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Hove Considers Why Clinton Is Facing Scrutiny

Column by Anders Hove
Opinion Editor

For those readers who have just arrived at MIT, I would like to extend a two-part welcome: First, welcome to Hell. Those who modestly refer to themselves as "Members of the Prestigious MIT Community" know you will love it here. The rest of us can only hope for the best. Second, please feel free to propagate your opinions by sending them to these pages for publication. MIT really does resemble a small, diverse town, and like any other community, its members need a voice. These pages serve as one of many options students have for speaking their minds. Use them.

I have been occupying my time over the summer attempting to bring order to the piles of presidential doomsday theories. It seems every pundit has come up with a pet explanation for President Bill Clinton's slump in stature. On the other hand, it is hardly difficult to understand the thirst for explanation. In the last quarter century we have witnessed several slumps of a similar nature. Compared to Jimmy Carter, who seemed to age two decades during his first half term, Clinton still looks downright vibrant. Lyndon Johnson's angst over the deepening quagmire in Vietnam began its first growth spurt in 1966. Richard Nixon managed to survive one term, but then just into his second stretch he was handed a presidential pardon and exiled to San Clemente. At this time four years ago George Bush was just building up to his victory in the Gulf War. But the passage of another year would see Bush's popularity evaporate with the onset of the multiple-dipped recession of 1991.

With so much experience tracking floundering presidencies, one might think pundits would understand the process by now. What leads to a presidential downfall? Do economic quagmires mean more than foreign policy disasters, or vice versa? Or does lack of support in Congress make the public despair of a president's ability to lead? Perhaps public distrust is first fostered by scandal in top government. Or maybe after two years of seeing a president in action, people better know and hate his motivations, personality quirks and organizational failings. None of these explanations fully square with America's Clinton experience. Let's look at how closely they fit with the explanations given by other political commentators.

The "sleaze-overload" theory: Clinton's character has been hyper-analyzed. In the history of press muckraking, perhaps only Charles and Di have faced as much press scrutiny as the current president. We have heard about the marijuana, the trip to Moscow, his Vietnam dodge, the two tabloid-generated philandering stories, Hillary's insider "cash cows," and the President's preference between boxers and briefs. We have seen this man visiting MacDonald's in a sweat-soaked jogging uniform, ordering up a truckload of fries and burgers. We have been told of Clinton's early-morning temper tantrums, his day-long bull sessions, and his simple inability to make decisions and stick by them. Even though none of these revelations could ever convince a majority of Americans to reject their chosen leader, his program, or his policy ideas, the sum total has completely dulled his electoral and programmatic luster. By this theory, we should not expect Americans to like a man they have never been given a chance to like.

The second theory fits not just Clinton, but his predecessors as well: Clinton is suffering the same fate as all other post-Vietnam, post-Watergate presidents. The public and press have lost all respect for public figures, political or otherwise. By the very virtue of their presence before the public eye, movie stars, Wall Street financiers, corporate CEOs, well-known members of the press, and U.S. presidents have all fallen from grace. Betrayed by the people they respected most a quarter century ago, the baby-boomers and their children now play it safe by not trusting anyone. It no longer matters whether the public believes Clinton guilty of unethical acts in the Whitewater affair. What matters more is that the charges have been made. So long as there is a hint of betrayal, no leader can be worthy of respect.

The "turn-to-the-left" theory: According to the moderate and conservative crowd, Clinton squandered the ideological edge he gave himself during the 1992 campaign. Throughout the campaign, Clinton argued that traditional liberals in his party had been wrong in their programmatic prescriptions. The way to fix the country was through a combination of conservative free-marketeering and good old teary-eyed compassion. Welfare could be reformed by turning recipients out into the work force. If price competition were introduced into the insurance market, the cost of providing health care could drop for all Americans. If the government cut its deficit, lower interest rates would spur investment and lead to a higher standard of living for all Americans. These were the policy prescriptions of the "New Democrats" - centrist Americans whom Clinton promised to lead to a better world.

According to this theory, Clinton dropped his New Democrat pledges to run with the liberals. For instance, while he did slash the deficit and raise the confidence of the bond market, he hurt his conservative standing by sponsoring the pork-filled "stimulus package," a move that cost him his first painful defeat in the Senate. Clinton fatally damaged his health care plan by first allowing liberal policy wonks to propose price controls, and then by letting Hillary Clinton substitute "universal coverage" for his original goal of lower overall costs. Finally, Clinton put off welfare reform until his conservative reputation had already been destroyed.

The problem with this argument is that many conservatives typecast Clinton as a liberal even when he takes stands further right than they do. On the North American Free Trade Agreement, for instance, Clinton ignored the traditional dictates of his own party, and instead set out to court the great Republican free trade vote. But just as Clinton moved to the right, a large fraction of the Republican ideology seemed to vanish into thin air. Suddenly Republicans were out in force declaring protectionism a founding plank in their party's platform. (In the end, most Republicans did support Clinton.) During the budget battle of 1993, Clinton specifically dared Republicans to propose more budget cuts than he had. On health care, Clinton snubbed the big government wing of his own party, which wanted a Canadian-style, single-payer system. Instead he proposed the centrist "managed competition" approach initially favored by big business. The Republicans chose to ignore the conservative nature of the health care package, even using the new liberal opposition to help sack it.

The fact that Republicans seem to detest Clinton more than they detest most liberals led to the creation of the third theory: Republicans have no choice but to hate Clinton. Unless they destroy him, Clinton's New Democrat party will relegate their own party to the dustbin of history.

In 1896 the Democrats destroyed the Populist party by adopting the latter's issues as its own. Similarly, Jefferson's Republicans destroyed the Federalists by accepting the legitimacy of the federal government. Now the Republicans face a president who, according to The Economist, "draws from the same intellectual wellsprings as many 1980s Republicans." So the Republicans think that letting Clinton adopt their issues would result in the extinction of their own party. Thus their eagerness to paint him as a tax-and-spend liberal, as teary-eyed as Michael Dukakis.

Unsurprisingly, the choice of theory seems to depend mostly upon one's choice of party. A Republican, for instance, could never believe in the "extinction theory," nor could a liberal accept the Gergen argument. Unfortunately for Clinton, the debate over his unpopularity seems to be drowning out the debate over his policies.