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Clinton's Legacy

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By Michelle Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 1997; 11:00 PM

What the White House did has utterly destroyed the old liberal-moralist position. I have been quietly concerned for a while now about the president's difficulty in locating a legacy, but I read something in the paper the other day that relieved my mind. In anticipation of the state dinner that the president was to host for Jiang Zemin, a Washington Post reporter asked the White House social secretary if she was bothered by the knowledge that human rights protesters would picket the bash honoring the leader of the last evil empire. Oh no, said the social secretary, "I think that's what's wonderful about our country. Inside we have a celebration of a head of state. Outside we have our general public who have the opportunity to voice their opinion." There it is, the legacy. Finally, we are a nation where people are all in their proper places. S'wonderful.

There is inside and there is outside, and there are people inside and there are people outside. The people inside are definitionally select. The people outside are definitionally not select; they are, as the gentlelady pointed out, the general public. It is true that the people inside -- who with this president are quite often people who have paid large amounts of cash to get inside -- are blessed with a special opportunity to reach the president's ear. But this is not an unfair or a corrupt or an undemocratic opportunity, because the people outside have the opportunity to voice their opinion too. They will have to voice it loudly, though; the White House is pretty well insulated against street noise.

Of course, it has always been more or less thus. But that fact takes nothing away from the magnitude of the Clinton legacy. Since the Progressive era, American politics has offered voters a choice between two broadly different philosophies. One philosophy, espoused generally by conservatives and the Republican Party, championed the interests of the moneyed interests -- of business and the banks and Wall Street and the better class of people. In practice, this philosophy was not always attractive, but at least it was honest. It was true to its sincere if self-interested understanding of the way the world worked, and it was true in its avowal of this understanding to the public. It did not pretend to egalitarianism or reform; it boasted not of idealism but of realism.

The other philosophy, generally espoused by liberals and the Democratic Party, argued that America must strive toward the admittedly unreachable ideal of the egalitarian society, that politicians must forever be guarded against their natural desires to favor the moneyed interests over those of the general public, that good government was necessarily clean government. It was the shared (sometimes uncomfortably) philosophy of the working stiff and the reformer. It answered conservatism's realism with liberal moralism, and it gave liberalism for a long time a great strength, the assumption of moral superiority. Clinton's legacy is to create a political system where this strength will no longer exist, where this assumption can no longer stand.

After more than a year of revelations about the Clinton-Gore campaign finances, we know that the president and the vice president and their senior advisers led a campaign to knowingly violate the liberal campaign finance laws that were designed to guard against the influence of the moneyed interests in politics and government. At the heart of this campaign was a White House-directed effort that raised tens of millions in contributions that were packaged as unregulated "soft money" intended for party support and issues advocacy, but that was actually funneled by the White House through the Democratic National Committee to finance a $45 million television advertising campaign directly controlled by the Clinton-Gore campaign and designed to boost the Clinton-Gore ticket. That this "illegal scheme," as Common Cause describes it, was personally supervised by the president is not in doubt.

Listen to Clinton himself, captured on videotaped speeches to donors. To a group of donors at the Hay Adams Hotel on Dec. 7, 1995, this candid explanation: "{W}e realized we could run these ads though the Democratic Party, which means we could raise {unregulated} money in 20, 50 and $100,000 blocks. We didn't have to do it all in $1,000 {regulated} contributions, which is limited by law. So that is what we have done." Or, to another Hay Adams group on Feb. 19, 1996: "In the last quarter of the year . . . we spent about $1 million a week to advertise our point of view to somewhere between 26 and 42 percent of the American electorate. . . . The lead that I enjoy today in public opinion is about one-third due to that advertising."

There used to be two responses to this sort of thing. One was the answer of the Republican realist philosophy: Every politician breaks the laws, which proves that campaign finance laws are unrealistic and should be scrapped. The other was the answer of the Democratic liberal-moralist: The truth must be discovered, the law must be upheld. What the Clinton White House did, and what it has argued in defending what it did, has utterly destroyed the old liberal-moralist position. The good Democrat, who wishes good Democrats to remain in power, now finds himself arguing, along with his president, that the law was never really much to speak of anyway and that this vast and obvious scheme to break it did not, technically, violate its precise letter.

The danger in all of this is not that perpetrators of illegalities will, with the help of a weak and dim attorney general, escape prosecution. Lawbreakers escape prosecution all the time, and the republic doesn't fall. In this case, actually, it would be arguably better for the republic if the perps did get away with it. Who really wants to see the president or vice president hauled into court for their tawdry, grubby scheme? The danger is that by the time the president and his defenders get through with explaining away his actions, they will have explained the reason for their existence away. There will no longer be the two competing philosophies, moralism versus realism. There will no longer, in this old and true and honorable sense of the word, be liberalism. There will only be Clintonism, which is the philosophy that money talks without the honesty to admit itself, and the general public voicing its opinion outside.


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