When Al Gore recently joined conservatives in supporting a special
law to award Elian Gonzalez permanent U.S. residency, his maneuver was
straight out of the playbook that has governed eight years of Clintonism:
"Fake left, go right."
If a play like this works, Clintonites get to position themselves as
thoughtful moderates between congressional Democrats and Republicans.
This "triangulation" strategy was the brainchild of blissful bipartisan
Dick Morris, a Clinton advisor who also worked for Republicans like Trent
Lott and Jesse Helms.
Predictably, Gore's Elian move outraged many Democrats in Congress,
especially those who have long criticized immigration policy for
discriminating against Haitians and Dominicans while giving Cubans
No Democrat was more angry than powerful Harlem Rep. Charles Rangel
(D.-N.Y.), who attacked Gore for being "purely political in order to
appease the voters in Miami." Yet Rangel is in a bind when it comes to
Clintonism, for he--like many other liberals--has chosen to wed himself
to it while reserving the right to occasionally grouse. It was Rangel who
helped launch the New York Senate candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton, a
co-inventor of Clintonism, who promptly displayed her talents for
unprincipled flip-flopping on a range of issues, including Israel and
While Clintonism may be good for Bill and Hillary and Al--all of whom
seem willing to say or do anything to win the next election--it's worth
asking whether Clintonism is good for the Democratic Party.
Let's do the numbers. When Clinton entered the White House, his party
dominated the U.S. Senate, 57-43; the U.S. House, 258-176; the country's
governorships, 30-18, and a large majority of state legislatures. Today,
Republicans control the Senate, 55-45; the House, 222-211; governorships,
30-18, and almost half of state legislatures.
The Democrats under Clintonism resemble a house of cards, with the
Clintons and Gore inhabiting the White House atop a party structure
crumbling because of an ever-shifting foundation.
Democrats were once a majority party standing on some firm
principles--helping the little guy, economic security and, to some
degree, standing up to corporations on behalf of workers, consumers and
But Clintonism has come to mean coddling big money (except guns and
tobacco), financial scandals, winning at any cost, flip-flopping and
In 1992, en route to the White House, Hillary Rodham Clinton dismissed
questions about dealings between her Little Rock law firm and Bill
Clinton's Arkansas administration with a widely quoted feminist appeal:
Instead of baking cookies, "what I decided to do was pursue my
profession." That same day, she also made a corporatist appeal: "For
goodness sakes, you can't be a lawyer if you don't represent banks."
In November 1994, Republicans triumphed after White House
policies--the North American Free Trade Agreement, urban neglect, the
health reform fiasco--had dispirited and demobilized the Democratic
Party's grass-roots base. That's Clintonism.
On the eve of the 1996 election, Democratic momentum to regain
majority control of Congress was halted by revelations of Clinton-Gore
fund-raising abuses. That's Clintonism.
The Clintons and Gore came to national power in alliance with the
Democratic Leadership Council, an outfit underwritten by corporations
that prods Democrats to support a wish list of proposals (free trade,
admitting China to the World Trade Organization, Social Security
privatization) that are as popular with big business as they are
unpopular with ordinary Americans, especially rank-and-file Democrats.
Despite long-standing disagreements with the president on issues,
left-liberals in Congress felt compelled to defend him in 1998 against
impeachment and what they saw as "sexual McCarthyism." That forced unity
behind Clinton has helped enforce unity behind Gore.
Now, seven months before the election, many Democratic activists and
some Congress members can add Elian Gonzalez to the list of issues on
which they march to a different drummer than the man heading their
Yet, come August, rather than obey party unity behind Gore's
zigzagging party line, some activist Democrats will join protests outside
the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. Some will explore Ralph Nader's
Green Party campaign.
And a deeper reckoning is inevitable when enough Democrats realize
that Clintonism can survive while the rest of the party and its core
beliefs are slowly triangulated to death.