New GOP Is Clinton Legacy

Charles KrauthammerBy day two of the Democratic convention, there was hardly a mention of Bill Clinton. They may love him. But for this election at least, Democrats are running away from him as fast as they can.

In Tuesday's four main speeches -- by Caroline and Edward Kennedy, Bill Bradley and Harold Ford -- the word "Clinton" hardly passed any lips. However much some Democrats still want him, the party knows that, like Nixon, his near-term legacy is toxic.

Hence the Loretta Sanchez episode. She is the Hispanic congresswoman who had planned a convention fund-raiser at the Playboy Mansion until an avalanche of pressure from the Gore campaign and virtually the entire Democratic establishment forced her to move the event.

The fierceness of the reaction to this cozying up to the softest of soft-core porn purveyors -- from a party that just recently featured Robin Williams in high raunch at a giant Washington fund-raiser held in Clinton's honor -- is a measure of how neuralgic the party has become to any taint of sex as Election Day nears.

This reaction gives lie to the conventional wisdom of only a year ago that the Clinton impeachment would end up damaging the Republicans. In fact, it remains a huge hovering liability for the Democrats. Sanchez is a footnote, but Lieberman is a headline. His selection as vice presidential nominee was largely driven by the need for insulation against Clinton's scandals.

The "Sanchez effect" will no doubt be temporary. Such sexual prudery cannot long coexist with American politics. Conventional wisdom has it that sex scandals will play a large part in defining the Clinton legacy. I doubt it.

Nor will the legacy be what Clinton imagines and tried to sell in his farewell address last week.

He tried first to take credit for the current boom. Politicians always do that, and it is never convincing. What changed the fiscal course was (1) the wealth creation of the New Economy that generated a huge unanticipated influx of taxes, (2) spending restraints initiated in the Bush years and carried through by the Gingrich Congress, and (3) the post-Cold War peace dividend, about 3% of gross domestic product freed up from defense spending for productive use.

In the social realm, Clinton early on had ambitions to be the new FDR. Where Roosevelt had created a new social norm with Social Security, he would create a new norm with universal health care. That he did screw up, with the indispensable help of his wife. In fact, his single major social achievement was welfare reform, forced on him by a Republican Congress.

What then is Clinton's legacy? It lies less in his governance than in his politics. He showed how to win. And by doing so has left a lasting mark on the very nature of both parties.

First, he brought the Democratic Party back to the center. Second, and less obvious, he transformed the opposition. His most profound legacy was on view two weeks ago in Philadelphia, in that great festival of diversity put on by the Republicans. They offered him the highest praise by imitating both his centrist ideology and his shameless voice-cracking emotional style.

The touchy-feely ultra-sensitive convention marked the Republican Party's embrace of the therapeutic ethic. Government as healer, nurturer and caregiver has long been a Democratic trademark. It is far from the tough-talking entrepreneurial conservatism of Ronald Reagan.

George W. ordered the change. But the real cause was Bill Clinton. "New Republicanism" is one of the greatest backhanded compliments in history. It is also Clinton's ultimate legacy.

Original Publication Date: 8/20/00