"THE GOOD news is that we may elect a Republican president this year," said Republican consultant Alex Castellanos. "The bad news is that it may be Bill Clinton."
No, Clinton doesn't hold a secret GOP party card. The president is, and has always been, a registered Democrat. But frustration with Clinton's success in co-opting stances associated with Republicans, blurring issues and adopting aspects of Ronald Reagan's rhetorical style penetrates deep on both the right and the left. It's convenient for both ends of the spectrum to think of Clinton as an apostate. And they're not wrong.
Clinton may be the most powerful representative of old-fashioned liberal Republicanism in America. That's because the liberal Republican tradition is so close to collapse in its party of origin. But there's another truth, too: Bringing liberal Republicans into the Democratic fold was a project begun a long time ago by none other than the oldest of the Old Democrats, Franklin Roosevelt. Especially on social policy, Clinton has resurrected the pre-1960s Democratic themes of support for working people, with an old-fashioned emphasis on families. In other words, Clinton is both a liberal Republican and a latter-day Roosevelt Democrat.
The confusion Clinton sows reflects the intricacy of this balance. If Clinton brings these two political strands together for the long haul, he wins reelection and realigns American politics. If he fails, the Democratic party is in danger of becoming a permanent minority.
In trying to be many things to many people -- yes, in his sheer opportunism -- Clinton is also following the FDR model. As the historian Richard Hofstadter noted, Roosevelt "hated to disappoint, liked to play the bountiful friend. He felt that if a large number of people wanted something very badly, it was important that they be given some measure of satisfaction -- and he allowed neither economic dogmas nor political precedents to inhibit him." The subtitle of Hofstadter's famous essay on Roosevelt is: "The Patrician as Opportunist." For Clinton, the subtitle would be: "The Baby Boomer as Opportunist."
Whether a comparison between Clinton and FDR holds overall, this president certainly shares FDR's capacity to infuriate his foes with his unquenchable desire to please.
Republicans are enraged because Clinton has stolen some of their best lines. But by claiming this, they are minimizing their current political troubles. By taking this view, Republicans can explain their failures without having to admit that any of their own ideas are flawed or that their approach to governing after the 1994 elections might have been wrong. Far better to assert that Clinton is a petty ideological thief than to admit that the voters do not like what the Republicans are trying to sell.
Clinton gives the Republicans plenty of ammunition to make this case, especially when he mouths such bromides as "The era of big government is over." What parts of "big government" is Clinton dismantling? Certainly not its biggest parts, Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security. But if the American people are in a mood for rhetoric against big government, Clinton seems inclined to give it to them. For the Democratic left, Clinton's transgression involves not theft but betrayal. On welfare, capital punishment and civil liberties, on trade and the economy, Clinton has been more than happy to join hands with Republicans. Liberal and left Democrats argue that throughout his term Clinton has been more worried about the reactions he got from Wall Street bond traders than from trade unionists.
There is substance to this charge. His reappointment of Alan Greenspan as the chairman of the Federal Reserve ratified Republican policies at the heart of the federal economic machine. His embrace of the global economy through trade agreements such as NAFTA and GATT put him on the same side as Newt Gingrich.
The president was among the first to broach the notion of Clinton as Republican -- albeit more in frustration than pleasure. "Where are all the Democrats?" Clinton cried out at a White House meeting early in his administration, according to "The Agenda," Bob Woodward's account of the first part of the Clinton presidency. "I hope you're all aware we're all Eisenhower Republicans. We're Eisenhower Republicans here, and we are fighting the Reagan Republicans. We stand for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market. Isn't that great?"
His exasperation aside, Clinton was on to something by suggesting that his administration was the only plausible home for the Eisenhower Republican remnant. At least since Gerald Ford lost the presidency in 1976, many Eisenhower Republicans have felt homeless. Their potential heroes, George Bush and now Bob Dole, needed to pay homage to the party's right wing because, as the late Lee Atwater noted, the conservative wing of the party had become its "nominating wing," replacing the old Eastern establishment.
Gradually, some of the most liberal Republicans came to terms with the shift and changed parties. One of the prominent switchers was Clinton's chief of staff, Leon Panetta, who converted from Republican to Democrat in the early 1970s in reaction to the Nixon administration's civil rights policies.
Many of the liberal Republicans who didn't switch and stayed behind to fight lost out in Republican primaries. A singularly important symbol of the transformation of Republicanism was the defeat of the late Jacob Javits, a liberal Republican who represented New York in the Senate for 24 years. Javits was beaten in a 1980 primary by none other than Alphonse D'Amato, now Clinton's leading tormentor in the Senate.
The Javits breed of liberal Republicans opposed neither Wall Street nor Washington. A lot of them worked at one time or another in both places. They were, as Clinton asserted, free traders and internationalists. They were cautious fiscally, but accepted that Washington needed to spend money to solve social problems.
The difference between Clinton and the liberal Republicans of the past is mostly situational. Back in the 1960s, liberal Republicans said the Democratic majority in Congress was right to increase federal spending, but they wanted to spend a little less and to spend it a little differently. Clinton now says to a conservative Republican Congress that he wants to spend a little more, a little differently.
If the Democratic left is frustrated with this, it has reason to be. At the moment most Democrats in Congress are pleased simply because Clinton managed to save the great liberal achievements -- Medicare and Medicaid -- from Republican knives. But frustration levels could rise if Clinton agrees to the dismantling of one of the New Deal's legacies, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a k a welfare.
Clinton's anti-government rhetoric also frustrates Republicans such as Castellanos, partly because they don't think he believes it and partly because it seems to be working.
But Republicans are, if anything, even more upset by Clinton's co-opting of socially conservative themes, especially his direct appeal to suburban working couples worried about how they will manage to raise decent children. The Republicans would like to associate the non-inhaling Clinton with the permissive values of the 1960s. Instead, he has been talking about '90s-style family values.
Castellanos has a shrewd view of what Clinton is up to in pushing such initiatives as school uniforms, teen curfews, crackdowns on truancy, gun restrictions and the V-chip to block obscene programming on television. The president, following the advice of consultant Dick Morris among others, is sending a message to a voter Castellanos calls "soccer mom:" the overburdened, middle income working mother who ferries her kids from soccer practice to scouts to school. Clinton's message is, the government will do what it can to help her raise her kids and establish some order in her family life.
Castellanos adds that Clinton's specific (and putatively liberal) spending commitments -- to Medicare and Medicaid for the parents of "soccer mom" and student loans for her children -- reinforce the message that Clinton and by extension the federal government is a "protector" of her family.
Conservatives, said Castellanos, have always argued in favor of "protecting the family from government." Clinton, for all his rhetoric against big government, is proposing to "protect the family with government."
Castellanos thinks Clinton will preside over the death of New Dealism. But his own analysis points in the opposite direction. For the New Deal, coming as it did before the time of the counterculture and the revolt against "traditional values," was always singularly concerned with using government to protect families: through family wages, through WPA jobs for "breadwinners," through Social Security and, yes, through the AFDC program, which after all was originally designed for widows with children. As Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan argued in his book "Family and Nation," some notion of family policy traditionally ran through federal programs. The loss of this emphasis, he argues, was a grievous blow to sensible policy. Moynihan's analysis leads him to his vehement and courageous opposition to the repeal of the AFDC program and has put him on a collision course with Clinton. The irony is that so many other Clinton policies might be seen as coming from a careful reading of Moynihan and a re-engagement with the older social policy traditions Moynihan admires.
Thus the Clinton gambit: fiscal caution, free trade, social liberalism and a pro-business orientation to pull in the liberal Republicans (and their functional equivalent among the many voters who describe themselves as independents); and a family orientation in social policy that jumps back over the 1960s and looks to the New Deal for inspiration. Ironically, it is in this second area that Clinton uses his most conservative rhetoric to revive support for the very government whose era is supposed to be over.
Will it work? That depends in large part on whether this is all an electoral gimmick designed to win a single election, or whether it represents a longer-term project to change American politics. FDR, for all his opportunism, was a transformational figure. Clinton might pull off something big, too, but only if he can finally put his desire to please to the service of a larger objective. E.J. Dionne Jr. is a Washington Post columnist and the author of "They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives will Dominate the Next Political Era."