Clare Boothe Luce once observed that in the popular memory a president gets a single sentence: Lincoln freed the slaves, Truman dropped the atomic bomb, Ford pardoned Nixon. What will be Bill Clinton's sentence?
Will he be remembered as the second president ever to be impeached? The chief of state who couldn't keep his zipper up? The former husband of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY)? It is too soon to tell for sure, of course, but the question must torment him, particularly as his term winds down and the chances of enhancing his legacy diminish. The Comeback Kid needs to pull off the ultimate comeback. But how can he redeem himself in the eyes of history?
Judging from his earnest (and early) efforts to ensure that Vice President Al Gore will succeed him and that the Democrats will recapture the House of Representatives, Clinton seems to be betting that he can craft a positive legacy for himself by showing his party how to win big by remaking itself in his centrist image.
If the scheme works, Clinton would become the new Moses of the Democratic Party, leading his wayward people back to the center of American politics where they could become the majority party again. Although he could not enter the Promised Land himself, he could take credit for leading his followers out of the wilderness of the Reagan-Bush years and right up to the edge of that bridge he's built to the 21st century, which Gore and Dick Gephardt would then cross over in triumph.
In 1992, he ran as a "New Democrat," calling for campaign finance reform, health-care reform, strong economic growth, and a middle-class tax cut. But he promptly lost his way. In short order, Clinton kowtowed toward his party's left wing in Congress, replaced the tax cut with a wildly unpopular middle-class tax increase, suffered the humiliating defeat of his (and Hillary's) health-care plan, and endured in 1994 the election of a Republican Congress for the first time in 40 years. The opposite of Democratic realignment seemed to have taken place.
Adversity is a great teacher, however, and Clinton quickly returned to the "New Democrat" themes he had campaigned on in 1992. Newt Gingrich's unpopularity was a great ally, doubtless. Yet Clinton steadily and deliberately moved his presidency and his 1996 campaign back towards the center. He embraced a balanced budget, modest middle-class tax cuts, school uniforms, the v-chip, and even GOP-sponsored welfare reform. At the same time, he used his veto power to block Republicans' Medicare reforms and to maneuver the Congress into suffering the blame for two government shutdowns.
After Clinton won re-election handily and the Republicans lost congressional seats in both 1996 and 1998, however, Clinton has been energized. Buoyed by Gingrich's decline and fall, and delighted by the sudden revival of center-left parties in Europe, Clinton is confident again that history is on his side. To prove it to others (and perhaps even to himself), he must now show that his victories were not the result of mere tactical adjustments "triangulation," as his consultant Dick Morris dubbed it, driven by desperate self-interest but that a principle was at work, justifying and harmonizing his many concessions.
Accordingly, his political redemption depends on his persuading Democrats to rally around not Clinton but Clintonism. The big question is: Is there such a thing?
Clinton thinks so, and he talks about it more and more. He calls it "the Third Way." Students of his rhetoric may be forgiven for thinking that he means there is a right way, a wrong way and Bill Clinton's way, somehow not quite right, and yet not wrong or definitely illegal, either.
Call it "inappropriate." No, by the Third Way he means a way beyond the "false choices" of old-style liberalism and conservatism; a pragmatic, open-ended synthesis of the best of left- and right-wing thought, in the service of three basic principles: "opportunity, responsibility, community."
The unofficial custodian of Third Way thinking is the Democratic Leadership Council, an impressive group of moderate (and at one time, mostly Southern) Democrats and communitarian intellectuals who have kept the sacred fire burning for more than a decade. Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, was chairman for a while, and Gore has been active, too. The group hails its principles at work in what DLC president Al From terms "the resurgence of center-left, progressive centrist parties all around the globe," pointing particularly to Tony Blair's "New Labour" in Britain. From is proud of Clinton, whom he calls "the leader of the New Democrat movement in this country and the single person most responsible for the modernization of progressive politics all over the world."
But can Third Way principles bear such world-historical weight? When Clinton endorses "opportunity," he means that it's possible to have capitalism and social justice at the same time. At most, this is a shift in emphasis away from redistributionist policies and toward other palliatives, like government investments in job education and training. His defense of "opportunity" has not resulted in noticeable decreases in government regulation nor in significant tax cuts.
The most striking thing about Clinton's cozying up to the free market, however, is that it allows him in good conscience to consort with rich people. From rich liberals he charms millions and millions of dollars of political contributions every month, and has a good time doing it. He is especially fond of plutocrats in the more creative and forward-looking industries least entangled with labor unions e.g., Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Not that the left's critique of capitalism has vanished utterly from his mind, however, for he reserves a special obloquy for the tobacco and gun industries. These industries are greedy, exploitative and inhumane, thus concentrating in themselves all the sins once attributed to capitalism or Big Business in general.
When lauding "responsibility" Clinton points to the welfare-reform measure he signed, which did in fact require welfare recipients to go to work and exercise other forms of self-discipline. The discovery that work is good for the soul came late to him, but at least it came. But the notion that welfare rights must be accompanied by responsibilities, although a return to common sense, is also a way of dodging other fundamental questions about entitlement rights, particularly those depicted not as forms of temporary assistance (like welfare) but as permanent systems of social insurance (like Social Security).
The final part of the Third Way, "community," signifies something quite dramatic for Clinton. As he sees it, at the heart of the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and of the mass shootings in Littleton, Colo. lies the same problem, the same violation of "community," caused by "fear of the Other."
Individualism is impossible or unhealthy, and so we must all live in groups or communities, although we should be free to shift our memberships from one group to another, according to the president. What's crucial, however, is that we not disparage or look down upon the groups to which we don't belong.
The Serbs looked down upon the Kosovars. The Columbine High School athletes may have looked askance at the Trench Coat Mafia. From such psychic wounds may come awful crimes. So "community" turns out to mean, among other things, a right to equal concern and respect among cultural, racial and other kinds of groups.
This is impossible to achieve, because one reason for joining or identifying with a group is to distinguish yourself from members of other groups. How can you be a Democrat without looking askance at Republicans? The only social entity able to recognize the worth of all groups without belonging to any of them is the State, and so this formula for community ends up empowering the government, which gets to regulate every group. Thus Clinton's calls for community turn into programs of national service and paid volunteerism.
There is very little then that's new or distinctive in the Third Way, which is far from being a public philosophy beyond liberalism and conservatism. It is more like liberalism with a conservative face. Clintonism collapses back into Clinton, into an utterly empirical and sentimental politician futilely in quest of grand historical meaning, in quest, even, of a one-sentence description of his presidency that will preserve his self-respect.