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Jewish World Review Oct. 22, 1999 /12 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

David Brooks

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Econophone

The Clintonized Democrats


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- CONSERVATIVES WILL ALWAYS HAVE a soft spot for the eighties. They’ll always have a nostalgic longing for the glory days of ReykjavÌk and Berlin, for the era of yellow ties, Drexel Burnham, Duran Duran, and Madonna-wannabes wearing their underwear on the outside of their clothes. And the best part of the eighties was having opponents like Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and, a little later, Michael Dukakis.

For some conservatives, those days were so wonderful they will never be allowed to end. For some, every Democrat is Walter Mondale, if not on the surface then at least deep down. Clintonism never really happened. Tony Blair never really happened. The Third Way is just old fashioned liberalism in disguise. On October 13, for example, Steve Forbes delivered a talk in London in which he attacked “Third Way socialism and statism,” as if it were all just one big clump out of Clement Attlee’s brain.

On the same day, at the Heritage Foundation, House Majority Leader Dick Armey gave a speech called “The Future of Conservatism,” in which he talked mostly about the glories of Ronald Reagan. The subtext of Armey’s remarks was that politics today is waged on the same continuum as it was during the Reagan era—between the believers in freedom and the believers in statism—and that the main thing Republicans need to do is recapture Reagan’s way of delivering their message with a smile. “It is largely a matter as simple as demeanor. We need to practice that, to be optimistic,” Armey declared. “We need to learn some skills, to be good natured and entertaining.Ý.Ý.Ý. Let us put on a happy face.”

Well, it would be nice if it were just a matter of demeanor. It would be nice for Republicans if Democrats had learned nothing from the failures of Mondale and Dukakis. Just as it would be nice for Democrats if people like George W. Bush had learned nothing from the failures of Newt Gingrich. But wishing doesn’t make it so. Clintonism has transformed the Democratic party, making it less vulnerable (and also less honorable). And voters, if not many Republicans, know this. That’s why those ads from consultant Arthur Finkelstein—the ones that try to tar Democrats as “liberal, dangerously liberal, embarrassingly liberal”—have been such miserable failures over the past two elections.

Today’s Democratic party is much more difficult to pin down. For example, over the past two weeks Al Gore and Bill Bradley have been jockeying to win the endorsement of the AFL-CIO (which went for Gore the same day Forbes delivered his speech in London). Kissing up to big labor, the two Democratic presidential candidates have been at their most liberal. Gore put on events in Des Moines and Los Angeles that had him hugging every blue-collar cliche. “I am pro-labor, pro-union, pro-collective bargaining. I am pro-working family and I always will be,” he shouted in that megaphone manner of his. “If you elect me president, I will veto any anti-union bill that comes across my desk.”

Bill Bradley, meanwhile, outflanked Gore to the left by proposing a massive health care reform plan that Kenneth Thorpe, the man who estimated health plan costs for the Clinton administration, estimated would cost $1.1 trillion over 10 years. If there were ever signs of a Democratic reversion to Mondale style tax-and-spendism, this was the week for them.

Bill Bradley has some genuine left-wing elements to his campaign. But, if you look beyond the week’s pro-union rhetoric, what exactly did the unions get out of their endorsement of the vice president? Gore remains adamantly pro-trade. The vast majority of his policy proposals come out of the playbook of the Democratic Leadership Council. He never saw a problem he didn’t want to throw a tax credit at. It’s tax credits for urban empowerment zones, tax credits for day care, tax credits for companies that provide worker training, and tax credits to pay for college education. This is not the old-fashioned Democratic create-an-agency, create-a-program approach.

When a Washington Post analysis suggested that Gore’s health proposal would threaten to unbalance the budget, the Gore campaign scaled back their plan, so scared are they of being tainted with the deficit-spending charge. Meanwhile, the Gore people attacked the Bradley health care plan, which is a fraction of HillaryCare, as a grotesque government power grab. A Democratic establishment that believes in tax credits and balanced budgets is not a paleoliberal establishment. Clinton is going, but the party will remain Clintonian in policy terms.

And more important, Gore has been Clintonized stylistically. Even at the DLC’s conference last year, Gore gave an old-fashioned political speech. He talked about his philosophy of government (he chose the unfortunate phrase “practical idealism”), and he outlined the policies he supported. But in the past weeks, Gore has transformed his stump speech. Now it is a collection of Oprah-ready stories about his growth as a person: his period of disillusionment after his father lost a Senate race, the joys of being a grandfather, his hike up Mount Rainier with his son. There’s almost no substance to his speech, but it works. Gore can be insufferable when he is hectoring about some earnest policy idea. But this autobiographical montage is reassuring patter.

So there is little sign the 2000 election will feature any deliciously Reaganite age of clear left-right ideological divides. No wonder the Democratic Leadership Council’s president, Al From, was so triumphalist at the annual DLC meeting in Washington on October 14. From has a storyline for the past nine years, which he laid out at the conference: At the dreary start of this decade, there were “no New Democrats, no New Democratic movement, no New Labor in BritainÝ.Ý.Ý. no Third Way movement sweeping the globe.” But now, the Third Way is everywhere on the march. It’s the biggest political story of the decade. (He’s right about that.)

“As we meet here, we’re on a roll ... the federal government is the smallest since the Kennedy administration!” That was an applause line at the DLC. “If you want to be a successful party in the 21st century, you have to be a party of private sector growth,” he went on. Even George W. Bush sounds like a New Democrat, From gloated, teasing that he sounds like he is running for Bill Clinton’s third term. (Dick Armey portrayed George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism as an effort to put a happy face on Reaganite conservative policies, a sign that Armey, like From, really doesn’t understand George W.)

The one issue that causes stuttering and uncomfortable silences in Democratic ranks is trade and globalization. While endorsing free trade, Bill Bradley has adopted some liberal rhetoric about that demon, the global economy. “The new global economy doesn’t care about the 6:30 dinner. It doesn’t care that you don’t know how to use a computer. The global economy isn’t worrying about you at all.” The global economy doesn’t feel your pain, thus violating the first rule of Clintonism.

If there is a subject on which the post-Clintonian Democrats might be inclined to revert to paleoliberalism, it is economic globalization. On this subject, they show all the signs of liberal guilt. In their heart of hearts, the New Democrats know that theirs is a movement made up largely of lawyers, wonks, and graduate-degreed information-age workers. They know the global economy isn’t so great for those who lack their credentials. There is an undertone of apology when they talk about globalization. They never use the phrase “free trade” for example, which sounds like free markets. DLC types talk instead about “open trade,” which sounds like open admissions.

And yet, the New Democrats are not really pulling back from their free trade values. Gore may not talk much about his finest hour, his debate with Ross Perot on NAFTA, but there’s no sign he has stepped away from it. This year the DLC deserves credit for stepping up to the plate and addressing the socially awkward subject of globalization head on. The organization even invited an AFL-CIO apparatchik to address the conference. And for the time being there were even signs of a rapprochement with the paleoliberals.

Both sides speak vaguely about the need to come up with some sort of rules to regulate the global economy. The AFL-CIO supports strict rules on things like how banks can lend their money. The DLC presumably would oppose such intrusive regulations. But they aren’t talking specifics right now. They are enjoying the happy harmony of fuzziness. In his speech closing out the conference, Al Gore called for a working group to come up with a solution.

With stands like that, Gore is never going to win a chapter in some future edition of Profiles in Courage. But then that too is a sign of the Clintonized Democratic party. It never presents a clean target for the Left or the Right. As Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation sagely observed last week, Clintonized politicians never tell you where they would ultimately like to take the country. Maybe they don’t know themselves. The eighties, alas, are over. Reagan can serve as an inspiration and a policy exemplar, but his political tactics may be of limited use in the age of fuzziness and mush.



David Brooks is a senior sditor of the Weekly Standard. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

Up

10/20/99:Our Hysterical President
09/24/99: The Harassment of Gary Bauer
09/24/99: What I Saw at Burning Man
09/20/99: A scenario for last-minute entrants to shake up the 2000 presidential race
09/16/99: A tale of moral dudgeon and posturing in the Clinton era
09/10/99: One Nation Conservatism
09/09/99: Goldsmith's Secrets of Success
08/31/99: Class Warfare in the GOP
08/26/99: America's Leading Conservative
08/20/99: The Case For Censorship
08/19/99: They Say D'Amato
08/13/99: The Agony of Not Being George W. Bush
08/12/99: Iowa Gothic
08/0699: Preschool in the Nanny State
08/04/99: Body Slam
07/30/99: End of the Leave-Us-Alone GOP
07/28/99: Madeleine Albright's Vendetta
07/22/99: Bill Clinton, Historian
07/20/99: The Terrorist Next Door
07/16/99: The Empress of the Empire State

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