CHICAGO -- When Nature was dishing out the ability to blush, Bill Clinton did not hold out his plate, so he will come to his party's convention here unencumbered by embarrassment about the disparity between the presidency he promised and the one he has produced. If he is re-elected, that will be largely because the country believes, accurately and contentedly, that he has been notably inconsequential and that a second term will be even less consequential than the first.
Four years ago his campaign featured the promise of a finishing filigree on the Great Society -- universal health care. A Congress nearing completion of almost four decades under Democratic control would surely enact a Democratic president's request for the largest new entitlement in six decades, since Social Security. The Democratic Party's happy days would be here again because it would have returned to the Rooseveltian and Johnsonian recipe of programs benefiting the broad middle class, not just the needy.
However, Mr. Clinton's extravagant health-care proposal catalyzed the 1994 elections that cost Democrats control of Congress. And today he is campaigning unblushingly as, he insists, the proud partner of the Republican-controlled Congress in repeal of a New Deal entitlement, Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
Acknowledging the power of fanaticism during the French Revolution, Mirabeau said of Robespierre, "He will go far, for he believes all he says." Proving the power of cynicism in our time, Mr. Clinton has gone far toward re-election because he seems to believe nothing he says. And look what is being said about him.
The media have lately made much of Republican strife concerning abortion policy -- policy that has not been altered by either a Republican-controlled Congress or a Supreme Court that includes seven justices appointed by Republican presidents. However, concerning the immediately practical question of welfare, Mr. Clinton accepts legislation that has provoked one of his party's most distinguished members, Pat Moynihan, to an acidity unmatched in Republican arguments.
"The current batch [of liberals] in the White House," says Senator Moynihan, "now busily assuring us they were against this [the end of the federal entitlement to welfare] all along, are simply lying, albeit they probably don't know when they are lying. They have only the flimsiest grasp of social reality; thinking all things doable and equally undoable." He praises the opposition to the welfare bill by the Catholic bishops, "who admittedly have an easier task with matters of this sort. When principles are at issue, they simply look them up. Too many liberals, alas, simply make them up."
Mr. Moynihan may not be right about the recklessness of the welfare legislation that broadly devolves responsibilities to states and constitutes the most important such devolution of federal power since the end of Reconstruction. But he is certainly saying what many more timid Democrats are thinking.
They are thinking: Did we go through the barren years (when Democrats lost five of six presidential elections, and but for a few thousand votes in 1976 would have lost six in a row) for this? Of course their only victory in that period was won by a Southern governor whose campaign promise of "a government as good as the American people" was an oblique endorsement of the view that government was not good.
Just two years ago President Clinton was saying there was a health-care "crisis" that justified the largest peacetime expansion of government in American history. Today he talks more about school uniforms than about that "crisis," thereby calling to mind an old axiom: Some people are in politics because they want to do something, others because they want to be something. Ronald Reagan, who had an adult life before being drawn to politics by the power of his convictions, was one of the former. Bill Clinton, who went almost directly from student life to political life, is one of the latter.
If he, on the evening of November 5, delivers a victory speech, it will be for many in his party a concession speech, too, implicitly conceding the end of the aspirations that define them as Democrats.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 8/26/96