The Washington Times
Five days, 15 states, 17 campaign rallies: George W. Bush’s near-frenetic schedule in the run-up to the midterm election offers a portrait of a politician who understands that a legacy has two elements: the substantive policy achievements, of course, but also the purely political achievements. Is the president’s party better off for his time at the helm?
Bill Clinton won two presidential elections, the first Democrat to do so since FDR. On policy, after an initial lurch to the left upon his arrival in Washington accompanied by a Congress in firm Democratic control, he steered the national party toward the center. His biggest domestic achievements are likely the end of the welfare entitlement and a federal budget in surplus, against a backdrop of strong economic growth in his second term [tainted to some degree by corporate chicanery resulting from a fevered stock market].
Foreign policy is more complicated. Was Nero fiddling while Rome burned? To his lasting credit, Mr. Clinton continued of the strategy of trade liberalization that has contributed so much to American and global prosperity in the postwar period, as well as the consolidation of “Europe whole and free” through the enlargement of the NATO alliance.
But political achievement is another story. For starters, Democrats lost the 40-year grip they had on the House of Representatives on his watch, losing the Senate in 1994 as well. Although Republicans were well-positioned to make gains that year for a variety of reasons, the tsunami size of their victory was certainly attributable in part to gross political miscalculation by the White House. Mr. Clinton nevertheless managed to avert any serious effort within his party to turn on him in anger, successfully portraying himself instead as the only bulwark Democrats had against complete defeat.
For the first time in a generation, the Democratic Party of the 1990s became focused on the presidency, not Congress. Here, Mr. Clinton paved the way with his “New Democrat” centrism. But this, too, came at a price. The party’s left wing was much put-off by the centrist agenda, paving the way for Ralph Nader’s protest Green Party run for president in 2000, which many Democrats believe cost Al Gore the election.
Then there were the Clinton scandals and the first presidential impeachment since Andrew Johnson’s. Many Gore loyalists insist that this aspect of Mr. Clinton’s legacy was the real source of Mr. Gore’s defeat. I think this overstates the case, but it is true that Mr. Gore never managed a graceful extraction of the administration’s policy legacy from the context of Mr. Clinton’s personal behavior.
In sum, the political component of Mr. Clinton’s legacy is a very strange animal. On one hand, serious electoral losses. On the other, a centrist formula that enables Democrats to fight Republicans to a draw nationally. On the third hand, brewing left-wing discontent within the party, which has yet to resolve itself.
This is the context in which Mr. Bush operates. I don’t pretend to have the White House political operation’s crystal ball, but it seems pretty clear what Mr. Bush is trying to do.
First of all, not losing in the midterm is good for the White House in its own right, especially given the historical trend running the other way. In addition, if Democrats managed to hold the Senate and take the House back, it strikes me as highly likely that the party’s internal divisions would be suppressed. Victory does that. A united Democratic front is something Mr. Bush would like not to face.
The contrapositive is also true, and cannot be lost on Mr. Bush: Defeat exacerbates internal division. Democrats have had it with losing, and it looks like many are about ready to turn against a leadership that is failing to deliver. A Democratic Party focused on an internal power struggle is to Mr. Bush’s advantage.
Now, one might think that a “Democratic Revolution” presenting a newly invigorated challenge to Mr. Bush would be a danger to him. Could be, but note that revolutionary sentiment comes chiefly from the party’s left. Republicans like running against the left. It’s Democrats’ centrism that gives them fits.
Beyond that, Mr. Bush is clearly trolling for new Republican voters. Well he might: The old Reagan constituency is a spent political force. Republicans need to add voters, and one potentially rich source consists of people who would be inclined to vote Republican but for the party’s harder conservative edge and its Southern public face. It may seem strange that it falls to a former Texas governor to try to sand down that edge. But that is exactly what Mr. Bush has been up to.
If Mr. Bush can gain for Republicans the centrist constituency to which Democrats have been appealing while retaining the party’s conservative base, he’ll leave the political legacy he wants. It’s by no means an easy task, but it’s achievable with hard work.