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Clinton's Example, Bush's Strategy
April 27, 2002
By Joby Comstock

When Bush was elected governor in Texas, his first actions were very right wing. Just as people started to get uncomfortable with him, he shifted to the middle, and won reelection handily.

Bush was aware of his own strategy. At the recent Gridiron Club roast of Tom Daschle, Bush fired a few lines at Daschle that were hilarious, and frighteningly sharp. I'm paraphrasing from memory. "How are you going to run against me, Tom? What are your issues? Education? I'm for it. Campaign finance reform? I'll sign it. Childcare benefits? I'll provide them for families who don't even have kids!"

Good lines, and anyone who thinks Bush is stupid should read them. Bush is brilliant at in-your-face power politics. He is lazy and ignorant to the extreme on policy and leadership issues, but as a personal snake, there are few his equal. We need to be aware of this.

Bill Clinton was a liberal. I know this will start another argument, but I will state it anyway. Everything Bill Clinton did was an effort to promote an agenda so liberal that often his own party turned on him. Remember the purge of Democrats from Congress in 1994? The media misrepresents this as a coup pulled off by Newt Gingrich, who capitalized on Clinton's unpopularity with the voters. But the media missed the point.

Bill Clinton's early agenda was unashamedly liberal. Health care, gay rights, Lani Guinier... Too liberal for Congress. Sam Nunn, Democrat (in name only), led the charge against gay rights. Afterwards, the Democrats in Congress went to great lengths to abandon Clinton. They refused to back him on key issues, like health care. Two years later many of them campaigned for reelection by running against Clinton. One guy in Oklahoma said "I'm a Democrat, but not a Clinton Democrat."

He lost. Many Democrats who ran like this lost. A Democrat who runs against his party leader loses Democratic votes and does not pick up Republican votes. And moderates aren't interested in candidates who play both sides. Voters are not that easily fooled.

Two candidates who did win were Ted Kennedy and Charles Robb. Both were far behind in the polls. Both were painted as "Clinton liberals" by their opponents. Both of them embraced the label. Both won.

But Clinton lost his Democratic Congress, and he learned a lesson. Just as he did after his first loss in Arkansas, Clinton learned that he could not dictate policy. He had to persuade, and convince, and trick, and outmaneuver his opponents. His opponents, led by Newt Gingrich, wanted to undo "socialism," or "big government." They wanted to undo FDR's works. Clinton knew what they wanted. And he had to stop them. But he did not have the popularity.

So Clinton did what he felt he had to do. He hired Dick Morris, a conservative, to run continuous polls from the White House, to gauge the emotions of the public. He then tailored his speeches to the audience he saw in those polls. And he compromised on key issues, giving the Republicans just enough to make the people in those polls feel that Clinton was acceptable, that he would work with the opposition.

Gingrich's budget that year was a conservative masterpiece. As Gingrich said, it was the most significant change in government since 1933- FDR's year. It would have eliminated every government power Democrats and Greens love so much. Social spending, government assistance - the plan was to destroy the federal government and turn everything back over to the smaller, less efficient and more conservative state governments. It was the coup-de-grace to win the Reagan Revolution. Gingrich passed his budget through the House and Senate, and told Clinton "Either sign it, or shut down the government." Clinton was irrelevant, Gingrich informed the press. He could only hope to delay the inevitable. Gingrich had won.

Clinton vetoed the bill. Clinton shut down the government. And to Gingrich's shock, the public, who had just a year before expressed their hatred for Clinton, sided with the president. Why? Simply put, because Clinton had spoken their language, and had shown he would compromise on key issues. Gingrich had proven intractable. The gridlock was his fault, and he backed down. In one of the most brilliant political strategies in the history of America, Clinton saved FDR. He won.

He won because he had appeared to be something he was not. He appeared to be a moderate. And he kept up the appearance throughout his administration. He successfully defended most social programs, increased spending on education, updated the Clean Water Act three times, and put more land under federal protection than any other president of the twentieth century. And he proved - if anyone cares to use his proof - that a strong environmental stance could stimulate the economy, rather than crippling it.

Ironically, his pretense at moderation, even conservatism, did not fool the Republicans, who saw all of their key issues go down in flames, but it did fool the liberals, who now only see the compromises. George W. Bush's policies seem extreme to many of us, and indeed are increasingly extreme to many moderate Americans. But they would have been moderate coming off the Reagan era. Reagan routinely bombed other nations on flimsy evidence. Reagan sold weapons to nations who had declared "holy war" against us. Reagan gave money and training - often illegally - to terrorists who were raping and killing American nuns in Central America, in addition to tens of thousands, and perhaps hundreds of thousands, of political opponents. He campaigned against Affirmative Action, abortion, gays, liberals, and anybody who had a single thought left of Richard Mellon Scaife. Reagan won reelection by the largest margin of victory in American history, and received the largest number of votes of any candidate in history - ahead of Gore, even. His popularity carried his vice president into the office after him

The fact that Bush looks like a right winger now shows how successful a liberal Clinton was. And Republicans know this. Especially George W. Bush.

George W. Bush is doing the same thing Clinton did. He comes off as a right-winger, pushing his agenda on a less-than-willing populace. People disagree with him on every domestic issue. If not for the war, his popularity would have waned long ago. He would be close to Clinton's levels. And like Clinton, Bush is cleaning house of impure Republicans. He has already chased Jeffords away. More will follow in November.

And then, when we are feeling smug about Bush's low numbers and big loss in November, Bush will pretend to move towards the center. As he threatened Daschle, he will sign our bills, support our agendas, and undercut our righteousness. And the public will see a conversion, and we will look intractable when we oppose him. We will have to compromise with him. And as the Republicans saw with Clinton, we will see our key issues slowly undercut, dying a death of a thousand slashes. And we will scream like extremists about how wing-nut Bush is, while the media reports his moderation, and the Republicans grin and slap each other on the backs.

Maybe then we'll understand Clinton better.

It is not inevitable. Bush, nor Rove, is anywhere near as brilliant as Clinton. Bush still has to speak, and his platitudes will wear thin. And Bush will continue to make policy mistakes, since he has no ideology - nor understanding - to guide his choices between the competing options offered by his divergent advisors. Bush still might fail, because he is Bush, and not Clinton. But we need to be prepared.

And most of all, we need to be aware.

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