If President Clinton wants to find his legacy, all he has to do is disguise himself, sneak out of the White House and go to a George W. Bush campaign event. There he will see a man young like him, southernish like him, attractive like him, emphasizing education as he once did and prodding his party to the center. For the GOP, always a bit late, it's still 1992.
That was the year Clinton ran for the presidency and also the year he stood before Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition and took a whack at the rap singer Sister Souljah. She had distinguished herself after the Los Angeles riots with ugly language--"If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?"--that seemed to appall almost everyone but Jackson.
He asked her to speak, and Clinton, who followed the next day, said what he thought. He simply and accurately suggested that if the words white and black were transposed, it would sound like something David Duke might say. Jackson, the very personification of a left-wing Democrat, was not pleased.
Now it is the turn of the Republican Party's congressional leadership not to be pleased. Twice in recent weeks, Bush has taken them to task, characterizing the congressional wing of his own party with such precision that his portrait is virtually a photograph.
"Too often, on social issues, my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah," the candidate said here earlier this week. A bit later he added, "Too often my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself." He spoke, as he always does, of the need for compassion, racial justice and quality education--and not, pointedly, like the congressional scolds who don red ties and synthetic smiles to suggest they will, in Bush's own words, "balance the budget on the backs of the poor."
Standing in the back of the room, a disguised Clinton could only smile at all that. He could recall how he, too, took on his own party and how he also made a name for himself as a southern governor who emphasized education. In fact, the very school Bush visited here--the Sisulu Children's Academy--was just the sort of Harlem stop that Clinton used to make as a campaigner and which so impressed the traveling press corps. He was great with the kids and the parents as well--although he did not favor school vouchers.
But Clinton might take even more pleasure from the stock speech Bush delivered later that day. In it, he said he would be tough on criminals, tough on deadbeat dads, tough on tariffs and other trade barriers, tough on mediocrity in education. It is the Clinton program, not down to the last detail, but close enough. In fact, when Bush spoke of personal responsibility--of what a man owes the children he fathers--I could close my eyes and hear Clinton saying the exact same thing. Maybe the audience could as well. Much of it was inattentive.
Bush is being compared to William McKinley, the obscure Republican president who transformed his party and made it dominant until FDR and the New Deal. Good luck to him. But the novelty of Bush is not what he says but that a self-proclaimed Republican conservative is saying it. The issues he enumerated--crime, for example--not only echo Clinton but no longer have the punch they once had.
Who can talk about crime without noting that the murder rate alone has dropped by about 35 percent since Bill and Hillary moved into the White House? Similarly, how can anyone talk of reducing welfare rolls without noting that they too have been reduced? Only when he vowed to accord the presidency the dignity it deserved did Bush say something that Clinton could not--no longer, anyway.
No, it's Clinton who is the McKinleyesque figure. He occupies the middle of the road with such effect that Bush has little choice but to join him. That explains his campaign video, which is not about what Bush has done but about how popular he is. It uses newspaper and magazine blurbs--"George W. Bush is the GOP's best hope in 2000," said Fortune--as if he were a Broadway show. In other words, he's popular because he's popular. This is exceedingly thin ice indeed, a campaign for class president.
I pity this crop of presidential candidates. The nation is prosperous. It is at peace. Crime is down. Problems abound, but crises do not. Bill Clinton has smothered his opposition and ensured his legacy. The next administration will be like his--even if it's a Republican one.