Jewish World Review June 25, 2004 /6 Tamuz, 5764

Robert Robb

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Parallel (political) universes | Bill Clinton's attempt to respin his presidency isn't going very well. After Clinton left office, his public approval ratings dropped like a rock, and have stayed low.

His memoir, My Life, frequently cites poll results, confirming the importance it was suspected he puts on them.

Clinton, of course, thinks he was a very good president. His book is an exhaustive, and exhausting, argument for that proposition.

But to get the book sold and read, and to attract a large advance, he had to include the Monica affair. And as in his presidency, the Monica affair has superseded substantive matters in the public discussion of his book. In the final analysis, Clinton has only himself to blame for this.

Unsurprisingly, that doesn't stop him from blaming others. One of the theses of this book and his public interviews is that mean Ken Starr and congressional Republicans left him with unresolved anger, which triggered a reversion into a parallel life pattern developed in his troubled youth.

If this book is any evidence, Clinton still has a lot of unresolved anger.

While Clinton may deserve his fate, if this is the week to contemplate the Clinton years, the public is getting cheated.

There were matters more important than how long Clinton had to sleep on the couch. In fact, there were two events that transformed both political parties.

The first was the failure of the Clinton universal health care proposal and the subsequent Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.

For such a tome, Clinton's memoir is interestingly sketchy about the substance of the health care proposal.

It would have required all health insurance to be obtained from federal purchasing pools and conform to federal requirements for coverage.

While Clinton blames distortions by opponents for the proposal's defeat, he clearly understands, if unwilling to admit, that it was too far a reach.

The American people, then and now, want to improve the health care system and help the uninsured. But they don't want to put at risk what they currently have.

The message the American people got from the health care proposal and his previous tax hike was, in Clinton's words, "I was just another pro-tax, big-government liberal, not the New Democrat who had won the presidency."

So, the country chose Republicans to control Congress as a check. In discussing this development, Clinton offers a profound insight: "The electorate may be operationally progressive, but philosophically it is moderately conservative and deeply skeptical of government."

Clinton vowed that he "would not forget it again," and indeed he did not. Thus was born Clintonism: an incessant expansion of government, but by small, incremental and politically digestible steps.

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That proved to be very popular for the duration of the 1990s, and remains the core of the Democratic approach today.

It's the essence of the Kerry campaign, with the interesting exception of health care, where he has a large, expensive proposal for the federal government to essentially take over catastrophic care.

The second transformational event was the federal government shutdown in 1995. Newt Gingrich, who engineered the Republican coup in 1994, mistakenly thought he'd been elected president rather than speaker of the House.

Republicans wanted more restraint in federal spending and a quicker path to a balanced budget than Clinton was willing to accept.

An impasse initially led to government by continuing resolution, or simply maintaining spending at the previous year's level. Then, Republicans put much of their fiscal package in a continuing resolution and an increase in the debt limit, as well as various appropriations bills.

In other words, presenting Clinton the choice of accepting their agenda or shutting down the federal government and possibly defaulting on its debt. Clinton didn't blink, as Gingrich had calculated he would.

Shutting down the federal government was a little more fiscal restraint than the American people had bargained for and they properly blamed Republicans for it. Clinton was easily re-elected in 1996 and Republican control of Congress became more tenuous.

Republicans have never quite gotten over it. In My Life, Clinton boasts: "We had defeated the philosophy behind the 'Contract with America' by winning the government shutdown debate."

It would be more accurate to say that Republicans, frustrated by the political success of Clintonism and spooked by the public reaction to the federal government shutdown, began abandoning that philosophy.

Certainly, Republicans can no longer claim to be the party of smaller government or fiscal restraint. Spending under President Bush has increased twice as fast as it did under the divided government days of Clinton.

So, we now have a Democratic Party that gives the American people only a partial peek at its true, full agenda, and a Republican Party that has abandoned core beliefs and commitments.

In the aftermath of Clinton, apparently everyone is living parallel political lives.

JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.


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