After hearing the Republican from Kansas accept the GOP nomination for the White House, presidential adviser Harold Ickes said cuttingly, "If this is the best [he] can do, the Democratic Campaign Committee ought to spend all the money it can raise to send him out to make speeches." The year was 1936 and Alf Landon was the Republican nominee. Today, Harold Ickes, the son of the Interior Secretary, is deputy White House chief of staff. Yet, somewhere near there, the similarities end. In 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt '04 ran for reelection and clearly delineated the choice before the American people. Today, Bill Clinton's reelection campaign seems increasingly based on a blurring of the distinctions between the two candidates and their respective parties.
In 1936, there was little doubt about where Roosevelt stood. In his last major speech of the campaign, before a teeming crowd in Madison Square Garden, FDR "called the roll" of those who had stood with him and those who had sought to stifle his "bold, persistent experimentation." He spoke out against the "enemies of peace--business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering."
Sixty years later, President Clinton, in his quest to expand his insurmountable lead in the polls, seems to be willing to be all things to all people. All politicians think that they should be elected unanimously. Clinton seems to be, of late, actively pursuing that goal--and the results can be outrageous. Last week, the Clinton/Gore campaign, after an outcry from the gay and lesbian community, pulled a radio ad titled "Values" that had been targeting religious conservatives. That this group was targeted in the first place is a sign of the Democrats embrace of mainstream values after years of wandering in the wilderness of anti-religious bias. The fact that precious campaign dollars are expended in the quest to win over these voters is an indication of the president's political strength and rejuvenation. Yet, the message of this ad turned its back on everything that has gotten Bill Clinton to this point and was a black smear on his presidency.
In the ad, the announcer brags that "the president signed the Defense of Marriage Act." This was the law, passed by Congress this summer, that gave each state the individual right to decide whether to sanction and allow same-sex marriages without being bound to recognize the actions of other states--an exemption to the Constitution's mandate that "full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state." President Clinton has always been morally opposed to same-sex marriage. Thus, his signing of the Defense of Marriage Act (or DOMA) was entirely consistent with his career and should have surprised no one. However, Clinton recognized that, irrespective of the merits of the law, it was being passed primarily to give Republican candidates a "wedge" issue with which to split the electorate off from their Democratic opponents.
President Clinton's own press secretary, Mike McCurry, stated on July 12 that DOMA was "gay baiting pure and simple....It's a classic use of wedge politics that are designed to provoke anxieties and fears. "Accordingly, to ensure that the bill would get the least possible amount of coverage, the president purposely signed it in the wee hours of the night. But, now that his base is secure, President Clinton debased the very notions of mutuality and togetherness that he has spoken about so eloquently throughout his political career.
Cynics can argue that it's all just "politics"; that politicians' actions in the weeks before election day, like those of werewolves on a full moon, must be excused because they are uncontrollable. Yet, President Clinton's now-recalled ad betrayed not only his deepest principles, but the very methods he used to achieve his present position of political power. It is important to remember that two short years ago, Clinton was so unpopular that Congressional candidates were begging the White House to not have the president come anywhere near their state. Now Clinton is leading in polls in states like Arizona, which last voted for a Democrat named Harry S Truman in 1948.
The way President Clinton got from there to here was not by being all things to all people or being a gentler Republican. In the past two years, Clinton has found his own voice. He opposed the Republicans when they went too kinder far in pushing for cuts in Medicare, education and the environment. At the same time, he broke with the tired old dogmas of the Democrats in Congress by standing up for curfews, school uniforms, a balanced budget and welfare reform. No, not everyone agreed with him on every point, but he started to earn people's respect by standing firm in his own centrist convictions despite the criticism from the fringes.
For years to come, every unpopular incumbent, down in the polls and prematurely labeled a lame duck, will use the lessons of Bill Clinton's comeback from political oblivion to give hope to themselves and their supporters. Yet, it is important to be aware of what lessons are learned. Clinton journeyed from the brink of resounding defeat to the verge of a landslide win neither by abandoning his principles nor by reflexive opposition. It was his embrace of Main Street concerns and mainstream values that gave him the confidence of the American people. If, as all the polls indicate, President Clinton is reelected on November 5, it will be because his administration finally offered what it promised in 1992, a clean break from the failed policies of Washington. Mimicking the worst of one's opponent, pandering to the lesser angels of our nature and breaking faith with one's own principles is "more of the same" politics Bill Clinton should have been better than it.
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