Did you ever wonder why so many conservatives seem to hate President Clinton so much? After all, this is a president often described (and derided) as a crypto-conservative, a Republicrat, an opportunist who has betrayed the ancient precepts of Democratic liberalism. Superficial as they may be, those epithets contain enough truth that Clinton ought to bemuse Republicans more than enrage them. But enrage them he does, not because of his sundry alleged scandals or even because he kicked Republican butt in two consecutive elections.
Actually, whether they realize it or not, right-wingers hate Clinton because they fear him. As the more candid conservatives have confessed, they're frightened by his political skills, although that isn't what scares them most. What truly spooks Clinton's enemies is watching him reanimate a Democratic Party they quite reasonably had pronounced dead, or at least brain-dead.
After years of infuriating his party's various tribes while campaigning and governing, Clinton is consciously attempting to create a new Democratic consensus. Perhaps it is meant to be his presidential legacy to the party he has mostly ignored. He did begin this project during his first national campaign, then abandoned it amid the chaos and disappointment of his first term. Although he contrived to disarm the Republicans of their favorite racial "wedge issues" of crime and welfare, he failed to put across an appealing alternative program. Now, against the Democratic propensity for ideological feuding and weepy nostalgia, Clinton is promoting a modernized party of the center-left, prepared to compete politically without abandoning progressive values. Should he succeed, he will have strengthened the party he has been accused of destroying -- at a time when it is Republicans who suffer from militant factions and stale ideas.
According to Sidney Blumenthal, the presidential aide who is trying to bring together liberal and moderate Democrats, what his boss seeks is a "Third Way" between traditional social democracy and free-market liberalism. It is an outlook he shares most closely with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and also with leaders of governing socialist parties in France and Italy as well as the party favored to win power in Germany's next election. The latest sign of ideological renovation in the White House was a conference last week that included more than a dozen longtime adversaries from the party's right and left wings. Hosted by Hillary Rodham Clinton, leading intellectuals from the Democratic Leadership Council (market-oriented liberal) and the Economic Policy Institute (labor-affiliated social democrat), as well as other groups, took a refreshing break from mutual polemics. They spoke cordially and even discovered agreement on a few matters of national interest. Any such attempt at concord would have been doomed before Clinton, for better or worse, sold off some Democratic heirlooms. His balanced budget, anti-crime program and welfare cutbacks may still provoke anger on the left, but they seem to have won acceptance if not enthusiasm among liberal African-Americans and women, where his popularity remains high. Yet those mass constituencies -- without whom the Democratic Leadership Council is nothing but a group of talking heads -- cannot be mobilized without a positive message.
What might that message be, if Democrats could agree? David Osborne, the author of "Reinventing Government" and a consultant of "new Democrat" persuasion, foresees possible unity around a platform of universal educational opportunity and job-creating public investment. Democrats of all stripes, unlike Republicans, "believe deeply in government," he says. They may argue loudly about how to manage public services and what to privatize, but such arguments sound academic when the Republicans talk about dismantling and destroying services and institutions. And while Osborne expects continuing dissension over trade, an issue that has alienated Clinton from congressional Democrats, he perceives "a lot of potential for compromise" regarding environmental and labor protections. "What you are seeing in the Western industrialized countries," he says, "are liberal and social democratic parties adjusting to the realities of the global marketplace."
But can Democrats make that adjustment to the future while honoring their past commitments to society's most vulnerable, those excluded from the worldwide bazaar in goods and services? Pessimists will point to Clinton's welfare bill, insisting that only an unusually strong expansion has prevented catastrophic decline in the living standards of the poor. Optimists will reply that Clinton's increases in the minimum wage and the earned income tax credit have helped lift millions out of poverty during the current cycle. The most important test will be the revision of Social Security, setting advocates of private investment against defenders of public entitlements. If Democrats somehow can avoid a wrenching split over this question within their own ranks, they may be able to prevent wholesale privatization by the Republicans, and a subsequent return to widespread poverty among the elderly. Of course, that means displeasing the drooling Wall Street Democrats who provide much of the money that keeps the Democratic Leadership Council -- and the Democratic Party -- in business.
The process the Clintons launched is embryonic and fragile. An afternoon of chat among Beltway intellectuals is only the very beginning of real negotiation between rival interest groups. But achieving a rough consensus on issues that have bitterly divided the Democratic Party would revive the possibility of a progressive majority in American politics. First it would mean getting rid of at least one long-cherished ritual: the circular firing squad. The Republicans seem to be adopting that formation as their own these days, anyway.