1996 and beyond

Conservatives sucker punched Clinton in order to make the public arena dangerous and repulsive.

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Why should you care whether Bill Clinton fights back? He’s shown little loyalty to his warmest supporters. Many of his wounds are self-inflicted. From the get-go, Mother Jones predicted that his strategy of compromising in order to reduce conflict would actually embolden the opposition. Readers of this magazine shouldn’t be surprised that Clinton has abandoned his campaign promises and taken a public beating.

If Clinton won’t stand up for his principles, then what does he stand for? Unfortunately, more than himself. His enemies want to destroy not just this president but all hope for progressive change. And they’re winning. The powerful are on the side of self-centered cynicism. They’re battering Clinton so that the populace will distrust its hopes for guaranteed health care, improved schools, a more highly skilled work force, a renovated infrastructure, a less violent future.

Americans who feel that their ideas aren’t popular rarely persist. James Bryce, a Scots-Irishman who first visited the United States in 1870, wrote: “Thus out of the mingled feelings that the multitude will prevail, and that the multitude, because it will prevail, must be right, there grows a self-distrust, a despondency, a disposition to fall in line . . . a loss of resisting power, a diminished sense of personal responsibility, and of the duty to battle for one’s own opinions.” Rather than suffer isolation, Americans give up their opinions. In a democracy, apathy feels preferable to rejection.

Why does today’s loss of resisting power among progressives, their diminishing sense of personal responsibility, feel so dangerous? It’s not as if the country’s situation is that dire. We’re not at war. Even though the Reagan-era wage disparities remain, the economy is expanding. We have a safety net, however tattered. Compared to Russia or China, let alone Rwanda or Cuba, we live in paradise. But it’s precisely the willingness to show leadership, to seize our chance to reverse decline, narrow gaps, and prepare for predictable crises that is being assailed.

Clinton has invited this assault. Like many children of alcoholics, Clinton was a premature adult. He made peace. Although he felt primal abandonment, he developed his identity not by publicly expressing his rage, but by using it to drive forward, mediating ever-higher levels of conflict. Clinton found out in his first elections that while ordinary people vote, big money can cripple your best efforts, then stigmatize you as inept. That’s why he followed Fed Chairman Greenspan’s advice: Clinton believed that if he harnessed the deficit and presided over slow growth, he’d be seen as a successful mediator between Democrats and Republicans, between voters and elites.

Except conservative elites don’t want mediation or compromise. They’re bloodying Clinton so that no other politician will ever make serious demands of them. Simultaneously they want to smother in its cradle 21st-century consciousness–the realization that we are in a struggle not to dominate each other, but to evolve a sustainable way of living on the planet. In its stead, they’ll revive social Darwinism, the belief that those suffering deserve their fate and that efforts on behalf of the common good weaken character.

By slashing at the Clintons’ character, conservatives make the public arena personally dangerous and aesthetically repulsive. This is a plus for the cynics of the right who believe that common efforts are inherently corrupting. They prefer a state where people tend privately to their fears.

America’s middle class certainly has fears to tend, and none more threatening than the fear of falling out of the middle class. Our culture advertises that effortless consumption is a sign of internal grace. Without leadership, many of us are willing to shortchange even our children’s future in the scramble to hold on to our tenuous position.

Unlike George Bush, Clinton isn’t clueless about the middle class. By saying that he’d direct the government resources to invest for the future, by promising that he’d reward those who work hard and play by the rules, Clinton appealed to the largest constituency available to a reformer. But he hasn’t enacted meaningful change or projected a vision of a better America worth a continuing fight.

As I write, Clinton is juggling advisers. His campaign team wants him to revive populist themes; his Washington consuls are urging him to forge bipartisan initiatives. He’s likely to tack in both directions, showing incremental progress and a lack of conviction. For all his activity, our indefatigable leader is asleep at the moral wheel.

Ironically, Ron the Napper was more alert about the national craving for leadership based upon visible principles. Simple beliefs are more compelling than frenzied salesmanship, clear enemies more politically defining than bipartisan trading partners. When Reagan replaced the air traffic controllers, he broke the back of labor and accomplished more (destruction) in his presidency than Clinton has in hundreds of meetings and dozens of bills.

Given Republican victories in this November’s elections, Clinton will be disposed to bargain with social conservatives and financial elites, who will encourage compromise only to sucker punch Clinton again. Meanwhile his supporters, to ward off despondency, may become actively apathetic. Clinton would then risk a rejection in 1996 greater than McGovern’s in 1972.

Apathy is a pathetic defense against the second coming of Reaganism–when we lack conviction, the worst fill the vacuum with passionate intensity. Our–and the man from Hope’s–best hope is to confront the obstructionists in Congress. The Democratic Party was born out of the conviction that populist leaders must continually battle plutocrats happy with rules rigged on their behalf. Reclaim this heritage and we will rout those robbing our future.


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