Disillusioned by Those Democrats

In 1988, an editorial cartoon by Pat Oliphant appeared in The Washington Post that has a fearsome resonance today. The panel shows an aging President Reagan telling handbag-toting Candidate Bush, "If you're ever in trouble, use THIS." Reagan is shown pointing at a button labeled "BOMB LIBYA." Coincidentally, an allegedly faltering president has just strafed the homeland of the new evil enemy.

Sure, Saddam Hussein is a very bad man. Buy why did President Clinton wait until two weeks ago to react against "a recent rash of terrorist activity." Perhaps it has something to do with his new sobriquet, the "43 Percent President." Why is popularity so important to a person just beginning a guaranteed four-year term?

The answer lies in another catchphrase of the new administration--"The Constant Campaign," Clinton began running for re-election on the day he was inaugurated. As a result, his liberal mandate has mutated into a watery, middle-of-the-road hedging.

The first indication of Clinton centrist shift was his easing of the order to lift the ban on gays in the military. Then there was the shuffling of George Stephanopoulos--the young, liberal visionary of the Clinton team--away from the position of communications director. Stephanopoulos was replaced by David Gergen, a far more moderate Reagan-era spokesperson who makes a profession of becoming a blank slate every day.

An ingrained belief that a liberal agenda can only be used for a campaign--not for implementation--runs this presidency. Back in February, the media noticed that the administration conducted most of its business behind the scenes. However, as any Perot knows, a populist vision of jobs and sacrifice has to be projected loudly over the airwaves to gain support. The President can lobby the American people through television addresses and news conferences; not all his Congressional arm-twisting has to be direct.


Clinton's wavering on appointments also signifies a lack or organization. Why, after such problems sprang from the nominations of Zoe Baird and Judge Kimba Wood for Attorney General, didn't the Clinton team scrutinize its next choices more? If the press could find Stephen Breyer's "Zoe Baird Problem" and Lani Guinier's inflammatory writings within a week of the release of their names, why couldn't Clinton & Co.? The public's disillusionment with the president could come from his snatch-and-grab appointments as much as his programs.

It is possible that the fault lies with political amateurs like Mack McLarty, the chief of staff. Like many presidents (Jackson, for example) before him, Clinton chose trusted associates for the top jobs in his "Kitchen Cabinet" rather than finding the top minds. Fortunately, there are not as many Arkansans in the inner circle as Bush had Texans. Competence, however, cannot be defined geographically.

Let's take an example close to home. Who can say that Secretary of Labor Robert Reich is the most gifted labor economist and administrator of today? Confined to being a lecturer at the Kennedy School because of his lack of a Ph.D. in economics, his "Friend of Bill" status and specialist denotation were enough to bring him a Cabinet post. There are plenty of better-known labor economists and more experienced administrators right here at Harvard, but loyalty to the Constant Campaigner is what matters.

Like most any president, Clinton was elected partly because of his campaign promises. To observers, Clinton seemed like a liberal stripe of New Democrat--someone truly trying to relive the Roosevelt legacy. His ideas were particularly appropriate to the depressed economic times. But his actions have not spoken as loud as his words.

The middle-of-the-road president cannot take all of the blame; divided Democrats in Congress are also accountable. With greater support in the Senate, most of whose occupants are "older" Democrats than Clinton, the stimulus bill could have passed unchanged. Since most of the Senate's members are long-time incumbents, what could they have feared from a progressive jobs package? Did they suddenly feel personally responsible for the federal deficit?

With less porking in the House, more military bases could have been closed. Ironically, after the military gave up its opposition, much of the dissent against defense cuts came from Democrats who had crusaded for cuts for years. Politicians should be able to foresee the contradictions that arise when they leave the party line aside to vote for their constituents' wishes; votes should be consistent. It's hypocrisy to vote for defense cuts one year, and then scream and yell for show as your comrades close the base in your backyard.

Maybe the Democrats need some charismatic leaders in the Congress to have a truly united liberal front. Gone are the days of Sam Rayburn, Tip O'Neill, and Robert Byrd. Maybe those politicians are just too worried about being re-elected by now-defunct Reagan Democrats. As for the "I need a new term to do even more good" excuse, it basically describes campaign rhetoric for the last hundred years.

Is it too much to hope for a "Prague Spring"-like renaissance in the party? It is too much to hope for a slew of liberal legislation, for the country's benefit, at any cost. Perhaps if Congresspeople had to swear an additional oath, along the John F. Kennedy '40 line, "Ask not what your country can do for you," we'd have some less self-interested politicians. Liberals of all people should realize that they have to put the greater good ahead of their own ambitions.

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