An American View

What Clinton should do in his second term

The President craves consensus and personal acceptance, but takes wild chances with his career and reputation

Fred Bruning November 18 1996
An American View

What Clinton should do in his second term

The President craves consensus and personal acceptance, but takes wild chances with his career and reputation

Fred Bruning November 18 1996

What Clinton should do in his second term

An American View

Fred Bruning

The President craves consensus and personal acceptance, but takes wild chances with his career and reputation

The U.S. presidential election of 1996 was the civic equivalent of a slumber party. Bill Clinton, the incumbent, clobbered Republican challenger Bob Dole—a victory of the familiar over the obscure. great issues were raised, no memorable debates conducted, no vision of national purpose revealed. Clinton, 50, spread his feel-good gospel and hailed the new century. Dole, 73, scowled and summoned the past. Passion, drama, complexity, substance—all were among the missing. If the election had been a Broadway production, it would have folded during previews.

Proven again was the axiom that function follows form—that, in big-time politics, appearances count more than ideas and that expediency is Job 1. Dole, the former senator, thought Americans would embrace a conservative candidate from Kansas who vowed to cut taxes, get government off our backs, and return America to the earnest, hardworking patriots who never ask for anything. That was Dole’s mistake. He forgot that each voter constitutes a small, special-interest group. Getting rid of Clinton was one thing. Getting rid of government was another.

Clinton was smarter. He knew that candidates had to pay lip-service to the snarly crowd by taking swipes at welfare recipients and undocumented immigrants, but that the country was in no mood to toss the federal bureaucracy. The President, an Arkansas homeboy at heart, is brilliant at sensing public sentiment and emerges as the quintessential politician for the ’90s. Here is a fellow who knows how to give voters what voters think they want—a trick that passes for leadership these days.

And what voters crave is aid and comfort. Going it alone is most certainly not on the agenda. “We’ve got a bridge to build, and I’m ready if you are,” Clinton told supporters after becoming the first Democratic chief executive to be re-elected in half a century. GOP critics howled the only bridge Clinton built was the one leading to their camp—that, effectively, the President succeeded as a mainline Republican. Exactly the case. Maybe Dole should have tried the same thing.

Instead of complaining, Republican chiefs had better check their analysis of the way Americans relate to government. Just two years ago, House Speaker Newt Gingrich claimed victory for rightist forces and did so with such stupendous, vindictive glee that he alienated precisely the people he was trying to recruit. So throaty was Gingrich in his denunciation of Washington that ordinary Americans began to worry that the Capitol soon would be rehabbed into condominiums, and federal agencies turned over to franchise operators. Need information on a student loan? Have a Medicare inquiry? Want advice from the Veterans Administration? Speak to the next available sales representative. All credit cards accepted.

No thanks, said the American people and Gingrich soon vanished from the front page. More to the point, he disappeared from the campaign. Republican candidates ducked Gingrich like he was the repo man while Democratic attack ads linked opponents to the Speaker whenever possible. Republicans managed to keep control of the House and Senate—an achievement that largely reflects the preference of U.S. voters for the status quo. A GOP majority allows Gingrich to continue as Speaker. The question is, who’s listening?

As for Bill Clinton—who knows? Maybe the guy is such a compulsive political operator that he will persist in the Candidate Mode through his second term. Maybe he is so accustomed to making shrewd moves that he will flip-flop forever, sounding one day like Franklin Roosevelt, the next like Ronald Reagan. As the GOP points out, Clinton got re-elected by assuring Americans he was not their father’s kind of Democrat and decrying “big government.” To prove it, he signed a welfare “reform” bill that might even have given Reagan pause. Then Clinton said he would try to fix harsher aspects of the law in his second term. Republican? Democrat? What?

Here is a fellow who craves consensus and personal acceptance but takes wild chances with his career and reputation—the Gennifer Flowers fiasco, the brainless Whitewater land scheme, scandals involving dismissal of the White House travel staff and improper use of FBI files, and, most recently, charges that Clinton officials accepted improper campaign contributions from foreign sources. Some folks like to live on the edge, and the President may be more of a bungee-jumper than most. There is something endearing, of course, about having a daredevil in the Oval Office, and Clinton may have charmed voters with his everymanliness— the main reason why Republican assaults on the President’s character proved futile. As usual, Dole didn’t get it: roguish behavior rarely topples a politician. On these shores, boredom is the one unforgivable crime.

But, in politics and private life, Clinton must do better. Republicans would like nothing more than to harass him for another term with charges of scandal and ineptitude. It’s the game losers play. Clinton should quit presenting the opposition such an easy target—and that means more than cutting down on corned beef sandwiches and shoesized burritos. The President should return to his Democratic roots. He should stress soul, not strategy. A relatively young man with years of productivity before him, Clinton finally needs to get straight with himself. The time has come for the whiz Idd in the White House to decide what he wants to be when he grows up.

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.