The Washington Times
President Clinton has been a truly polarizing figure in American politics, and lots of people (including me) were indulging the hope that after he left Washington this month, the partisan temperature of Washington would decline. During his tenure in office, the amount of energy consumed in attacking him and defending him on cable chat shows alone would have been sufficient to fuel the politics of a mid-sized European country for generations. Surely, this level of animosity could not be sustained indefinitely. Surely, a flame burning this bright eventually consumes itself.
Well, maybe not. First of all, Democrats have some mighty hard feelings for Republicans about the 2000 election. Republicans, meanwhile, regard themselves as having busted up a robbery attempt by Al Gore and his lawyers. Each side seems to believe one thing absolutely, namely, that the other is completely unreasonable. This is hardly a recipe for comity.
Yet this is not the real reason the partisan temperature may not decline after the departure of Mr. Clinton. The real reason – which, like it or not, everybody is going to have to confront sooner or later -is that Mr. Clinton isn’t going anywhere. As Maureen Dowd was perhaps first to note, it looks like Mr. Clinton has every intention of remaining close to the red-hot center of the action in American politics for the foreseeable future -and there is nothing anybody, Republican or Democrat, can do to move him out of it.
We are not talking about anything so fanciful as the repeal of the 22nd Amendment. (And for those of you who may have forgotten, it doesn’t just restrict a president to two consecutive terms; the Constitution says no person shall be elected to the office of the president more than twice, period. Mr. Clinton can’t run again. Though come to think of it, he could get to be president again by becoming vice president, then assuming the presidency for the balance of a term uncompleted by the original Oval Office occupant due to death, resignation, removal or incapacity. Hmm.)
Nor is this a matter of a paranoiac reading of Mr. Clinton’s quip during the Florida recount struggle: “If those two boys can’t make up their minds, well, then I’ll just stay.” Nor of his musing that he could have beaten George W. Bush, if only the Constitution let him. Let it be stipulated that he likes the job – but that he knows he doesn’t get to keep it past Jan. 20.
The Clinton difference is this: Ex-presidents usually have only a political past. Mr. Clinton has a future.
Not as mayor of New York or senator from Arkansas, among other notions currently being bandied about. Rather, as one of the very biggest players in the Democratic party, and not only that but one with an obvious horse in a future bid for the White House: the junior senator from New York and new superstar of American politics, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In the current Washington political environment, Mr. Clinton would of course be the party’s most important fund-raiser. And it is perhaps hard to imagine him observing a discreet ex-presidential silence about the policies of his successor. He was inevitably going to maintain a higher profile. But in the advancement of the political career of his wife, Mr. Clinton has what most ex-presidents have not had: an ongoing political project.
The Clintons are both, of course, political creatures to the core. And there has always been a sense in which his advancement fulfilled her ambitions as well.
But her political ambitions were hardly coterminous with his ability to run for office – and vice versa. As his political career was once hers, so hers is now his. “Buy one, get one free,” as she famously said a long time and another world ago, in 1992. Put another way, it is unlikely that as Hillary Clinton ponders when the moment is right to make her move, Mr. Clinton is going to be baking cookies.
I (among others) have often wondered about which 2000 electoral outcome was uppermost on Mr. Clinton’s mind from the point of view of enhancing his legacy: Would it be the elevation of his hand-picked successor, Vice-President Gore, to the White House? Or the return of a Democratic majority to Congress, thus implicitly repudiating the GOP effort to remove him?
Oh, the paucity of my own imagination such musing reveals. Of course, Mr. Clinton’s top political priority for 2000, perhaps if necessary to the exclusion of all others, was neither a Democrat in the White House nor a Democratic Congress. All along, it was Mrs. Clinton’s election to the Senate.
Legacy? Mr. Clinton is not ready to look back, not if he doesn’t have to – certainly not, as now, when the possibility of a bright political future beckons.