Jewish World Review July 2, 1999 /18 Tamuz 5759
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE TALK IN WASHINGTON turns again to legacy, as Bill Clinton gazes out the Oval Office window, musing over what might yet be. Chief executives often do this sort of thing in the autumn of their administrations, when friends turn into acquaintances and employees ponder resumes instead of re-election.
It must be a time of melancholy for the president who, for all his luck and virtuosity in office, has received a bum hand.
History reveres presidents who confront crises -- wars, depressions and dark nights of the national soul. It has little use for those who manufacture trouble, and even less for those who have managed, through serendipity or skill, to govern in times of unsullied plenty.
Still, Bill Clinton thinks of himself as a man who makes history rather than repeats it. So he now talks of a final legislative flourish that will transform him from a pants-dropping, intern-romancing, Oval Office multi-tasking wunderkind into a giant worthy of mention with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR and Reagan.
He comes to the challenge equipped with unparalleled talents for mastering the prevailing winds. He reads polls and hearts with equal facility, and sincerely promises the public things it cannot have -- such as "health," "the most ethical administration in the history of the Republic" and the dissolution of dispelling racial suspicion.
Like Lincoln, Clinton has fixed his gaze on a distant star -- in his case, the ideal of a large, aggressive and effective government. Like Lincoln, he has revitalized the power of his office, by using the tools at his command. But unlike Lincoln, he has used his talent mainly to pound the likes of Newt Gingrich and Kenneth Starr. One looks vainly for the Great Cause that might propel this presidency into a more epochal orbit.
At this point, he can only yearn for the mountaintop. No domestic issue on the horizon engages our moral or spiritual imaginations. The latest babble about Medicare hardly rises to the level of heroism: It's a clean-up job at best -- and at worst, the proposed cure could merely dump another layer of impossible commitments to a system already groaning under the weight of something-for-nothing "guarantees."
Consider two recent Republican analogues, Richard Nixon and Pete Wilson. Nixon earned two trips to the Inaugural Ball by adopting a "Southern Strategy" that exploited the enmity between black and white Southerners. He managed to turn the "solid South" from a Democratic into a Republican stronghold, but he also deepened the impression that the GOP was a whites- only party.
As recently as 1952, 40 percent of blacks voted Republican. That number dwindled to 20 percent by Nixon's first election -- and since has fallen nearer to 10 percent. The decline in black support also has weakened the allegiance of white suburbanites, who like to consider themselves enlightened on the matter of racial comity.
By the same token, Wilson twice walked away with the California gubernatorial slot by flicking at the scab of controversy. Although he hotly denies allegations that Proposition 187, which eliminated welfare for illegal aliens, was an attempt to fan anti-Hispanic sentiments, his success in passing the initiative spelled doom for the Golden State GOP.
While his Republican predecessor, George Deukmejian, received 65 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1986, Wilson garnered only 30 percent in 1990 and 27 percent in 1994. GOP nominee Dan Lungren got a mere 17 percent of the Hispanic vote last year. This swing coincides with a dramatic increase in Hispanic electoral strength -- it could become the state's largest voting bloc within the next 20 years -- and converted California into a Democratic stronghold.
Clinton also is a wedge politician, a master at condoning ugliness while condemning it rhetorically. And now, his party is beginning to pay for his survival skills. Clinton fatigue has begun to sour into a pox on his party. A recent Battleground poll put the president's personal disapproval rating at a stunning 67 percent and indicated that Democrats are emerging as the big losers from L'Affaire Lewinsky.
If there's a legacy, it comes in the form of a lesson: If you nominate and elect a master in the art of wedge politics, enjoy
success while it lasts. Because then comes the
06/28/99: Used tires and hope