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Can Clintonism Survive Without Clinton?

President's political skills united the Democrats, but bequest to Gore could be a mixed blessing. The test of his legacy will be in November.


Barely five months from now, Bill Clinton's presidency will pass into history, his all-too-human struggles into the bloodless stuff of museum exhibits and academic essays.

But Monday night, the question of Clinton's legacy, its magnitude and meaning, was anything but academic for the president--or for Al Gore, his would-be successor.

As Clinton's passionate defense of his record suggested, this election stands as a test not only of Gore's electability but also of Clintonism's durability. And as the president sought to make clear, the voters' choice is not only who will move into his Oval Office but also whether the unfinished policy agenda of his two terms will be pushed forward in a third.

"This is a big election with great consequences," Clinton said in his speech. "Choose wisely."

This November's results, in both the presidential and congressional elections, will begin to determine how Democrats finally assess Clinton's impact. Can Clinton bequeath his magic to Gore, his less dazzling apprentice? Or is the Democratic resurrection merely the transient product of one brilliant politician's gifts--a brief interruption in an era of Republican dominance?

From any angle, Clinton's bequest to Gore and his party looms as a mixed blessing. Clinton leaves Gore a roaring economy and a long list of positive social trends that the president highlighted in his speech Monday night. But he also leaves an ethical cloud over his--and Gore's--administration that provided the central target for Republicans at their convention earlier this month.

Politically, the picture is just as mixed. Only a decade ago, the Democratic Party appeared incapable of electing a president and was trapped in a clogged outside lane of the American mainstream. But Clinton, who began 1992 as a longshot, showed his party a path back to the Oval Office, becoming the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win two full terms.

He did it by moving his positions relentlessly toward the center without ever quite alienating his base, a feat made possible by generous doses of tactical brilliance and rhetorical skill. But on the ledger's other side, missteps early in his presidency helped produce the 1994 Republican landslide that cost the Democrats control of Congress and saw the GOP control most statehouses as well.

Clinton Overcame a Strong GOP Advantage

No matter what happens this fall, it's difficult to overstate the scale of Clinton's achievement in restoring the Democrats' capacity to compete. Before Clinton's victory in 1992, Republicans had won five of the six previous presidential elections, establishing an advantage so intimidating that political scientists spoke of a GOP "lock" on the electoral college.

Indeed, in the three elections of the 1980s, Democratic nominees won, on average, only 58 electoral votes per election against Ronald Reagan and George Bush. That means Democrats captured less than 11% of the total electoral votes available--the smallest share the party had won in any three election sequences since the founding of the modern party system in 1828.

"We were marginalized in the public eye as a presidential party," says Walter F. Mondale, who lost 49 states to Reagan as the Democratic presidential nominee in 1984. "What Clinton did is an enormous accomplishment. I myself even wondered if we'd do it again."

Clinton recaptured the White House largely by retaking the center. His "new Democratic" message was explicitly intended to reach centrist swing voters who had abandoned the Democratic Party as too liberal during the 1980s. For the most part, the formula worked. While holding the Democratic base, Clinton became the first Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 to carry a plurality of independents; he also minimized or erased the GOP advantage among groups such as white men and married women that had been central to the Republican dominance of the White House during the 1970s and 1980s.

At the core of Clinton's agenda was a belief that he could reconcile liberal and conservative ideas previously considered incompatible. From the start, he argued that social policy should both provide opportunity (the historic liberal priority) and demand personal responsibility (that conservatives wanted). And with increasing force after Republicans seized Congress in 1994, Clinton maintained that the activist government that liberals supported was compatible with the fiscal discipline that conservatives demanded.

Through his first term, Clinton faced enormous resistance from the left as he walked those twin tightropes. House liberals condemned his call for a balanced budget in 1995, and fully half of House Democrats voted against the welfare reform bill he signed into law in 1996.

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