AMERICAN VOTERS have rewarded President Clinton with a second term largely because he moved his Democratic Party from left to center at the same time a Republican Congress lurched too far to the right.
This was an election in which the public's desire for pragmatism and moderation prevailed over those engaged in ideological wars. But passions on the political extremes run deep, and they will be heard from again and again.
Mr. Clinton's task in the next four years is to stand firm against important elements that promoted his campaign not because they have a special regard for him but because they pursue their own agenda. Organized labor will want to cash in its chips. So will tort lawyers, women's groups, African American leaders, environmentalists and, especially, liberals in powerful positions in Congress.
If Mr. Clinton is sincere in his assertion that "the era of big government is over" -- and his sincerity is often in question -- he will continue to govern cautiously as he did in 1995 and 1996 rather than heedlessly as he did in 1993 and 1994. The country has already had two distinct Clinton presidencies; if there is to be a third or even a fourth, punctuated by GOP advances in the 1998 mid-term congressional races, it should be marked by a centrism that flows not from political calculation but from conviction. For the first time in 23 years, he will not be running for any office anywhere.
Where Mr. Clinton found common cause with the voters was in his conservative handling of the federal budget and his search for a government that was helpful but not intrusive. By cutting the deficit, he helped keep inflation in check and the economy in good shape. By giving up a massive overhaul of the health care system in favor of a bipartisan effort to change a failed welfare system, he encouraged taunts that he was acting almost like a Republican. By sending troops to Bosnia while acceding to an increased military budget, he softened resentments about his draft-avoidance past.
As a politician with a flair for ambiguity, an appropriate stance for the first Democrat to be elected to a second term since Franklin D. Roosevelt, his course was not always clear. His campaign promises were so minimal that he winds up without a mandate. Still hanging over him are probes into his personal conduct and public ethics. Ross Perot, bearing down on campaign corruption, predicts "Watergate II."
Bill Clinton is a president eager for a place in history but chafing that the times (and perhaps his own personality) seem to be denying him greatness. He should beware of seeking challenges, foreign and domestic, where none exist.
In domestic policy, Mr. Clinton will have the ironic task of controlling and limiting major Democratic achievements since the New Deal -- especially Social Security and Medicare. This could cause him the kind of grief that so often bedevils second-term presidents. On the world scene, he will have to defend free trade and internationalism while acting unilaterally in true super-power fashion. Popular sentiment will permit a projection of military force only if there are few casualties -- a course would-be adversaries punch into their calculations.
While Mr. Clinton's skills as a perpetual campaigner are almost legendary, he owes much of his resounding victory to the fecklessness of a Republican Party too much in the hands of causists. The Gingrich revolutionaries, the Christian right, the National Rifle Association, the pro-life movement, the supply-siders, the protectionists, the super-nationalists all got their licks in early. They effectively destroyed the candidacy of former Sen. Robert J. Dole.
Not that Mr. Dole was free of blame. A man of towering reputation on Capitol Hill, a conservative in the old sense, a consensus-builder distrusted by GOP activists, he allowed himself to be shoved rightward by an aggressive class of House GOP freshmen. His advocacy of a 15 percent cut in income tax rates was so gross a departure from his fiscal principles that a nation conditioned to hate deficits simply did not believe he could balance the budget.
"If you want me to be Reagan, I'll be Reagan," he assured the GOP faithful. What he should have said is, "I've been Bob Dole all my life and will remain so." That would not have pleased the party's zealots, but it would have informed the country at large that a right-of-center alternative to Mr. Clinton was available.
As the Republican Party assesses its defeat, it should resist its ideologues and realize its resources lie not in Washington but in state houses where competent GOP governors are dealing with real-life problems. Their role will grow, and produce leaders of national stature, as circumstances induce Mr. Clinton to keep shifting power to the states.
For now, continuity is the watchword. All citizens have a stake in a successful second Clinton term and in a Congress that gets things done. There again will come a time for the vigorous partisanship that infuses our democracy. But for now, the need is to get on with the nation's business.
Pub Date: 11/06/96