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Clinton’s ultimate legacy is ‘new Republicanism’

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WASHINGTON — By Day 2 of the Democratic convention, there was hardly a mention of Bill Clinton. They may love him. He may wow them. 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 now, 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 threats and 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 political 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 is to any taint of sex as Election Day approaches.

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. (And hover it must, from the Republican point of view: They learned in the '98 congressional elections that this is the scandal that dare not speak its name. An allusion, preferably oblique, will do.)

The effect of the impeachment scandal is quite real. Sanchez is a footnote, but Lieberman is a headline. His selection as vice presidential nominee — the single most consequential decision Gore has had to make in his campaign — was in large part driven by the need for insulation against Clinton's scandals.

The "Sanchez effect" will no doubt be temporary. Such sexual prudery cannot long co-exist with American politics. And its historic effect will be temporary as well. Conventional wisdom has it that sex scandals will play a large part in defining the Clinton legacy. I doubt it. Teapot Dome was the Monica of the '20s, yet not one American in a hundred can tell you what it was about.

Nor, however, will the legacy be what Clinton imagines it to be — and tried to sell to the country in his rollicking farewell convention address.

He tried first to take credit for the current boom. Politicians always do that, and it is never convincing. In this case, what changed the fiscal course of the government 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 percent of GDP freed up from defense spending for productive use.

Nonetheless, Clinton did not do nothing. To his credit, he did not get in the way of the most remarkable boom in American history. He will be remembered, in terms of economics, like Coolidge: He didn't screw it up.

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.

Out of that wreckage came half a decade of minimalism. Clinton will in part be remembered as the president who so miniaturized his office that he once gave a national radio address on the standardization of child safety seats. In fact, his single major social achievement was welfare reform, a measure forced on him during the 1996 election 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, that great festival of diversity and inclusiveness put on by the Republicans. They had learned well from Clinton's example and success. They were offering him the highest praise by imitating both his centrist ideology and his shameless voice-cracking emotional style.

The touchy-feely ultra-sensitive Philadelphia convention marked the Republican Party's embrace of the therapeutic ethic. Government as healer, nurturer and caregiver has long been a Democratic trademark. But 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.

Washington Post Writers Group