Clinton-bashing is a tempting sport, as indicated by the phenomenal popularity of Rush Limbaugh. But like everything that is too easy, it has its pitfalls. It will be a fruitless enterprise if it merely succeeds in tearing down Clinton to make way for a lackluster Republican administration only marginally better on the critical issues.
Clinton’s band of lowlifes does provide a good target—his awful wife, his zoo of appointees (Trachtenberg, Shalala, Elders, Bentsen, Christopher, ad infinitum). Yet these indicate not so much the evil of Clinton or of the Democratic Party as what American society and the American political system have become. The Republican Party, after all, gave us Justices Brennan, Blackmun, Thomas, and Souter; “Condom” Koop; Packwood; Frohnmeyer; proscription of serious Christians from policy-making; double prosecution of the L.A. cops; NAFTA; Somalia; and “no new taxes.” The distinction is nothing to get excited about.
Despite his public and private shortcomings, it is not apparent to me that Clinton is of a quality significantly below the general level of American leadership. He is more intelligent than any Republican of recent history except Nixon. There is no reason to believe he is less sincere or competent or more prone to lust and greed than many other politicians.
My friend Murray Rothbard has complained that Clinton is “an Arkansas peckerwood in the White House.” Would that it were so. That would be cause for rejoicing. But he is not: he is a typical Southern liberal—i.e., a horrible opportunist but also generally less dangerous than a real liberal. It is a peculiar feature of the mainstream American public consciousness that an evil and bumbling Southerner seems even more evil and bumbling than his mainstream counterpart. Thus Clinton, like Carter, makes an easy target for demagoguery. Even more peculiarly, reflecting the ambiguity and love-hate with which the South has always been regarded, a Southerner also seems more decent, which made it possible for Carter and Clinton to be elected when a real liberal could not.
I have never been able to get exercised about the harm Clinton could do. More opportunist than George Bush? Dumber than Jack Kemp? Meaner than Bill Bennett? Clinton seems to have a core of authenticity, measured by the fact that he has made no effort to change his native accent (unlike Albert Gore, Jr., who is a museum-quality specimen of the Southern rich boy who went away to prep school in the East and came back sounding and acting like a complete phony).
I have always thought that given Clinton’s naturally cautious and compromising style, and his election as a minority candidate (something he owes entirely to Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot and not to the Republican Party), he would not be able to accomplish anything very significant—despite his execrable company and symbolism—and would therefore be less dangerous than an effective George Bush.
At least the Democrats, unlike the Republicans, actually try to represent their constituency, which is what they are supposed to do in a democracy. This seems to me a moral advantage over the Republican Party, which has been repeatedly elected to represent the middle class, limited government, and traditional values, to none of which it has any honest commitment. It has basically perpetrated a fraud, thus promoting a cynicism and despair among decent Americans that is much more destructive than any watered-down socialist schemes Clinton may be able to get through.
The Republican Party is not and never has been able to meet a challenge such as our times present. The best it can do is call out Dan Quayle to defend the family and promote semisocialist schemes of “empowerment.” Conceived in greed, hypocrisy, and fanaticism, the Republican Party has never performed any positive role, except tacitly. It serves two functions in the American body politic: defending the interests of American business, which it docs incompetently (in regard to legitimate small business, though competently with respect to the illegitimate demands of big business), and ratifying and consolidating previous Democratic programs (thus, the Kemp-Bennett empowerment program provides a final prop and validation for Lyndon Johnson’s failed Great Society). There are a number of good young Republicans in Congress. But, witness my point, it has been the young New Democrats who have taken the effective lead on budget reduction, anti-NAFTA, and immigration control—a lead that Republicans by their nature are incapable of taking.
If we care for the fate of our dispirited and decaying Republic, if we want to mobilize the good qualities of the American character and not just reap temporary benefit from the natural public revulsion to Clintonism, then our first order of business must be to find a vehicle other than the Grand Old Party.