The Vision Thing: Bob Dole's Only Hope May Be President Clinton

President Clinton continues to maintain a double-digit lead in the polls. Barring any October surprises, a reasonable consensus is growing that Bill Clinton will be reelected, perhaps overwhelmingly, to a second term on Nov. 5.At least one pundit has declared that Bob Dole lost the 1996 election the day Newt Gingrich and the 104th Republican Congress were outmaneuvered by Clinton on the balanced budget bill. Clinton has unquestionably proven himself a shrewd political infighter -- and he now controls the Republican balanced budget agenda, among other things. Like it or not, Clinton has arguably engineered the most impressive presidential comeback since Harry Truman rose from the dead to win a second term in 1948.Clinton is fast becoming the most arresting -- if not necessarily the most upright, straightforward or plain-spoken -- political figure in the hemisphere. Lurching badly at first, he managed to depose a dictator in Haiti without bloodshed. He oversaw a controversial financial bailout of Mexico that most observers now believe helped stabilize our distressed southern neighbor. He brought Israelis and Palestinians together for a historic meeting at the White House. He engineered a truce and peace agreement -- however belatedly -- in Bosnia. And he has presided over a period of sustained economic growth, reduced deficits, low inflation and decreasing unemployment on the homefront.He is also widely reviled by his political opponents. The liberal left considers him an ideological turncoat, while those of Bob Dole's age and predispositions consider him a dishonest, wet-behind-the-ears disgrace. He is shifty and chameleonlike. He tends to fat, both literally and figuratively.But the president, as many voters are coming to understand, is also smart as a whip and legendary for his command of ideas and his empathy with regular folks. If you believe the White House spin doctors, he is growing more disciplined. More than anything else, Bill Clinton is possessed of amazing resilience. He bounces back, again and again. He has the native wit and resourcefulness to find his way out of impossible jams, from bimbo eruptions to the Democratic midterm disaster of 1994. He may shade the truth to suit his purposes, but he does not crumble in the face of adversity.Such perceptions have begun to erode Clinton's image as Slick Willy, the clever Arkansas good ol' boy wheeling and dealing for the greater glory of Bill Clinton. This president has veered like a teenager in a stolen car from one side of the ideological street to the other in the past 45 months. At one extreme is the big-government, big-spending image that marked Clinton's disastrous 1993 health care plan. At the other is the figure who signed the controversial 1996 welfare bill, the unanticipated culmination of both Clinton's own 1992 campaign promise to "change the welfare system as we know it" and the Republican drive to end federal giveaways to what they see as the undeserving and unrepentant poor.Yet with all due respect to Bob Dole, who has run a stunningly lackluster campaign up to this point, the most intriguing aspect of the 1996 presidential contest is Bill Clinton himself -- and what his second term may look like. Polls give his presidency a higher favorability rating than ever, despite the Contract with America, Republican dominance of federal lawmaking and a skein of scandals from Whitewater to Filegate. Perhaps most important as the Hartford debate approaches, however, are the underlying dynamics that will shape a second Clinton term, a feat achieved by Democrats only twice before in this century -- Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936, 1940 and 1944.Along with the balanced budget, term limits and a new Democratic emphasis on children and family values, Clinton's signing of the welfare reform bill has led to much speculation about Clinton's unprincipled political opportunism and charges that he is a Republican in Democrat's clothing. Clinton's shape-shifting has also led to the clearcutting of miles of timber, as journalists have pored over the entrails of the relationship between Clinton and the Rasputin-like Dick Morris, among others, who have mapped out the president's move to the right since the 1994 Democratic debacle.But there is great deal more to Clinton's purported move to the center than the calculations of political consultants. The 1996 Democratic convention in Chicago was a deliberate and wholesale retreat, scripted by Morris and others, from New Deal orthodoxy. For all the high-spirited floor demonstrations, the rousing strains of "Happy Days are Here Again" were notably absent. Instead, the anthems were "Don't Stop Thinkin' About Tomorrow" and "You Can Call Me Al."The changes that came together in Chicago, however, had been in the works for more than a decade. In 1986, party leaders disillusioned with the tenets of an aging liberal theology, including then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, formed the Democratic Leadership Council. Five years later, with Clinton at the helm, the organization set a course sharply divergent from liberal orthodoxy that led to his presidential run. The DLC vision, in that sense, should be Clinton's vision.But it is not that easy. The new Democrats reached back to the nation's first Democratic president, Andrew Jackson, for their political credo: "Equal opportunity for all, special privilege for none." The new Democratic progressives emphasized equality of opportunity, not equal results. They pushed for a new ethic of civil responsibility and civic reciprocity rather than entitlement. More concretely, they called for renewing economic growth with innovation and investment, reforming entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, returning power to communities and taking an activist role in international affairs.Little has been written about the absorption of New Democratic ideas into the policymaking process during Clinton's first term. Yet literally dozens of aides, speechwriters, staff and state leaders have been influenced by the ideas churned out by the DLC and the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington. An editorial by DLC president Al From in the September/October edition of The New Democrat declares bluntly that the Democratic party "has undergone a striking ideological transformation" since 1980. From says the party now "stands for New Democrat values, beliefs and policies that an overwhelming majority of Americans can support."That may be a credible claim as far as the party is concerned. But the New Democratic canon, which provides a potentially powerful vision for a second Clinton term, apparently has not won over Bill Clinton. His acceptance speech in Chicago contained modest New Democratic bromides, but lacked the fire of any encompassing vision. Even aides close to the president admit he has been reluctant to embrace the New Democratic vision, despite the catalytic tactical influence of the disgraced Dick Morris and other New Democrats in and around the White House.Clinton may have good reason for caution. His political instincts may tell him that changing several generations of Democratic wisdom in two terms is reckless and perhaps even destructive. Without question, his comfortable lead in the polls makes it politically unnecessary to risk setting forth a vision that may upset strong factions within his own party. Moreover, setting forth a real vision of change for a second term, particularly if the Democratic Party wins back the House and Senate, could well lead to four years of intraparty warfare between the New Democrats and the Old Liberals.Clinton Achilles' heel is not Hillary, or Whitewater or special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. His single greatest failure as a political leader is a failure of vision. Without publicly forging a coherent vision, Bill Clinton may win reelection, but he risks frittering away his progressive mandate to govern. He must begin to shape a credible Clinton vision of a second term -- or will begin to confirm all that his critics suspect: that Bill Clinton is destined to be a transitional, caretaker president.

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