Since I come not to bury Bill Clinton but to praise him (well, a little), I had better begin by signing the requisite loyalty oath. So: I hereby affirm my belief that he has besmirched the office of the presidency, that he has been guilty of numerous criminal offenses, and that he deserved to be convicted by the Senate after being impeached by the House.
Having got all that out of my system, I can now proceed with a clear conscience to explain why I still have something good to say for Clinton. But I can do so only by sketching in a bit of historical background.
In 1960, the ideas and attitudes of the New Left and its less narrowly political cousin the counterculture (which together were called the Movement) had been confined to a tiny minority of intellectuals. Now, to certain conservatives, there was not a "dime's worth of difference" between these radicals and the liberals. So far as they could tell, the radicals of the early '60s were still what the Communists had affected to be in the mid-'30s: "liberals in a hurry."
But this was not at all how the '60s radicals themselves assessed the political scene. To them, the liberals were not laggard allies. They were the main obstacle to the drastic and thoroughgoing changes in areas like race, poverty, and education that the radicals considered necessary if the "American Dream" (as they defined it) was to fulfill its promise. So, too, it was the liberal establishment-as represented first by Kennedy and then by Johnson-that stood in the way of "ending the Cold War."
Never will I get over my amazement at the speed with which this point of view spread from the margin to the mainstream. Within five years, the radical perspective had become the conventional wisdom in the universities, first among the students, then among the converts they made among their craven professors, and even in the end among the administrators who had at first offered a bit of resistance. By 1968, the major media too began toppling like the "dominoes" that were notoriously supposed to fall in Southeast Asia if South Vietnam were to go Communist. Finally the last domino collapsed when the supposedly all-powerful liberal establishment in control of the Democratic party caved in to the radical insurgency.
Only yesterday, the establishment had dismissed the radicals as politically insignificant and had even made fun of them as-in the words of an advisor to Lyndon Johnson-"a bunch of Upper West Side Jacobins." But no longer. Traumatized by the race riots that had broken out in many major American cities, and then by the Tet offensive, which was misinterpreted as a North Vietnamese victory, the liberals had lost their complacent confidence that they knew how to solve America's problems.
With that loss of confidence came a failure of nerve as well. When Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection in 1968, the previously incredible notion of a radical takeover of the Democratic party suddenly became plausible. But it was still a bit too early, and Senator Eugene McCarthy, the candidate behind whom the insurgents mobilized, was not the right man for the job. (In his heart McCarthy knew he was wrong.)
Senator George McGovern was another matter. In his heart lay dormant but alive much the same view of American foreign policy he had held when lining up behind the Communist-controlled candidacy of Henry Wallace for president in 1948. To be sure, neither Wallace nor McGovern was a Communist. But both imagined that the Cold War had been started by the United States under Truman, and that if it had been up to the Soviet Union, there would have been a continuation of the warm relations it had enjoyed with the United States in the war against Hitler. Since this was precisely how the radicals of the '60s-like the Communists before them-also read the historical record, McGovern was a natural for them. With a little help from the changes in the nominating process he himself had pushed through, it was behind him that the radicals captured the Democratic party in 1972.
Meanwhile, in the course of its triumphant march through the liberal institutions of America, the radicalism of the early '60s had mutated into a different species of political and cultural animal. Instead of working "within the system" to realize its vision of a perfect America, the Movement had first indicted and then convicted and was now pronouncing a death sentence on the country for failing to live up to the radicals' bizarre and increasingly elastic conception of utopia.
This might have been more frightening than it was if not for the fact that McGovern was defeated as roundly by Richard Nixon as Barry Goldwater had been by Lyndon Johnson. Still, it was frightening enough. For one thing, even after McGovern's repudiation at the polls, the apparatchiks behind him were still in control of the Democratic party. What this spelled was an abandonment of support for the policy of containing Soviet expansion which the Democrats had followed pretty consistently since the promulgation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947-and just at the moment when the Soviets were launching the greatest military buildup in peacetime history.
Secondly, to the despair of those old-style anti-Communist Democrats who continued to believe in containment, the Republicans, who had a longstanding habit of speaking loudly and carrying a small stick, were still not stepping into the breach. On the contrary, they were mounting through detente what the old-style Democrats considered precisely the wrong response to the Soviet arms buildup.
McGovern and McGovernism triumph
McGovern's campaign slogan was "Come Home, America," which everyone interpreted as a call for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, but was also understood to be hinting more broadly at a new isolationism. This isolationist appeal could not have been more alien to the recent spirit of the Democratic party. Hence the anti-McGovern Democrats who now looked to Senators Henry M. ("Scoop") Jackson and Hubert H. Humphrey for leadership seized upon it as an opening for their own campaign to get their party back onto the Truman-Kennedy-Johnson track.
Playing on McGovern's slogan, they issued a statement entitled "Come Home, Democrats," which served as the basis of a new organization called the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM). The statement summarized the principles of the postwar Democratic party, both in foreign policy and in domestic affairs. In addition to reaffirming confidence in the strategy of containment and in the need for a strong defense, it included an attack on the new concept of preferential treatment for accredited minorities which McGovern and his people had embraced as a veritably sacred principle. Preferential treatment, it declared, was just as alien to traditional Democratic ideals-in this case, that of equality of opportunity-as McGovern's isolationism. The huge defeat he had suffered was blamed on his departure from those traditions which embodied the point of view of the great mass of Democrats. And indeed, large numbers of disgusted Democrats had sat on their hands on Election Day, while millions of others who had never pulled the Republican lever before voted for Nixon.
Yet for whatever reason, CDM did not succeed in providing these Democrats with the "home" out of which they had been driven by the McGovernites. The organization survived for a fairly long stretch, but it never took off, and its influence was for all practical purposes rendered nil when the decidedly uncharismatic Scoop Jackson (of whom it was once said that if he gave a Roosevelt-type "fireside chat," the fire would go out) lost to Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primaries of 1976.
Thanks to Watergate, the Democrats (even with the McGovernites still calling the shots behind the scenes) were able to stage a comeback, with Carter winning in the general election against Gerald Ford.
Carter was not a McGovernite himself. In fact, he had been a hawk on Vietnam. But as president, he still fell so completely into the clutches of the apparatchiks that he could make a speech denouncing "the intellectual and moral poverty" of the policy of containment that had once been his party's chief pride and glory in foreign affairs.
Soon, however, another amazing thing happened. In 1976, when Scoop Jackson failed to get a firm grip on the old Democratic banner, it fell back in the dust into which George McGovern had flung it. In 1979, no other Democrat (not even Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whom I and many others expected to pick up where Jackson had left off) even bothered to stoop down for it. But then, out of nowhere as it seemed, a former Democrat turned Republican came flying by on his mount, bent over, snatched up this tattered ensign, and waved it proudly in the air. Millions of other disillusioned Democrats like himself (many of the founders of CDM among them) rallied around the old colors, and Ronald Reagan rode them all the way to the White House in 1980.
I am not suggesting that Reagan beat Carter because he was the better Democrat. Obviously he won because the conservatism he had espoused since the disastrous Goldwater campaign had become far more acceptable to many more voters than it had been in 1964. But Reagan would not have scored so large a victory if Nixon's "silent majority" in 1972 had not become a new and even more numerous breed now known as Reagan Democrats. And when we consider how uncannily similar Reagan's campaign themes-a tax cut to stimulate the economy, an arms buildup to prevent the Soviets from forging ahead-were to those of John F. Kennedy in 1960, it is no wonder that he made such deep inroads into traditionally Democratic ethnic groups.
As for the Democratic party itself, refusing to learn the lesson Reagan had just taught, it continued on its losing ways. Not that it was stupid enough to go on nominating clones of George McGovern.
Candidates like Walter Mondale (1984) and Michael Dukakis (1988) were no more to the McGovernite manner born than Jimmy Carter had been. But the grip of the Left on the party was still so tight that no one could capture the Democratic nomination for president who did not kowtow to it.
A de-McGovernizing wind blows
Since, however, politicians want to win elections as well as nominations, a rebellion not unlike the old CDM got started under the aegis of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). An obscure governor of a small southern state named Bill Clinton, who was a McGovernite to the manner born but who had figured out that this was a formula for defeat, became the head of the DLC. In due course, presenting himself as a centrist, he graduated to the presidency of the United States.
By now, the Cold War was over, and foreign policy for the first time in decades was taking second place to domestic affairs. But the minute the newly elected Bill Clinton turned his wonkish attention to domestic concerns, he blithely stripped off the centrist mask and revealed the face of the old Adam living on below (with an even more fervent McGovernite Eve standing beside him in the shape of Hillary Rodham Clinton). The DLC understandably felt like so many of the many women in Clinton's life: seduced, used, and then abandoned.
At first, this brazen deceiver, having achieved power by posing as a centrist, pushed hard to the left. But to his evident astonishment, the country pushed back even harder, forcing him to abandon efforts like his campaign to abolish the ban on gays in the military. To top it all off, the old Adam's Eve was driven out of her own little paradise by the flaming sword of public indignation at her high-handed bid to dictate the revamping of the country's entire health-care system.
Not content with having administered these rebuffs, the electorate in 1994 delivered what looked for a spell like a knockout blow to the Clinton administration. Clinton was so stunned by the Republican sweep at every level of government that he beat a prudential retreat. Hillary receded-or was rudely shoved-into the background, practically relegated to baking cookies and other such activities for which she had once expressed an arrogant feminist contempt. For his part, Bill went searching for the mask he had cast aside, fished it out of storage, and quickly put it back on.
Now the old Adam was born yet again as a centrist, and this time it was the turn of the McGovernite liberals to feel betrayed. In January 1996, Clinton, in his State of the Union address, made what may yet turn out to be his most enduring pronouncement as president: "The era of big government is over." It was a breathtaking renunciation of the central tenet not just of McGovernism but of contemporary liberalism as a whole.
Yet Clinton was doing more here than throwing a rhetorical bone to an electorate that had so loudly endorsed this very pronouncement, first by killing off his wife's attempt to prolong the era of big government and make it even bigger, and then by handing both houses of Congress and most of the local jurisdictions to the Republicans. And not just any Republicans: Republicans who professed their faith in the "devolution" of power from Washington to the states and the cities.
Bowing to the voters in action as well as speech, Clinton went on to sign a welfare-reform bill that did precisely what they said they wanted in this area. He also talked tough on crime, muting the standard liberal emphasis on the "root causes" (poverty, joblessness, racism) that had served as an excuse for violence, especially among minority groups, and stressing in its place the need for more cops. In contrast to welfare reform, which was actually put into practice, we have yet to see anywhere near the 100,000 additional cops Clinton promised to put on the streets. Even so, the new rhetoric in itself was a significant step away from the McGovernite worldview.
Furthermore, convinced as I am that the words spoken by presidents count even when they are not made flesh, I would argue that the slogan Clinton adopted on affirmative action-"mend it, don't end it"-amounted to another step away from McGovernism. Certainly no such words would ever have been uttered by a McGovernite true believer, in whose eyes there is nothing about this policy in need of mending except the minds of its critics. For that matter, not all that many Republicans are willing even now to state flat out that there is something, let alone everything, wrong with affirmative action.
All this did not quite make Clinton, as some disgruntled Democrats complained, the most conservative member of their party to sit in the White House since Grover Cleveland. But even if we factor in Clinton's intransigently liberal stance on abortion, we have to balance it with his retreat on other social issues, like gays in the military and same-sex marriage. Then too there is the deference he has paid to the importance of religious faith. No doubt all those photographs of Clinton leaving church with Bible in hand are only for show. Yet the rule of La Rochefoucauld applies here no less than it does to every hypocritical act: Clinton's ostentatious religiosity is an example of the homage vice pays to virtue; and the very need to pay the homage inevitably constitutes an acknowledgment of the power of the virtue.
On the whole, then, Clinton most assuredly stood to the right of where his party had been since 1972. If I were a liberal Democrat who had cut his teeth on the McGovern campaign, I would regard him as a traitor to the cause. And yet, so fearful have these people grown of Hillary's delusional right-wing conspiracy-a term that is their euphemism for the fascists they visualize hiding under every altar-that in 1996 they never even mounted a primary challenge against him from the left. (Neither of Clinton's immediate Democratic predecessors, Carter and Johnson, was given the same free ride.)
Nor did a single Democrat, not even the most liberal, desert Clinton when he was impeached. How could they when they saw him as their only defense against the malign forces waiting to rob them of their rights (beginning with abortion) and also, by turning the whole of America into a new Salem, to take away all their fun? Just as obsessive anti-Semites imagine that the Jews run the world, so these liberals wildly exaggerate the power of the "religious Right." And it is thanks to their paranoia that Clinton has survived.
Clinton at war
When we shift from domestic to foreign affairs, the transformation Clinton has wrought in the Democratic party becomes even more striking. The late Meg Greenfield of the Washington Post once drily observed that it was impossible to tell whether, short of an invasion of San Diego, the Democrats would ever be willing to use military force. As for me, I would have bet large sums of money when Clinton was elected in 1992 that, even if foreign troops landed in San Diego on his watch, he would more likely send Jesse Jackson to negotiate their withdrawal than do the unthinkable by dropping bombs or firing missiles at them. I would also have bet that the same outcome would a fortiori result from a crisis abroad. In the meantime, as Jackson was negotiating, whether at home or abroad, Clinton would busy himself with schemes for "saving Social Security" or designing school uniforms.
We now know that I would have lost this bet, though it would not have been a reckless one to make. After all, not only had Clinton been a draft dodger during the Vietnam War, but he had admitted to a loathing for the military in general. He was also at his most McGovernite in concentrating on domestic rather than foreign affairs. Finally, Clinton himself, and many others, interpreted his victory in 1992 over George Bush, who had supposedly paid too much attention to foreign affairs, as a mandate to concentrate mainly on our domestic problems. In line with all this, I expected the Clinton administration to follow through on the full implication of the McGovernite injunction to "come home" by throwing his arms in a great bear hug around an isolationist foreign policy.
Here, I, like a good many others, was in for another surprise. I am, to put it mildly, no admirer of Madeleine Albright, whom Clinton chose to be his second secretary of state, but whatever else she may or may not be, she is no isolationist. If anything, she might be characterized as a reckless Wilsonian interventionist, always ready to use American force to make the world safe for democracy (or, to adopt currently more fashionable parlance, human rights). And Clinton has been with her at almost every turn.
The most spectacular example is Kosovo. I applauded that intervention while criticizing the decision to confine ourselves to high-altitude bombing and to rule out the introduction of ground troops. I also thought that the entire operation was stupidly executed. The Kosovar Albanians, the very people it was designed to help, became its victims, and then the citizens of Belgrade were punished while Slobodan Milosevic, who was the truly guilty party, got away scot-free and remained in power.
Yet it is only fair to add that the guilty parties in the Gulf War (Saddam Hussein), the Vietnam War (Ho Chi Minh), and the Korean War (Kim Il Sung) all remained in power too. In bringing this up, the point I am trying to make is that, in Kosovo, Clinton was following in the bipartisan footsteps of predecessors from Harry Truman to George Bush by implementing the doctrine of limited war. This doctrine came out of the Korean War which, like every other real war the United States has since fought (and I use the word "real" to exclude such trivial military operations as Grenada and Haiti), had as its objective not victory-for which, as General Douglas MacArthur so famously proclaimed, there is no substitute-but a restoration of the status quo ante.
Now, this may have been the right and prudential course in Korea, where there was a reasonable fear that the pursuit of victory (that is, driving the Communists out of the North and unifying the country under, it was hoped, a democratic regime in the South) might lead to a nuclear confrontation. The same justification could have been offered for our policy in Vietnam, though there we ultimately failed to secure even the limited objective we had succeeded in achieving in Korea.
In the Korean War sense, we also succeeded in the Gulf War. But with the Cold War already over in 1991, there was no nuclear danger to worry about. Why then was it deemed enough merely to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait? If we were going to send half-a-million American troops halfway around the world, surely we should have aimed at a more conclusive outcome. As a passionate supporter of that operation, I thought so then, and I still do-all the more as I sit watching Saddam Hussein make a mockery of the inspections that were supposed to deprive him of the weapons of mass destruction he is without a doubt still building and stockpiling.
The war Bill Clinton fought in Kosovo, then, was even less an act of coitus interruptus than the war George Bush fought in the Gulf. Clinton deserves to be blamed for a host of misjudgments (beginning with the expectation that Milosevic would give in after two or three days of bombing). But the buck stops there. It was not Clinton who originated the idea of limited war.
Neither was it Clinton who first conceived of using superior American firepower to minimize our own casualties at the expense of the enemy's (including, if militarily necessary or unavoidable, its civilian population). The members of the antiwar movement to which he himself belonged during Vietnam, for example, charged that "the American way of war" was immoral because-I am quoting now from the much admired political philosopher Michael Walzer-it relied on "massive firepower . . . that shifts the burden of war from the soldier . . . to the civilian population."
There was some truth in this. Yet far from being considered immoral by the American military, it was held up as a special glory. Unlike the Chinese or the Russians, the Americans rejected the tactic of deploying "human waves" of expendable troops in battle. Instead, American commanders were trained to do everything they could to minimize their own casualties, and, to that end, never to hesitate in exploiting any and all technological advantages they enjoyed.
Clinton carried this tradition about as far as it could go in Kosovo, but he remained solidly within it. He also emulated Bush in keeping alive the tradition of limited war even after the conditions out of which it had developed no longer existed. Some, I know, imagined (dementedly, in my judgment) that Kosovo presented the danger of triggering World War III. (Reportedly this was what a British general told the American commander there, General Wesley Clark, might happen if he tried to seize the local airport from the Russian troops who had grabbed it; and Clark's wish to do just that is why he was later fired.) But others-more plausibly, if still wrongly-contend that the new conditions of the post-Cold War world provide a substitute justification for limited war.
According to this latter view, the American people would not have tolerated Bush's intervention in the Gulf or Clinton's in Kosovo unless the two operations had international or multilateral cover-the U.N. in the former and NATO in the latter. But no such cover, the argument continues, could have been obtained by any more ambitious aims than were pursued. To this it is added that the same imperative of minimizing American casualties that is binding on the military also ruled out going to Baghdad at the end of the Gulf War, or sending ground troops into Kosovo.
Perhaps. But the main reason Bush called off the Gulf War when he did was to minimize not American but Iraqi casualties. It was, in other words, to spare our tender sensibilities from the sight on CNN of the elite Iraqi Republican Guard being slaughtered as it was hustling back home on the road to Baghdad.
As for American casualties, there is a difference between keeping them to a minimum and keeping them to zero. No one has yet proved that the American people would have demanded that we cut and run even if the opponents of taking on Saddam Hussein had proved right about those thousands of "body bags" they so confidently predicted would be shipped home from the Gulf if we went to war there. Nor can we be sure that going to Baghdad would have resulted in as many American casualties as the hold-back brigade within the Bush administration has always maintained. A similar observation can be made about ground troops in Kosovo.
A party restored?
But again, having stipulated that Clinton and his team used force badly and made a lot of stupid mistakes, I want to underline what is to my mind a much more important point: namely, that as president, this former draft-dodging McGovernite has repeatedly been willing both to leave "home" and to employ military force, and that in doing so he has carried the Democratic party with him.
Cheering from the sidelines, moreover, have been many of the same liberals who were most vituperative in their opposition both to Vietnam in particular and to anything and everything military in general. Let the New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis stand in for the rest of his unlovely tribe. During Vietnam, Lewis denounced this country as the terror of the earth, but lately his only criticism of Clinton has been for not taking up arms soon enough in Bosnia or fighting hard enough in Kosovo.
It has been observed a hundred times by now that the only reason the liberals (and presumably Clinton himself) have backed the use of force in these places is that they cannot detect any American interests that are being served there. So long as we are engaged in "humanitarian intervention," or are fighting for human rights, they are as gung-ho as can be. But the minute they spot an advantage to the United States-as they did in the oil fields of the Middle East during the debates over whether we should go to war against Saddam Hussein-the war becomes impure and unworthy of their support.
This too I am perfectly ready to stipulate, but with three qualifications. First, I think the United States does have an interest in the stability of the European continent, and that the liberals are mistaken in their view that our intervention in the Balkans is purely humanitarian. But second, I would be less than honest if I neglected to confess that I myself consider it no bad thing for the United States to assert through its bombs that sovereignty should no longer be presumed to include the right of a ruler to butcher his own people. And third, I also recognize that in his newfound readiness to make war as well as love, Clinton (along with his liberal amen corner) is caught up in a worldwide trend among parties of the Left. Even former pacifists like those now in power in Germany joined the NATO operation in Kosovo; and if they have been less bellicose than Clinton, the Labor prime minister Tony Blair of England has been more.
Be all that as it may, the fact remains that Bill Clinton, both in domestic and foreign affairs, has at long last done what those who founded the Coalition for a Democratic Majority more than a quarter-of-a-century ago were unable to bring about: He has all but de-McGovernized the Democratic party. Of course, the process is still a goodly distance from completion. In the domestic arena, to cite only one piece of unfinished business, completion would require a return to the ideal of equality of opportunity rather than equality of results, and this is almost certainly not going to happen. But then again, judging from the statements of George W. Bush, preferential treatment for accredited minorities has no better chance of being abolished under the Republicans either-not any time soon.
In foreign policy, full de-McGovernization would entail rebuilding instead of gutting the military forces whose actual deployment the very process of de-McGovernization itself has already legitimized. I suspect that this, as opposed to what can be confidently predicted with regard to affirmative action, will actually occur. Probably it will start under a Republican president, but de-McGovernization has by now gone so far in this field that beefing up the military will not encounter anywhere near the amount of Democratic resistance it would have provoked in the past. (Any serious effort to build a defense against missiles, however, is likely to be another story.)
Two final questions. First, will the Democrats remain de-McGovernized after Clinton leaves office? My guess is that the answer is yes, whether the party's candidate in 2000 turns out to be Al Gore or Bill Bradley. Of course, if there were a serious economic crisis, the Democrats would quickly forget that "the era of big government is over." They would start calling loudly for its return (not that it has actually disappeared under Clinton-which, however, to say it yet again, does not mean that the words themselves were of no account).
But even if the Democrats were to identify themselves once more with big government, they would not be re-McGovernizing their party. No more than Clinton invented the concept of limited war did George McGovern make the Democrats the party of big government. On this issue (unlike the Cold War), the McGovernites were not abandoning the central tradition of their party, and were no different from Jackson or Humphrey or any of their other internal opponents. In other words, in maintaining that Clinton has de-McGovernized the Democrats, I am not saying that he has turned them into a simulacrum of the Republican Right. No matter how many Republican ideas he may have co-opted and forced Democrats to swallow, they remain Democrats-and so does he-on issues