Supporters of George W. Bush take quiet joy in the spectacle of Al Gore and Bill Bradley running, in the race for the Democratic nomination, steadfastly leftward. The Bushites figure that their man can do very well in a general election contest against a champion of big-government liberalism.
This confidence rests on what is, for Reagan-era conservatives, nearly an article of faith: that voters in the main dislike and mistrust liberal activism, and may be depended upon to reject it. That was once true, but it is not necessarily true anymore, and the reason has a lot to do with conservatism's bete noire: It is, again, mostly Bill Clinton's fault.
When Clinton ran in 1992, Democratic liberalism was still the creature that Republicans knew and loved. The Democratic Party was a Bourbonesque relic, controlled by sclerotic congressional partisans and interest-group self-seekers. Democratic liberalism, seized and corrupted by the left, had descended into a reactionary illiberalism. Democrats, as an institution, stood for the perpetuation of a failed approach to welfare, a failed approach to crime, a failed approach to the Cold War, a failed approach to racial egalitarianism, a failed approach to budgeting, ultimately a failed approach to governing.
In those days, Republicans could depend on Democrats. When Ronald Reagan moved to destroy the evil empire of the Soviets, congressional Democrats and liberals in general derided and denounced him. The Democrats backed a nuclear freeze, opposed efforts to support those fighting communists in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and railed against Reagan's ultimately successful attempts to weaken the Soviet state by escalating the costs of the arms race. When Reagan spoke for the working classes and against disastrous and elitist policies in welfare, crime and education, he could count on liberals to scorn him most terribly. And so continued the steady gains for conservatism and the steady march of the Republican Party toward majority status.
Clinton bid goodbye to this. After the new president repudiated his 1992 centrism and was rewarded with massive voter vengeance in 1994, Clinton moved hard away from the left to reject much of Democratic liberalism's least popular features. He followed the lead of Republican governors and the Republican Congress, and signed on to radical welfare reform. He embraced tougher anti-crime measures than any Republican president had ever dared espouse. He jettisoned Democrats' human-rights idealism in favor of Republicans' frankly mercantile approach to international relations. He apologized for his 1993 tax hike and committed his government to balanced budgeting.
As has been noted by political students from both the right and the left--Norman Podhoretz in National Review and, this week, Sean Wilentz in the New York Times--the cumulative effect of Clinton's triangulation has been to fashion a new liberalism (essentially, a suburban liberalism) with mainstream appeal.
Conservatives are apt to forget that most voters' feelings toward liberalism were until recent years generally ambivalent. Voters have never liked liberalism's love of taxes, and they have at times rejected its love of spending, too. But they can tolerate the taxes in flush times, and they like the spending more than they say they do; they like it fine when it applies to themselves, and at one point or another it applies one way or another to everybody.
What tipped the voters' view of liberalism from ambivalence to antipathy in the 1970s and the 1980s was liberalism's embrace of the left's anti-working-class policies in crime, welfare and race, and its blame-America approach to the Cold War. Well, liberalism (at least, official Democratic Party liberalism) no longer stands (at least, openly) for those policies and values. It stands now for the old verities: spreading the wealth, bashing the corporate villains of the moment, helping out the old folks and the working families. People like this stuff.
Not all the credit for making the world safe for liberalism goes to Clinton. The West's victory in the Cold War forced an end to liberalism's morally bankrupt and politically insane relativism in foreign policy. The courts' rejection of forced busing and affirmative action allowed Democrats largely to drop that unwinning subject.
Nevertheless. Either Al Gore or Bill Bradley will campaign next year for the presidency as a liberal--a new liberal, a reconstructed liberal, but yet a liberal. And as such, either might well beat Bush in November. For this, give the triangulist his due.
Michael Kelly is the editor in chief of National Journal.