BEFORE Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, conventional wisdom held that the Democrats faced a crisis. After 12 years of GOP White House rule and defeat in five of the previous six presidential elections, the party had seemingly ceased to become competitive at the presidential level.
Peter Brown's 1991 book, "Minority Party: Why Democrats Face Defeat in 1992 and Beyond," was one of several arguing the thesis. White working-class and suburban middle-class voters, according to the conventional wisdom, were abandoning the party in droves because of its excessively liberal positions on crime, welfare, foreign policy and "values" issues.
How could the Democrats become politically competitive again when what the party once stood for -- an expanding federal role -- was proving less popular? The party was deeply divided over how and whether it should evolve.
On one side was a group of centrist reformers clustered around the Democratic Leadership Council. On the other was a rump of liberal traditionalists, including labor unions and minority groups who viewed DLC positions as treasonable to their basic beliefs.
Clinton has faced the problems of his party -- at least at the presidential level -- methodically, systematically and effectively. To a remarkable degree, he has succeeded in making once seemingly incurable ailments vanish, while giving back to the Democrats the kind of well-oiled national political machine they had before 1968.
His first task was pulling thorns from the party paw. Asked which party did a better job handling crime, voters chose the GOP by a margin of 18 points in 1991.
Clinton reversed this pattern by jettisoning Dukakis-era positions such as opposition to the death penalty while exploiting the one aspect of the issue where public opinion diverges from the dictates of GOP interest-group politics: gun control.
Clinton doesn't have much of a basis for claiming that his policies have reduced crime rates during the past several years, but he has put away the charge that Democrats don't like punishing criminals. Recent surveys show the parties polling essentially even on the issue.
What's most remarkable is not that Clinton has taken crime and other reliable wedge issues away from Republicans. It's that he has done so while unifying a party that was divided over these issues. In 1992, both the New Democrats and the traditionalists supported Clinton in the belief that he was, at heart, one of them.
Perhaps inevitably, both sides were disappointed in the way he governed. For much of his first term, Clinton was out of favor with the center or the left of his party, or both at the same time.
In his first two years, the DLC saw Clinton as swinging left with his health-care plan and tax increase. In his second two years, liberals griped about Clinton's accession to a balanced budget and welfare reform. But, by the 1996 election, Clinton had again forged an alliance.
Many people wonder how Clinton has been able to appease liberal constituencies while flouting their principles -- confronting unions with NAFTA, poor blacks with welfare reform, teachers with charter schools, and feminists with Paula Jones.
The simplest explanation is that he has restored a model last seen among Democrats during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, when those joining his coalition got to experience victory and taste power. Clinton has created a sense of partisan pride powerful enough to quell the narcissism of small differences.
This thrill of putting up a good fight against a common enemy -- a method used by presidents as different as Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt -- has overcome ideological and sometimes moral scruples. Democratic activists have taken the advice that Clinton gave a group of them years ago: "When someone is beating you over the head with a hammer ... take out a meat cleaver and cut off their hand."
It hasn't always been pretty, or even, perhaps, ethical. Since 1992, Clinton's style has been to dispense with qualms and play politics as ruthlessly and relentlessly as the GOP. In the 1980s, Reagan and George Bush were charged with relying on polling to an unprecedented degree. Clinton has gone them one better, market-testing his rhetoric and then deploying it with a numbing, repetitive precision.
He answered the slick fabrications of Reagan's Michael Deaver with the more subtle and compelling mythography of Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. He dug deeper for dirt on his opponents, devised more effective 30-second attack ads and showed great ingenuity in exploiting loopholes in the campaign finance law.
Bringing in big money
The biggest change is financial. In the 1980s, the GOP advantage in fund-raising was as high as 5 to 1. In the 1992 election cycle, Clinton and Ron Brown, then chairman of the Democratic National Committee, whittled it to 3 to 2. In 1996, Clinton and Harold Ickes nearly caught up in the chief corporate category, so-called soft money, bringing in $123 million to the GOP's $138 million.
They did this with willful blindness about the sources of these funds. Clinton's attitude is that, because the rules aren't enforced and Republicans are preventing him from creating a level playing field, he is free to fight as dirty as they do.
Since the Lewinsky scandal, various sectors of the ideologically disgruntled Democratic "base" -- those who might be thought to be less than keen about Clinton's small-bore, poll-driven, corporate-friendly centrism -- have been the president's staunchest supporters.
Black leaders disappointed with Clinton over matters ranging from the balanced budget to welfare reform have flocked to his defense. Among blacks, Clinton's approval rating remains as high as Reagan's was among conservative Republicans.
This is a testament in part to the real feeling that Clinton evinces over racial issues, as well as to black sensitivity to prosecutorial unfairness and sympathy for victims of persecution. But it also speaks to a different kind of party, one in which members are willing to settle for half a loaf.
Republicans, on the other hand, face the problem of a radical base that has lost its willingness to postpone gratification. The adage that Democrats look for heretics while Republicans seek converts has ceased to apply.
To a remarkable degree, the parties have switched places. Clinton's political formula is almost universally regarded as a winning one for Democrats. All of the serious contenders for the 2000 Democratic nomination have indicated their desire to continue in the same basic direction.
Al Gore, Bill Bradley and John Kerry have all positioned themselves as Clinton Democrats. The potential contenders who do not fit this profile -- such as Jesse Jackson -- are running as protest candidates. Clinton's "Third Way" formula has an international following as well. From a historical viewpoint, the question is whether a Democratic successor will be able to carry off Clinton's balancing act within the party.
There is a worrisome analogy in the GOP, where Reagan became a successful two-term president by appeasing the religious right while reaching out to moderate voters. Bush's efforts to sustain this equilibrium made the Republican right truculent to the point of self-destructiveness. The GOP remains badly divided, looking back to the Reagan years as an irretrievable golden age.
Clinton's successor, almost certain to lack his political gifts and perhaps his ruthlessness, faces an enormous challenge in maintaining the Clinton coalition.
This article is adapted from a longer version Jacob Weisberg wrote for The New York Times Magazine.
Pub Date: 01/24/99