“Nothing in life is so exhilarating,” Winston Churchill wrote in his memoir of the Boer War, “as to be shot at without result.” Surely this accounts for the ebullience of Congressional Democrats as they greeted their impeached President for his State of the Union address on January 19.
> While the Senate trial of the President drones on, Washington’s Democrats are dreaming about 2000. The conventional wisdom is that the Republican right has handed Democrats the keys to the kingdom. With Republicans committing ritual suicide in pursuit of the President, the economy humming and the President’s support soaring, the thinking goes, Democrats could win it all in 2000: Keep the presidency, take back the House and possibly take back the Senate (thirteen of nineteen Republican senators up for re-election represent states that Clinton won in 1996). All that is required to profit from Republican disarray is unity–behind the President’s mall-tested agenda and Al Gore’s odds-on succession. Progressives are enjoined to bite their tongues, hold their fire and wait.
This analysis is grounded more in hope than history. Republicans are in disarray, but the assumptions about the context, consensus and campaign are rose-colored, to say the least. And the conservative cast of the core Clinton agenda gives progressives little choice but to challenge the direction of the party and the country. What follows is a brief unpacking of the conventional wisdom and a discussion of the political choices facing progressives.
Monica, the Sting
It is surely true that Clinton’s reactionary inquisitors have a rather kinky capacity for self-flagellation. Republicans haven’t been held in such low regard by the American people since the impeachment of Richard Nixon. Polls suggest that as many as one-fourth of core Republican voters–particularly the young, the libertarian, the more affluent–are appalled by what Gingrich called the “cannibals” of the Republican right.
Republicans bear other scars as well. They’re paying a growing political price for being the party of white male sanctuary, centered in the South. And one reason they fell for the Monica sting was the absence of anything other than scandal to sell. Clinton stole their staples: balanced budget; welfare repeal; more prisons, police and executions. Democrats are far more trusted on kitchen-table issues: schools, jobs, Social Security, minimum wage, healthcare. And the perennial Republican hole card, tax cuts, has been trumped twice: by Medicare in 1996 and Social Security in 1998. The signature programs of the Great Society and the New Deal–the largest domestic social programs–turned out to be more important to voters than the desire to get some of their money back.
But Republican turmoil has not yet translated into Democratic strength. In 1992, when Clinton gained the presidency, Democrats controlled the House 258 to 176, the Senate 57 to 43 and the nation’s governorships 30 to 18. As the new Congress convenes, Republicans control the House 223 to 211, the Senate 55 to 45 and the nation’s statehouses 31 to 17. Republicans lost House seats but won more total votes than Democrats in 1998, in an election that featured the lowest voter turnout since 1818 outside the South. However exhilarating, escaping extinction is a long way from triumph.