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Presidential Legacy Can't Survive Failure of the President

Lieberman's criticisms were an attempt to keep the New Democrat agenda from sinking.

September 11, 1998|ROSS K. BAKER and Ross K. Baker is a professor of political science at Rutgers University.

The desire to place an imprint on the future of their parties has been a characteristic of our most ambitious presidents. None of them has been more explicit about this intention than Bill Clinton. Perhaps hoping to emulate Thomas Jefferson, who not only invented the Democratic Party but also extended Jeffersonian democracy for generations through his proteges James Madison and James Monroe, Clinton has seen an eight-year incumbency for his heir-apparent, Al Gore, as firmly anchoring the changes in the party that he has wrought.

The power to reach beyond one's own term to guide the future course of a major party is, however, a privilege granted only to successful presidents. A chief executive facing impeachment, removal or the prospect of his final two years barren of any accomplishment suffers not only the diminution of his incumbency but also the forfeiture of future influence on the party.

A failed presidency is like a person who dies childless and penniless. There are no direct descendants to advance the bloodline and even collateral relatives show little interest in the last will and testament.

The legacy of centrist Republican politics that Richard Nixon had inherited from Dwight D. Eisenhower was extinguished by Watergate. While widely unacknowledged during Nixon's six years in the White House, his was a politics very different from both Goldwater conservatism and Rockefeller liberalism. While conventional wisdom has it that it was Barry Goldwater's failed 1964 campaign that paved the way for the conservative renaissance of the 1980s, the Republican right actually was galvanized by the humiliation of Nixon. At the earliest possible opportunity, in 1976, they made their move to deny the party's nomination to his hand-picked successor, Gerald R. Ford.

In like manner early in the century, Woodrow Wilson's brand of progressivism, the New Freedom, did not survive the tragic denouement of his administration after the Senate's rejection of the Versailles Treaty. Only the crisis of the 1930s and the need for novel approaches brought a revival in interest in the old Wilsonian idea that the federal government could play a positive role in the lives of Americans.

Clinton's "Third Way" is sometimes hard to pin down. It emphasizes education and training over welfare and sees the federal government more as a setter of standards than a regulator. While vastly more liberal on social issues than previous Democratic administrations, it is more assertive in the areas of abortion rights and affirmative action than, say, gay rights.

This peculiar mix of economic and social is associated with the Democratic Leadership Council, which Clinton headed while governor of Arkansas. Significantly, it was a senator closely associated with the DLC, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who was the first prominent Democratic to publicly chastise Clinton.

Moderate Democrats like Lieberman know that there is far more at stake in Kenneth Starr's report than the fate of a single president. If history is any guide, the contagion from a diseased presidency quickly infects the ideas and philosophies that it has embraced.

The beneficiaries of the collapse of the Clinton presidency would be party liberals. Some, like Jesse Jackson, have muted their differences with Clinton over the years. Others--including many congressional Democrats--have looked upon him as the only port in a storm at a time when American politics seems to be turning more conservative. Yet a third group has never forgiven him for what is seen as apostasy on trade issues, heresy on welfare reform and equivocation on gay rights. They circle this beleaguered administration sensing both the fear that Democrats will not soon elect another president and the opportunity that they may be handed to remake the party.

Lieberman's speech, while certainly a personal expression of reproach, also was an effort to prevent Clintonism from running aground along with Clinton.

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