The right's last stand


IN THE vast ocean of debate over the president's future, few waves have been made by warriors of the left. The colleges remain downright tranquil, undisturbed by any noises coming from pro-Clinton demonstrations.

Indeed, the only campus posters on the subject take another side: They cry out to impeach the president and are signed by local socialists. The great apathy on the left for defending the president only underscores an underlying truth about the impeachment and trial of President Clinton. It is not about conservatism vs. liberalism. It is about the right-wing vs. the political middle. The far left and far right would both love to dump Mr. Clinton overboard, if for different reasons.

The attempt by journalist Christopher Hitchens to weaken Mr. Clinton's case is remarkable only in reminding us that the radical left has been largely on the sidelines during all this back-and-forth. A British leftist, Mr. Hitchens made a tiny splash by claiming that presidential aide Sidney Blumenthal did indeed tell him that Monica Lewinsky had been a stalker. The Republicans immediately ordered an investigation into possible perjury by Mr. Blumenthal, and Mr. Hitchens got his 10 minutes of face time on NBC's "Meet the Press." It is now obvious, however, that these revelations will in no way alter the course of the Good Ship Impeachment. The Senate has put the vessel on a determined course to the junkyard.

Nevertheless, this demonstration of strong hatred from the old-fashioned left reminds us that the president's politics have not been kind to knee-jerk liberalism. The far left has been scandalized by Mr. Clinton's dallying with such traditionally conservative causes as welfare reform, free trade, tax cuts and increased defense spending.

The great masses inhabiting the political middle, on the other hand, are quite happy with these policies. The socially corrosive impact of welfare on poor families, for example, had long troubled the broad swath of moderate Americans. Mr. Clinton succeeded in getting welfare reform past the left wing of his own party, which would have none of it, while softening some of the more Draconian rules advocated by the right.

In appropriating popular Republican issues as his own, Mr. Clinton left conservatives with the unpopular ones: banning abortion, weakening environmental regulation, opposing gun control. It may have been naive to believe that conservatives would be delighted at having a majority in Congress and a Democratic president they could work with. But that's not the name of the game. The name of the game is winning the rumble, that is, getting elected and controlling the river of government money.

Once Mr. Clinton won the political contest, his opponents on the right saw no alternative but to find another excuse for a fight. In his book "The Choice," journalist Bob Woodward offers a prophetic remark by former Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry. The Republicans, Mr. McCurry said long before anyone had heard the name Monica, "can only win by doing the single most dangerous thing for Mr. Clinton . . . which is to totally destroy him as a human being. . . . They will do everything they can to turn him into a liar or turn him into a cheat or turn him into a philanderer. That basically is the danger here if you don't have substantive grounds for debate."

This quote is featured in a recent New York Review of Books article written by Lars-Erik Nelson, Washington correspondent for the New York Daily News. (Mr. Nelson has towered over his journalistic peers in getting to the heart of the matter.) "For six years," Mr. Nelson writes, "the [Republican] party's right wing and its allied radio talk-show hosts have denounced Clinton as a lying, draft-dodging, pot-smoking womanizer, notwithstanding the fact that many of their own heroes -- Gingrich, for example -- are at least as vulnerable to some of the same cruel accusations." He concludes that "what they [Republicans] need, and will have difficulty finding, is a program that is both conservative and politically safe."

If the Republicans were looking for an example of appalling personal behavior, Mr. Clinton sure provided one. Mr. Clinton's survival is a tribute to luck and to his considerable political skills. He had crafted a popular centrist position that could withstand the most determined onslaught. Mr. Clinton may outlast this ordeal, but the victory clearly belongs to the politics of moderation.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist.

Pub Date: 2/11/99

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