Jewish World Review Jan. 23, 2001 / 28 Teves 5761
Clinton ain't going away, folks
PRESIDENT CLINTON has left office, but he intends to remain the titular leader of the Democratic Party. For the party, that can't be good.
Or maybe it can. When George W. Bush is sworn in, Clinton's sky-high job approval ratings become irrelevant. His personal favorability ratings, deservedly low, become dominant.
But, wonder of wonders, the public's opinion of Clinton's personal qualities has undergone a sudden transformation as he prepares to depart -- from just 48 percent positive in May to 64 percent now, according to the Pew Research Center.
Pew calls the phenomenon "Clinton nostalgia," but every indication is that he intends to make himself more than just a memory, that he will remain a forceful presence on the political scene.
He has unceremoniously bumped aside Vice President Al Gore as the leader of the party, forcing the Democratic National Committee to accept his man, Terry McAuliffe, as national chairman.
Gore preferred to keep on DNC Chairman Joe Andrew, but DNC members were told that "the Clintons" -- the President and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. -- wanted McAuliffe, who is a prodigious fund-raiser.
Clinton, for sure, will help McAuliffe raise money. But it's likely his influence will not stop there. He will no longer be a policymaker, so leadership of the party in that sense will pass to Senate Democratic Leader Thomas Daschle, S.D., and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.
Nevertheless, all the signs point to Clinton having something to say about virtually everything that's going on in Washington and the world, especially critiquing the performance of his successor.
Clinton has already joined the Democratic claque opposing Bush's election as illegitimate. In Chicago he said, "The only way (the Republicans) could win the election was to stop the voting in Florida."
That fits in with other graceless Clinton statements of late about Republicans. In several legacy-burnishing magazine interviews, for instance, he claimed that Republicans owe him an apology for impeaching him.
The fact is, Clinton's legacy is a mixed bag. He presided over great economic times and arguably helped the prosperity along by advancing free trade and helping balance the federal budget.
It has to be remembered, however, that although deficit reduction became a Clinton priority in 1993, the actual balancing of the budget was forced on him and the Democrats by the Republican Congress elected in 1994.
Clinton did advance the cause of health insurance for all, going at it incrementally when he couldn't do it comprehensively. He also increased education funding and made college more affordable.
On the other hand, he was a moral and cultural disaster. He defiled the environs of the Oval Office, lied under oath and was impeached.
Along with improving American education, he instructed adolescents, according to a recent survey publicized in USA Today, that oral sex is not really sex.
Moreover, the disaster was not merely "personal." He promised "the most ethical administration in American history" and then sold overnights in the Lincoln Bedroom for campaign contributions, along with utterly demolishing the remnants of post-Watergate campaign finance laws.
According to Election Day exit polls, by 68 percent to 29 percent voters said Clinton would be remembered more for his scandals than his accomplishments.
Despite "Clinton nostalgia," last week's Pew poll reported an almost identical result. Is this what the Democratic Party wants in a spokesman?
It's argued that Clinton has been good for the party, winning elections and pulling it toward the center. But he never actually won a majority of the popular vote, even against weak Republicans. In addition, the party's Congressional strength hasn't yet recovered from his 1994 debacle.
In 1993, Democrats held 258 House seats and 57 Senate seats. Now they have 211 and 50, respectively.
It's true that Clinton came to office as a New Democrat, advocated a "third way" and repaired the party's image of being soft on crime, dedicated to high taxes and big government and dismissive of middle-class values.
On the other hand, in recent years he has begun leaning left again. If there was anything he should have done, it is to have secured Social Security and Medicare for his own and future generations.
However, when it came to the test, he followed rather than led on entitlement reform. Consequently, both programs face ultimate bankruptcy unless his successor can produce a fix. Clinton presumably will oppose Bush's proposals.
There's no question that Clinton is a superb tactical politician, gifted at establishing personal rapport, making rousing speeches and wriggling himself free from tight spots. But for a leader, the Democratic Party should look elsewhere. Clinton nostalgia will fade, and his baggage will only get
JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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