EVEN AS the Senate convenes to decide whether the Clinton presidency will be summarily consigned to the dustbin of history, we see a growing restiveness within the Clinton presidency -- and among its defenders -- to define its legacy.
The present clamor is no stranger than the many that have preceded it in Clintonland. Last year's State of the Union address was delivered, recall, just as the sex scandal broke, and network pundits were already predicting the president's downfall.
So Mr. Clinton took his spot at the head of Congress, rummaged through the administration's fitful policy initiatives, came up with the comforting news that the union's state had rarely been better -- and his performance was greeted as yet another awesome media recovery.
Now we have had a new State of the Union, sporting a new proposal to prop up the fortunes of the Social Security system with independent retirement accounts partly funded by the government, together with a fistful of lesser policy schemes.
What seems strewn before us, in other words, is something less than the makings of a proud historical legacy. Nevertheless, Jacob Weisberg, contributing editor of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, gamely stepped forward in a recent magazine cover story to claim a resoundingly positive entry for the Clinton legacy in the history books.
Of course, Mr. Weisberg had to make certain allowances as to the changed nature of what history might demand of presidents. People expect less from government, after all, now that the Cold War has ended, and the welfare state of the New Deal still inspires widespread rancor even as it crumbles at our feet.
A love affair
Mr. Weisberg stakes the heart of Mr. Clinton's legacy, not surprisingly, on the person of Mr. Clinton himself, who continues to command remarkably widespread public devotion, to judge by the polls. For all its technocratic, micro-managed trappings, Clintonism reduces, in Mr. Weisberg's view, to a stirring populist love affair between an skilled communicator and the ordinary person.
It's this near-mystical communion with the common folk that places Mr. Clinton -- "an idiosyncratic populist" -- in the hallowed company of the office's other great tribunes of ordinary Americans, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson. But even here Mr. Weisberg notes in a revealingly breathless clause that Mr. Clinton's "bond with the public was based less on economic unfairness than was Jackson's or Roosevelt's."
I'll say. In fact, as Tuesday's address again demonstrated, the genius of Mr. Clinton's alleged populism proceeds from the deliberate, campaign-style manipulation of the imagery of economic fairness while something else entirely is being arranged.
Consider, in this regard, the increases in the minimum wage that Mr. Clinton signed into law in 1996. As John Judis reported at the time in the New Republic, Mr. Clinton pushed through Congress a long-overdue, largely nominal increase in living standards.
When it became law, the increased minimum wage was affixed to a boatload of corporate tax breaks and trade giveaways -- aimed principally at high-profile campaign donors, and quite likely to harm the standing of U.S. workers over the long haul.
Nevertheless, a president keen to marshal the traditional labor-Democratic base he had so casually thrown over in the debate on the North American Free Trade Agreement and the health-care debacle could now claim credit for giving ordinary working Americans a leg up in an election year.
Still, the perception persists, as Mr. Weisberg puts it, that Mr. Clinton "will fight to the last breath for the people who elected him."
Mr. Clinton's anemic pluralities at the ballot box have been far from the robust, revival-style gatherings of forgotten people who seem to populate Mr. Weisberg's reveries. Indeed, as poll analysts Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers report in a study of the epochal 1994 Republican vote, by far the largest group of the Democrats' base has been noncollege educated white men -- the comparatively low-income cohort of voters who mysteriously metamorphosed into the oft-caricatured "angry white men" of focus-group lore.
They were leaving for rather obvious reasons. Mr. Clinton's New Democrat governing agenda -- a loosely tended grab-bag of miniature culture crusades and policy tweaks, ranging from the V-chip and school uniforms of 1996 to this year's renewed press for regressive tobacco taxation -- represents a collective valentine to the brave new suburban and professional base of the Democratic Party. These initiatives, frequently ridiculed for their gnat-straining scale, nevertheless rather directly defy the sensibilities of vast stretches of "ordinary Americans."
Mr. Clinton has maneuvered government, in other words, into the dual role of moral scold to the less-educated working majority and suburban baby-sitter of last resort. It is, in its own way, a striking achievement -- particularly when one lets one's gaze linger on the revealing figures on wealth inequality, which has only steepened on Mr. Clinton's allegedly populist watch.
The Economic Policy Institute's new "State of Working America" report indicates that 39.1 percent of the nation's wealth resides in the grasp of the top 1 percent of the country's population. The only time in this century we have seen a greater maldistribution was in the ominous year of 1929, when the top 1 percent of Americans possessed more than 40 percent of the country's wealth.
This makes Mr. Clinton's "populism" idiosyncratic indeed -- and would seem more likely to earmark his fathomlessly cynical term in office for the purgatory, where we have banished the departed shades of Calvin Coolidge, Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover. They, too, cozied up to the moral vanity of the nation's economic elites, presided over speculative bull markets and preached soothing nostrums of individual moral discipline in an era of notorious malignant social neglect. Mr. Clinton may be able to work a crowd with the best of them, but there is still every reason to think that few future historians will clamor up to his rope-line.
Chris Lehmann is a Newsday editor.
Pub Date: 1/25/99