The Jack Kevorkian of the New Deal

In the last of three special reports on the Democrats and Republicans, Samuel G. Freedman traces the triumph of Bill Clinton and the extinction of his party's beliefs.

Published August 26, 1996 12:43PM (EDT)

On Election Night 1992, Leslie Maeby was watching the results come in with fellow supporters of New York's future governor, George Pataki. For 12 years, she and other Republican activists had grown accustomed to GOP dominance. Suddenly, with the nation apparently repudiating the Reagan Revolution, Leslie heard around her voices of resentment and rage.

"We can rename our country the United States of Media," one volunteer groused. "I never saw the media beat the drum for one candidate (like this)." When a television showed Clinton romping in New York state, a man muttered, "It's Israel calling up and telling the Jews how to vote."

Leslie had a different theory. As she saw it, Bill Clinton had run "a mainstream American campaign." By that, she meant that he had run as a virtual Republican, rejecting New Deal tax-and-spend prescriptions in his campaign speeches and co-opting the conservative issues of crime, welfare, tax relief and reverse discrimination.

Now, as the Democratic Party opens its 1996 convention, Maeby and her Republican comrades have more reason than ever to complain that Clinton is stealing their program. Having been punished by voters in 1994 for the liberal orthodoxies of his tax increase and health-care plan, Clinton has been listing to the right ever since, most recently by signing a welfare-reform bill ending a 60-year federal guarantee of cash assistance to the poor.

Far from grousing, Republicans ought to accept this presidential mimicry as the highest praise. No matter who wins the November election, Clinton's strategy proves that conservatism has already won the ideological war.

Clinton may liken himself to Harry Truman as the "Comeback Kid." But when Truman was faced with an obstinate Congress and a restive electorate heading into the 1948 campaign, he did not disown the liberal tradition and hire a conservative consultant like Dick Morris. Rather, he deluged Congress with Fair Deal legislation and waged class warfare with a ferocity that owed as much to Andrew Jackson as to Franklin Roosevelt.

War record notwithstanding, Clinton resembles an inverted version of Dwight Eisenhower far more than he does Truman. Commentators
interpreted Ike's landslide victories in 1952 and 1956 as the death knell for New Deal ideas. They could not have been more wrong. President Eisenhower raised Social Security benefits in 1954 and 1956, increased the minimum wage by one-third in 1955, spent $1.3 billion on slum clearance during two terms and initiated a massive public works program with the interstate highway system.

"Social Security, housing, workmen's compensation, unemployment insurance, and the preservation of the value of savings," Eisenhower declared, "are the things that must be kept above and beyond politics and campaigns."

Put another way, not even a Republican dared incur the wrath of voters who had survived the Depression and reached the middle class partly through the intervention of the welfare state. "We are all New Dealers today," the eminent historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote of the Eisenhower era.

Now we are all Reagan Republicans. Bill Clinton may not have gone so far as to bust a union, as Reagan did with the air traffic controllers, but he affronted organized labor with his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement. How paradoxical that a Democratic leader would leave it to Patrick Buchanan to become the spokesman for a working class made expendable by the global economy.

On social issues, Clinton has endorsed not just welfare reform but such conservative proposals as school uniforms and curfews for teenagers. Half of the Democrats in Congress voted for welfare reform. Just how far the political consensus has moved to the right is symbolized by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the most outspoken opponent of the welfare reform bill -- the same man who was branded a racist 30 years ago for his report on the collapsing black family.

For all the talk about the failure of Newt Gingrich and his legislative agenda, he managed to wrest concession after concession from Clinton. He forced the president over a period of months to submit four separate budgets to Congress, the last one consenting to the Republican demand for a balanced budget in seven years.

In Clinton's defense, he has been forced to operate under striking constraints. The key swing voters who delivered the White House to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Congress to the GOP in 1994 were middle-class Catholics. Republican activists like Leslie Maeby had captured these wavering voters with the gospel of social conservatism and smaller government. Under the tutelage of Dick Morris, and earlier, pollster Stanley Greenberg, Clinton has had to compete on those terms, distinguishing himself from the Republicans by degree rather than by belief system.

So Clinton will try to have it both ways in Chicago this week, appropriating Republican stands while deriding the GOP as extremist. The audience no doubt will hear and see much about the president's support for an increase in the minimum wage and about supposed Republican designs to dismantle Medicare. If the charges stick, the Republicans will only have their own absolutism to blame. Indeed, one might date the resurrection of Clinton's political life to the day last fall when House Republicans let the federal government close rather than strike an extremely favorable compromise with the president on the budget. The Americans who called for less government never imagined that national parks from the Grand Canyon to the Statue of Liberty might be padlocked in the process.

Still, the inability of the Republicans to push through their entire program does not indicate a resurgence of liberalism. Every political movement reaches its limits, as even as masterful a politician as Franklin Roosevelt learned in the late 1930s. In 1938, six years and several billion dollars of public works into the Roosevelt presidency, America's unemployment rate stood near 17 percent. In the mid-term elections that November, the Democratic Party lost 89 seats in Congress. An emboldened opposition of Republicans and southern Democrats defeated even comparatively mild measures on housing and spending.

Yet, the liberal coalition spawned by that era, and the ideas it brought from the left into the center, persisted for decades more, even under Republican presidents. A few years ago, Leslie Maeby's mother, Vilma, was
severely injured in a car accident. Testing Vilma for brain damage, a doctor asked her who the president was. "A Democrat," Vilma replied. Today, that answer, even if Bill Clinton wins a second term, would not be nearly so clear.

Quote of the day

Word on the street

"Word doesn't tend to filter through that accurately. So the word on the street is you're not going to be treated in the hospital if you're not a citizen. Word on the street is if you owe a couple dollars on a parking violation, you may be deported. So there's widespread panic."

--Manuel Matos, executive director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, on the fear and confusion among immigrants about the new welfare law. (From "For Aliens in New York, Anxiety Over U.S. Welfare Reform," in Monday's New York Times)

By Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has written for Salon since 1996. His new book, “Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” will be published in August 2013.

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