Jewish World Review March 8, 1999 /20 Adar 5759
(http://www.jewishworldreview.com) VERY SOON, AMERICA WILL BE ENGAGED IN PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARIES, the foreplay for the important elections of 2000. Where do the political roads lead? Perhaps not where you think. At least two questionable political ideas are in play: 1) Bill Clinton is a great politician, charming. 2) Republicans are in big trouble, out-of-touch hectoring moralists. Both ideas are much overstated. Consider some political axioms:
GOOD POLITICIANS GET LOTS OF VOTES. Clinton won the nomination in 1992 against second-tier Democrats. In the general elections of 1992 and 1996 Clinton did not get a majority of the popular vote: 43.0 percent, and 49.2 percent respectively (albeit with third party competition from Ross Perot). Clinton's opponents, George Bush and Bob Dole, presented themselves as two of the worst candidates with the worst campaigns, in all history.
GOOD PRESIDENTIAL POLITICIANS HELP THEIR PARTY. When Clinton came into office there were solid Democratic majorities in both the Senate and House. On Clinton's watch, Republicans gained control of both. The GOP has held the House now for three consecutive terms, which hasn't happened for Republicans for 64 years!
WINNING IS BETTER THAN LOSING. Despite reports to the contrary, Republicans did win in 1998. Allegedly out-of-touch GOP House candidates got 51 percent of the vote, often an important number in politics. Republican governors, the golden governors, have also been winners during Clinton's time. Their number went from 18 to 31, now representing 70 percent of the American population.
POLLS ARE MANY-SPLENDORED THINGS. Clinton's popularity is high. More than 60 percent of Americans today believe he is "doing a good job" as president. His ratings soared in early 1998 -- before the Lewinsky scandal hit. But at that point, with nearly everything going right in America, approval ratings for just about every politician, political body and institution soared. (From October 1997 to January 1998, approval ratings for Congress rose from 36 percent to 56 percent.) Clinton's approval ratings remain high now, but only about 20 percent of Americans think he is "honest and trustworthy."
GOOD POLITICIANS GET WHAT THEY WANT. Clinton wants Al Gore elected president. But Gore runs way behind Republican front-runner Gov. George W. Bush, even before the ugly, ugly story about Juanita Broadderick. (How does Gore deal with that? Q. "Mr. Vice President, the man you've recently called a great president has been accused of rape, what is your reaction?" A. "The president says it didn't happen, and this great president doesn't lie.") Clinton also hopes to elect a Democratic Congress. Republicans have indeed suffered in the polls following the impeachment fracas. But that political dust should be allowed to settle before assaying it. Following the rape charge, it's harder than ever to see how Democrats can make much of it. ("My opponent voted to impeach an alleged rapist.")
GOOD POLITICIANS ARE NOT ALWAYS IN A DITCH.
GOOD POLITICIANS ARE NOT CALLED GOOD POLITICIANS. The last thing a wonderful politician wants to be called is a "wonderful politician." "Statesman" is good. "Great president" is better.
GOOD PRESIDENTS DO IMPORTANT THINGS. Clinton has been a pretty good president. I give him a B-. Others might put it higher. By my lights he did a heroic job in getting trade legislation passed, over liberal Democratic objections. The welfare reform law of 1996, enacted over liberal Democratic objections, may constitute a central change in American life, for the better. Clinton gets much credit for it, along with the Gingrich Congress. Clinton also deserves much credit for the recent economic success. He did relatively little, which is not easy, and just what a "pro-business" president should do. Like a physician, a president's first task in the economic realm is "do no harm." He hasn't.
THEREFORE WHAT? Clinton is not seen to be doing a good job because he's a charmer, a great politician or a rogue savant. He does well because times are good and he has done some important things, most of which come under the heading of "moving his party to the center," with Republican cooperation.
For 13 months, while impeachment was on the anvil, Clinton's political soul was held in mortgage by the left wing of the Democratic Party. In terms of policy, Clinton and the Republicans were frozen in place. With apparent closure on impeachment, Clinton and the GOP are unbound. Clinton can help his party if he is again prepared to break with its left wing. The Republicans can make hay by cooperating on centrist initiatives. A successor trade bill will likely be coming up. There is a potential deal on Social Security that will diminish class strife, letting everyone become players in the American dream. Somewhere there is a tax cut that makes sense.
MORAL: GOOD POLICY IS THE BEST POLITICS, FOR CLINTON AND
Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank."
02/26/99:L.A., D.C. try to get back to the past