POLITICS NOVEMBER 11, 1996
Popular opinion may still support him as against the outrageous Republican alternative, and may yet conceal ... a growing and substantial dissatisfaction because of the meager results that have followed his magnificent promises, and because of the confusion and lack of direction that his rapidly shifting and self-contradictory program embodies. --"Is Roosevelt Slipping?" TNR, August 14, 1935.
As President Clinton prepares to become the first two-term Democrat since FDR, commentators on the left and the right are busy expressing skepticism about his achievement. Paul Gigot of The Wall Street Journal suggests that "voters may choose a man they don't trust" because Clinton has so degraded the standards of American democracy that citizens now expect nothing more from their leaders. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times argues that "Bill Clinton is really scary" because "[h]e is better at being opportunistic, better at frightening the country, better at playing dirty" than Bob Dole. Even the editors of this magazine, in our dutiful endorsement on page 11, are unable to muster more than a wan smile and a limp handshake for the man who will be keeping the Oval Office warm for President Gore.
Am I alone in suspecting that Clinton is not merely the lesser of two evils, but by far the most impressive president that those of us born after the death of John F. Kennedy have known? Let's begin with the case against Clinton: that he doesn't stand for anything beyond his own re-election; that he co-opts the most popular ideas of his opponents; that he is personally untrustworthy. As Gerald Gamm of the University of Rochester observes, this is precisely the same case that liberal and conservative commentators made against FDR in the 1936 campaign. FDR ran four years earlier as a balance-the-budget fiscal conservative, promising to raise taxes and cut spending. Once in office, he abandoned any semblance of ideological consistency and, in a spirit of pragmatic experimentation, proposed the Second New Deal largely to fend off more extreme proposals on the left and the right. The Social Security Act, which TNR attacked from the left as a shameful capitulation to the life insurance lobby, was Roosevelt's moderate response to the far more radical Share the Wealth Plans proposed by Dr. F.E. Townsend and Huey Long. What Roosevelt's critics underestimated in 1936, and what Clinton's critics underestimate today, is the importance of adaptability in a deliberative democracy: the virtue of tacking right and left in order to govern from the center; the sensitivity required to push the electorate, at any given moment, no further than it is ready to be pushed. Health care, after all, was the debacle of Clinton's first term, just as court packing was the debacle of Roosevelt's second: in both cases, high-handed and defensive presidents tried to govern by fiat rather than leading by argument and persuasion.
Substantively, of course, the achievements of Clinton's and Roosevelt's first terms can't be compared. FDR, for all his bobbing and weaving, was a programmatic and revolutionary president whose construction of the New Deal activist state precipitated what Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman has called a "constitutional moment." Clinton is a conservative president who seeks to defend the rudiments of the New Deal from the counter-revolutionary proposals of the Gingrich Congress, while paring away the excesses of the Great Society. Like Dwight Eisenhower, another conservative bridge president who reconciled the 1950s Republicans to the welfare state legacy of FDR, Clinton has helped the Democrats accept the laissez-faire legacy of Ronald Reagan. But, without a depression or a war to fight, Clinton is in the awkward position of being the first president since LBJ to offer a rhetorical defense of federal activism, while acknowledging at the same time that "the era of big government is over."
Because of these conflicting impulses, there is an odd disproportion between means and ends at the core of Clinton's domestic program. By expanding federal involvement into areas that have traditionally, and properly, been left to the states--school uniforms, family leave, marriage, the death penalty, the police--Clinton has committed himself to laws that are symbolic at best and illiberal and constitutionally dubious at worst. It's no coincidence that the great constitutional dramas of Clinton's second term, like FDR's, will probably concern the scope of federal powers rather than the expansion of fundamental rights. Early next year, the Supreme Court will tell us whether Congress had the power to enact the unassuming centerpiece of Clinton's domestic agenda, the Brady bill. Fortunately, Clinton's most enduring legacy is his two sterling Supreme Court appointments. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer are more inclined than their Republican colleagues to defer to the political branches, and they are committed to preserving the New Deal rather than precipitating a sixtieth anniversary reprise of the crisis of 1937. (Perhaps Justice O'Connor will make a switch in time!) At the very least, Clinton deserves to be re-elected for reclaiming the banner of judicial restraint that Democrats carried during the Roosevelt era.
Given the contradictions at the heart of Clinton's presidency, what is it, precisely, that I admire about him? The answer, I suppose, is his character. Clinton's defining impulse, after all, is not insincerity but a surfeit of empathy: he earnestly does believe in the possibility of reconciling contradictions that can't be logically reconciled: Reagan with Roosevelt, racialism with color-blindness, family values with civil liberties. But, as Clinton demonstrates in his moving speeches to black churches, a Whitmanesque capacity to embrace contradictions isn't always a vice in a balkanized age. I suppose, in the end, that I also admire Clinton's intelligence and his passion for argument, which vindicates the Madisonian premises that Ronald Reagan's success called into question. Clinton, who may be smarter, although less elegantly duplicitous, than Kennedy and Roosevelt, reassures us that a first-rate education isn't necessarily a disqualification for leadership in American democracy. On this point, the networks missed the most telling image in the second presidential debate last week. After the final question, as both candidates fanned out into the audience, Dole awkwardly signed autographs and mumbled greetings to well-wishes. Suddenly, the c-span camera zeroed in on Clinton, who had backed a middle-aged questioner against a wall and was earnestly trying to argue with her about the merits of one position or another. His eyes fixed single-mindedly on his target, he continued to argue animatedly for four minutes. All told, Clinton lingered for forty minutes, debating undecided citizens, one by one. If there's a better way for the president of the United States to conduct his final campaign, I can't imagine it.