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National Perspective | WASHINGTON OUTLOOK

Clinton's 'New Democrat' Spawned Its Rival: the 'Newtered' Republican

President Clinton integrated into Democratic thinking traditionally conservative ideas like demanding personal responsibility and fiscal discipline. In turn, George W. Bush is grafting traditionally liberal ideas like expanding opportunity onto the conservative priority of limited government. Each side now acknowledges the importance of borrowing from the other--a change reflecting the influence of Clinton's insistence that the political debate had been imprisoned in "false choices."

August 14, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

Forget tonight's valedictory address and celebratory video at the Democratic convention. The real testament to President Clinton's impact on the past decade's political wars came at the GOP gathering earlier this month.

Sure, Republican speakers lashed Clinton as a moral reprobate whose administration had "coasted" through prosperity. But the message from the podium inadvertently testified to Clinton's success at changing the terms of the competition between the parties. That was as evident in what the speakers didn't say as what they did.

Sometimes the hardest thing in politics (or life, for that matter) is to envision the path not taken. But imagine for a moment how different this year's GOP convention might have looked if Clinton had not broken the momentum of the conservative ascendancy after the 1994 election gave Republicans control of Congress.

When they swept into power with Newt Gingrich at the lead, the "revolutionary" generation of young conservatives dreamed of closing the Education Department (among other Cabinet offices), repealing the ban on assault weapons, replacing the progressive income tax with a single-rate flat tax and lighting a bonfire under Federal Registers thick with environmental regulations.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) set the goal of shrinking the size of the federal government by half over a generation. Much like their liberal counterparts in the 1930s and 1960s, conservatives on Capitol Hill buzzed with the belief that history was rolling in their direction; they envisioned a short sprint to the presidency in 1996 and then a long march to unwind a century of increasing Washington influence over American life.

And, in fact, conservatives had plenty of reason for optimism. Almost always in the past century, a party that lost as many congressional seats as the Democrats did in 1994 also surrendered the White House two years later. (You can look it up: Congressional blowouts in 1890, 1894, 1910, 1930, 1958, 1966 and 1974 all foreshadowed changes in White House control.) If Republicans had consolidated control of government by adding the White House to their congressional majority in 1996, even many of their most expansive ambitions might have tumbled within reach.

Instead, the GOP revolution hit the wall during the titanic budget fight of 1995. Clinton outmaneuvered Republicans by embracing a balanced budget himself but denouncing their means of achieving it as a threat to popular programs led by Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment. When public opinion sided with Clinton during the government shutdowns in the winter of 1995-96, the die was cast: He surged into the lead over Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole and then coasted to reelection. Clinton and Congress finally reached agreement on balancing the budget in 1997, and even though Republicans won some of their favored tax cuts, Democrats achieved increased spending on party priorities such as education and health care for uninsured children.

Clinton's triumphs in the budget fight and the 1996 election didn't open an era of Democratic dominance: Republicans still control Congress, and they have blocked most of the president's second-term priorities. But Clinton's twin victories changed the parameters of the political debate.

Clinton's recovery shook the conviction among many conservatives that there was a natural majority for a hard-core anti-government agenda. That forced thoughtful Republicans to look for an equivalent to Clinton's "new Democrat" message--an approach that would balance the GOP's traditional appeals with moderate notes aimed at swing voters who had come to view the party as excessively ideological. Among the direct beneficiaries of that dynamic was George W. Bush--if Gingrich's revolutionary conservatism had not cratered, there might have been no demand for Bush's compassionate conservatism.

The point isn't that Bush is a closet new Democrat or even a neutered (Newtered?) Republican. On issues from abortion to taxes and Social Security, Bush stands squarely in the conservative mainstream. But Bush's approach also bears the mark of Clinton's progress in redefining the center. No one at the GOP convention promised to shutter the Education Department; instead they promised new federal efforts to ensure that "no child is left behind." No one pledged to repeal the assault weapon ban. The few speakers who denounced government in the ideological terms common in 1995 were allowed on the stage only in the afternoon hours, when most Americans were safely tuned to "Days of Our Lives."

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