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National Disservice

September 27, 1998|Robert L. Borosage | Robert L. Borosage is a founder of the Campaign for America's Future

WASHINGTON — Washington's conventional wisdom has Republicans salivating at the political parallels between Watergate and Whitewater. With President Richard M. Nixon's disgrace, Democrats benefited as demoralized GOP voters stayed home in the 1974 elections. Two years later, Jimmy Carter, an unknown, one-term governor from Georgia, defeated the Republican incumbent, Gerald R. Ford, largely on the promise, "I will never lie to you." With President Bill Clinton's disgrace, Republicans gloat about consolidating their hold on Congress and running the 2000 presidential race with a squeaky-clean candidate promising, "I will never embarrass you."

Ironically, a serious comparison of Watergate and Whitewater, of Nixon and Clinton, suggests something far different. The stark contrasts should sober Republicans in the short term, and the striking parallels will hearten Democrats--or at least progressives--in the longer run.

Republicans shouldn't break out the champagne yet. Clinton's hapless attempts to cover up his tawdry private affair pale in comparison to Nixon's abuse of his public powers. And the partisan witch hunt being staged by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), with its shameless public debasing of the president, contrasts starkly with the bipartisan gravitas of the Watergate proceedings. No amount of puffery can turn Monica S. Lewinsky into John W. Dean III, or the maniacal zealotry of Starr into the judicious independence of Leon Jaworski. Unlike the Watergate proceedings, which slowly united much of the country against Nixon, GOP excesses may well be creating a backlash that could ignite Democrats and sour independents against them.

At the same time, the more interesting historical parallels between the Nixon and Clinton eras will hearten progressives more than conservatives. For just as Nixon's resignation delayed, but did not forestall, the conservative triumph, Clinton's disgrace may delay, but need not preclude, a progressive resurgence.

Nixon was elected at the end of a liberal era of reform. He tacked to the prevailing winds, expanding Medicare, creating the Environmental Protection Agency, recognizing China, pushing detente and cutting the defense budget. The more he donned liberal garb, the more liberals despised him--and rightly so. With his conservative theme of law and order, jeremiads about "acid, amnesty and abortion," patriotic appeals to the "silent majority" and clever race-baiting politics, he was providing the message and strategy for a conservative resurgence.

But Nixon's election didn't end the long liberal era, nor did his disgrace save it. What brought it to a close was the global economic crisis generated by the inflation unleashed by the Vietnam War that discredited the liberal economics of the postwar era.

Nixon didn't foresee this and was victimized by it. He declared, "We are all Keynesians," and imposed wage and price controls to keep inflation under check while goosing the economy for his reelection. His popularity plummeted not with the Watergate revelations but as inflation unhinged prosperity. His resignation came when it was apparent that he could not govern effectively at a time of significant economic turmoil.

Clinton, a liberal president at the end of the conservative era, writhes in a similar bind. He has borrowed liberally from conservatives, from V-chips to school uniforms, balancing the budget to embracing free trade. The more he has stolen conservatives' themes, the more they despise him--and rightly so. For they understand that Clinton is mapping the way for a progressive resurgence through his populist appeal to middle-class working people, his call for investing in children and education, his focus on health care and his stealthy redistribution policies (raising taxes on the wealthy while giving the working poor a break).

But just as Clinton's election didn't begin a progressive era, his disgrace need not condemn it. What is bringing the conservative era to a close is the global economic crisis that represents the bankruptcy of corporate-defined order.

Like Nixon, Clinton didn't anticipate the collapse and may be a casualty of it. He announced, "The era of big government is over," just as speculators were running amok and dramatic government intervention became imperative.

Now, Clinton's great peril is that confidence in his presidency will plummet as the deflation unleashed by the tides of speculative capital washes up on these shores. In the end, Clinton's survival may depend on whether he can sustain growth at home and revive it abroad. This is likely to require abandoning the embrace of conservative, International Monetary Fund-Wall Street economics and beginning the process of taming the global marketplace.

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