Attempts to capture the legacy of our departing President William Jefferson Clinton can be as elusive as his own definition of the word \is."" The media scramble to define the Clinton era began last Saturday, the moment his plane left Andrews Air Force base. In the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly aptly titled ""Bill Clinton and His Consequences,"" contributing editor Roy Blount Jr. writes, ""Bill Clinton may not have had a great character, but he has been one."" Although, like all things Clinton, the statement can be interpreted in countless ways. One could surmise that much like the motto of the hit TV show ""Survivor,"" he has used his charisma and savvy to ""Outwit, Outlast and Outplay"" all those who have dared to take on the house of Clinton.
So having weathered countless storms--draft dodging, Ken Starr, Monica and the infamous blue dress--the race is on to capture the essence of the last eight years. Yet perhaps, to quote those astute political pundits Bachman Turner Overdrive, ""you ain't seen nuthin' yet."" Although the Clinton years gave us sweeping welfare reform, new uses for Altoids and a balanced federal budget, perhaps the heart of the Clinton legacy has yet to surface.
The seeds of this legacy have been planted with a monotone centrist named Al Gore. Taking a page right out of the Clinton playbook, Gore ran his campaign as straight down the center as is humanly possible. By refusing to take a concrete stand on many traditional Democratic issues, speaking in mere platitudes on such key issues as race relations and the environment and even siding with Bush on such landmark issues as the death penalty, Gore left many loyal Democrats twisting in the wind. Refusing to embrace many of the issues of the traditional left, Gore saw third-party candidate Ralph Nader siphon votes from the left and managed to not only lose to a virtual political rookie, but to not even carry his home state, a remarkable feat in such a period of unfettered economic prosperity. Has coach Clinton, undoubtedly the pre-eminent Democratic politician of the last 20 years, been teaching his players the wrong game?
Gore is simply the most recent incarnation of the Clinton centrist legacy. In making his cross-party lines appeal, Clinton has actually managed to co-opt many Republican ideals in the name of his party. Clinton masterfully steered the party of the ""Great Society"" and the ""War on Poverty"" into the most landmark welfare reform the country has ever seen. While Clinton's program certainly has its merits, the ""welfare to work"" and elimination of various programs are a far cry from the social democratic ethos of Lyndon Johnson. Furthermore, Clinton managed to corral the party of organized labor and worker's' rights into the North American Free Trade Agreement, which continues to take skilled jobs south of the border.
While perhaps Clinton demonstrated good intentions with welfare reform and keen foresight with NAFTA (as the global economic boom has proved), through them Clinton has taken the Democratic Party down a very strange path. And there are no guarantees that where he has led them is a particularly safe place to be. After all, 1994 saw the Democrats lose control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1952. Through policies such as NAFTA, which are far more reminiscent of Reagan than Carter, Clinton has steered the Democratic Party right smack-dab into the middle of the political spectrum--and that is just where George W. Bush and the rest of the Republican Party want them to be.
As the recent nomination of hard-line conservative John Ashcroft for attorney general is proving, the cozier Bush and his cohorts get with the traditional right wing, the more hot water they get into. Luckily for Bush, there are very few big-name Democrats to push him in that direction. Certainly Al Gore, even given ammunition in the form of the Bob Jones University flap, failed to do so, with devastating results.
While there are many who argue that elections are now won in the center, has Clinton strived so hard to reach the ""soccer moms"" and the ""undecideds"" that he has eroded his party's traditional power base? Has Clinton produced a generation of Democratic leaders so concerned with playing the middle that they have turned their backs on those taking the streets to defend the very ideals that form the bedrock of the party? There are certainly thousands, who have gathered in Seattle, in Prague and even last Saturday at the inauguration, who backed Nader with pride that think so. If that indeed does prove to be correct, that could be the greatest Clinton legacy of all.