincoln’s challenge in the Gettysburg Address remains: “Testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” might yet “perish from the earth.” The Clinton Administration revives Lincoln’s old question. Ordinary men and women make a mockery of self-government by rewarding corrupt and incompetent but clever and likeable politicians with the highest honors this nation has to offer. The survival of democracy, and nothing less, is the test the American people face in 1996.

Charles E. Parton is Director of the Ashbrook Center.