No Left Turn

Politics and policy.
March 28 1998 3:30 AM

No Left Turn

Why Clinton's critics are wrong about where he's headed.

A regular feature of the Clinton years has been the unfulfilled prophecy that the president is--any second now--about to make a sharp turn to the left. Through most of 1993 and '94, the refrain of disenchanted New Democrats was that although Clinton had been elected on a centrist platform of welfare reform and deficit reduction, his administration was being captured by old-school libs. In the '96 campaign, Bob Dole warned voters that a re-elected Clinton would drop his guise of moderation, "his liberalism unrestrained by the need to face the American people in a second election," as Dole put it.

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These predictions' failure appears to be no deterrent to their regular renewal. Only the rationale for Clinton's rebirth as LBJ changes. The latest version is that Clinton is finally showing his true color (pale pink) because of Monica Lewinsky. "The politics of scandal is doing what mere policy hasn't done since Republicans took Congress in 1994--forcing the Great Triangulator back into the protective custody of his party's liberals," Paul Gigot wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

There are actually several versions of this theory. Conservatives such as Gigot believe Clinton is a liberal at heart. They see him lying in wait for an opportunity to expand government and raise taxes. A variation on this casts the first lady as the closet liberal. Conservatives point to Dick Morris' recent assertion that the scandal has given Hillary the whip hand at the White House. There are also nonconservatives who think Clinton may turn left for practical if not ideological reasons. "He's going to have to keep an eye on his base--the very people who elected him," Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post a few days ago. "Significantly, that means women, especially feminists, and organized labor." The theory here is that if threatened with impeachment, Clinton will need his Democratic die-hards for protection.

The problem with these forecasts is that they are, once again, wrong. It is very probable the sex scandal will have some effect on Clinton's politics. Though it's hard to make out the precise effect at this point, the fear of a meltdown in his popularity and the distant threat of impeachment are likely to make the president more risk-averse. He's less liable to do anything dicey or bold. At a moment in his presidency when Clinton might otherwise be thinking about how to spend some of his accumulated political capital, that's a damned shame. Instead of leading the way on entitlement reform, Clinton may return to the sort of middle-class populism he expressed during his last campaign--with perhaps an extra dollop of pandering. An embattled Clinton is prone not just to play the demagogue on Medicare but also to promote dubious IRS reforms and climb aboard a new Communications Decency Act.

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M uch of the new suspicion about Clinton lurching left stems from the surprising entente between Clinton and congressional Democrats who are more liberal than he is. After quarreling for the better part of five years, they now seem to be getting along. But there's an explanation for this, which has nothing to do with the scandal. After the House voted not to renew the administration's fast-track trade negotiating authority last fall, the White House became preoccupied with fostering a more productive relationship with Hill Democrats, according to White House officials. Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles authorized three senior officials--John Podesta, Rahm Emanuel, and Doug Sosnik--to try to draw up a common agenda with the House and Senate minority leaders, Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle.

Clinton first revealed the fruits of these negotiations in remarks at a "Democratic Unity" rally Jan. 14. The main items he focused on in that speech were making people as young as 55 eligible to buy Medicare coverage and regulating managed care with a "Patients Bill of Rights." Clinton revealed two other proposals jointly supported by the congressional Dems in his State of the Union address, which was delivered after the scandal broke: reserving future budget surpluses until some fix has been found for Social Security, and raising the minimum wage. These are hardly radical proposals--old-style liberals would prefer to spend a budget surplus on social programs, and they want to increase the minimum wage by more than the $1 Clinton has offered. But in any case, the common platform was negotiated long before anyone had heard of Monica Lewinsky.

In embracing Clinton's agenda, congressional Democrats have moved toward the center more than Clinton has moved left. Liberals who used to spend most of their time being annoyed at Clinton have rallied around him in the face of a common enemy, realizing that a crumbling presidency would leave them in the worst possible shape to face the 1998 election. Is it possible that the threat of impeachment will force Clinton deeper into the embrace of liberal interest groups? This is largely uncharted terrain, but there's little reason to think so. Looking to the only comparisons available, Watergate and Iran-Contra didn't make Nixon or Reagan more ideological. They just took the wind out of their sails and undermined the possibility of any second term agenda.

Conservatives continue to fall prey to the fallacy of an impending left turn because they misunderstand Clinton. They think that because his political consciousness was formed during the '60s, he must be a secret liberal. But Clinton is above all a pragmatist. One lesson he has learned is that being too far to the left is a political hazard. Clinton lost his job as governor of Arkansas in 1980 as a result of liberal crusading during his first term. He regained it in 1982 by repositioning himself as a moderate. The same thing happened again after he became president. Clinton thought he was safe supporting universal health care if he rejected the single-payer system supported by old liberals. But even his hybrid scheme was too much for a public mistrustful of expanding government. Clinton regained his footing and won re-election in 1996 through a calculated centrism that is likely to remain his approach to politics for what remains of his elective career.

Of course, it doesn't take much to make someone a lefty these days. Liberals used to call for cutbacks in defense spending, higher welfare benefits, and a federal full employment program. Now they want a tiny bit more social spending within the context of a balanced budget. To conservatives, a liberal these days is someone who doesn't support cutting taxes. They should give Clinton a few more months. If things get hot enough, he may come out for a tax cut too.

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