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Running on Empty


The bizarre coincidence of the breaking of the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal and the crisis in Iraq as the movie Wag the Dog opened seemed to be the epitome of life imitating art. Yet most of us misread the imitation. The real Wag the Dog phenomenon in the Clinton scandal is not about using Saddam to distract from Monica. Rather, it is about using the increased attention on the President to distract from the crisis facing the Democratic Party. The problem facing the Democrats is not Clinton's extracurricular activities. It's the sad truth that their party just doesn't mean anything anymore.

Try asking a Democrat why he or she identifies as one and chances are, you'll get one of the following responses: (a) "I'm a democrat because Newt Gingrich is the devil incarnate"; (b) "I like the job Clinton has done (I have a job, my stocks are up, etc.)" or (c) "I've always been a Democrat because my parents are Democrats." What you're not likely to hear is: "I'm a Democrat because I believe in...[insert governing philosophy here]."

Ask a Republican the same question and you're likely to get a clear, confident response about a belief in the need for smaller government and a return to "traditional values." This is not to imply that the Republican Party has an iron-clad, uniformly-supported ideology. It doesn't. Significant tensions do exist within the party--between deficit hawks and tax-cutters, libertarians and social moralizers, free traders and protectionists. But, despite these differences, Republicans at least seem to have a vision about the role and responsibility of government that they can unify around and use as a guide when governing.

Democrats lack such a vision. Many Democrats think being pro-choice or pro-affirmative action is enough to justify their party affiliation. While these stances may be enough for individuals, they are not sufficient for a party of millions. Though important, they are nothing more than stances on particular issues--not a governing philosophy to guide party members generally.

It's the dirty little secret of the Democratic Party that, as enthusiasm for an active federal government has waned, the party has been unable to replace the New Deal/Great Society mindset of yesterday. Clinton's wishy-washy centrism succeeded in defeating George Bush but failed to instill confidence in the Democrats' ability to govern. As a result, the unthinkable happened--a Republican congress was elected for the first time in 40 years.

The battered and bewildered Democrats responded to the reality of a Republican congress not with an alternative to triumphant conservatism, but with a myopic anti-Gingrichism that evolved into desperate Clinton/Gore boosterism. Despite the fact that many blamed Clinton for his party's big losses in '94, Democrats paradoxically viewed Clinton as their only hope for survival. By the time of the '96 campaign, "Four more years!" became more important than taking back the Hill.

Of course, Clinton won in 1996. But because his campaign largely focused on small ideas like V-chips and school uniforms, once re-elected, he lacked direction. Further, he seemed increasingly listless--more interested in his golf game than governing. This posed a huge problem for congressional Democrats. As a lame duck, Clinton could afford to coast through the next four year on automatic pilot. They couldn't. Democrats in Congress had become so reliant on Clinton that without his direction they risked heading into the '98 election empty-handed and empty-headed. The Democrats had gotten into bed with Clinton (metaphorically, of course) and he was now dozing off on them.

House Democratic Leader and probable presidential candidate Richard Gephardt expressed his frustration with the emptiness of the Democratic Party under Clinton in a speech here at Harvard in December. In thinly-veiled attacks on the President and Vice President, he criticized those "New Democrats...who too often market a political strategy masquerading as policy" and called for a Democratic Party "that is a movement for change and not a money machine."

The dirty little secret of the Dems seemed to be slipping into the open and the much-needed "Who are we?" debate seemed to be beginning.

But then came Monica.

With the attention back on the President, the scandal has granted the Democrats a double bonus. First, they avoid the embarrassing, public soul-searching Gephardt was pushing, Second, they may even be helped by Clinton's remarkable approval ratings. Republicans, on the other hand, face the unpleasant possibility of considering the impeachment of a popular President based on the recommendations of an unpopular Independent Counsel for charges many consider superfluous.

Ironically, the Lewinsky scandal may enable the Democrats to get through the '98 elections following the usual script of rallying around the leader and demonizing his accusers. These tactics might even be enough to elect Gore in 2000. But, of course, this would only postpone addressing the problem. Eventually, a day of reckoning will come. As republicans solidify their control over Congress and state governments across the country, Democrats will have to fill their empty shell of a party with clearly-articulated principles and solutions--or risk getting crushed for many Novembers to come.

Rustin C. Silverstein '99 is a government concentrator in Lowell House. "On Politics" appears on alternate Fridays.

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