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Michael Gerson: Clinton and Bush, challengers to party orthodoxy

Opinion writer

During a presidential election in which both campaigns seem mainly intent on turning out their most ideologically typical voters — through the endless application of construction metaphors (“We did build that!”) or abortion applause lines on demand — it is worth recalling that candidates have not always run and won in this way.

The drought of innovative rhetoric at the conventions led me to reread two campaign speeches that now seem ancient. The first is Bill Clinton’s “New Covenant” address, delivered at Georgetown University on Oct. 23, 1991. The second is George W. Bush’s “Duty of Hope” speech, given in Indianapolis on July 22, 1999. (As a speechwriter, I helped produce the latter.)

There are differences between these appeals. Clinton’s remarks have an edge of economic populism, including criticisms of the “gilded age of greed and selfishness” in the 1980s. Bush’s are less partisan and more religious.

Both approaches, however, are similar in ways that distinguish them from most current political rhetoric. To begin with, these candidates were attempting to appeal to the political middle by challenging their own parties. Clinton pressed for reform of welfare, which should be “a second chance, not a way of life.” He criticized racial quotas, saying, “I’m not for a guarantee for anybody. I’m for responsibility at every turn.” And while urging corporate responsibility, he also defended corporate profits.

Bush was even more explicit in his criticism of generic Republicanism. “The American government is not the enemy of the American people,” he argued. “At times it is wasteful and grasping. But we must correct it, not disdain it. . . . It must act in the common good, and that good is not common until it is shared by those in need.” Bush went on to detail several initiatives designed to encourage drug treatment efforts, after-school programs and mentoring children of prisoners.

These efforts to revise the image of the parties said something not just about the candidates but about the parties themselves. Following 12 years in the presidential wilderness, Democrats were hungry enough to allow Clinton some ideological flexibility. After eight years of Clinton, Republicans were in a similar forgiving mood. In politics, desperation can be a creative force — and could rise in either party following a loss in this election.

Clinton and Bush rooted their appeals in a similar political philosophy — the explicit rejection of both extreme individualism and statism. “We simply have to go beyond the competing ideas of the old political establishment,” Clinton said, “either every man for himself on one hand and something for nothing on the other.” Bush likewise criticized “two narrow mind-sets.” “The first,” he argued, “is that government provides the only real compassion. . . . There is another destructive mind-set: the idea that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved. An approach with no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than, ‘Leave us alone.’ ”

The New Covenant and compassionate conservatism were variations on a very American theme. Individuals and their rights are primary. But people are prepared for the successful exercise of liberty by certain moral commitments — what Clinton called the “daily assumption of personal responsibility.” And those values are shaped in healthy social institutions, both private and public — families and religious congregations, as well as political institutions that encourage equal opportunity and pursue the common good.

These arguments seem distant from our current national debate. “The president,” says Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs, “simply equates doing things together with doing things through government. He sees the citizen and the state, and nothing in between — and thus sees every political question as a choice between radical individualism and a federal program.” Clinton’s endorsement of President Obama as a model New Democrat has served only to highlight the absurdity of this praise.

On the evidence of their convention, Republicans have generally adopted the language of libertarianism, presenting modern politics as a contest between the “makers” and the “takers.” It matters little that Republican policy is not actually libertarian — merely an attempt to keep existing federal health and retirement commitments within a sustainable percentage of the economy. Lacking an adequate language to describe this goal, however, Republicans tend to talk like a hero in an Ayn Rand novel.

Reality is more complex, and problems are more deeply rooted, than the ideological debate we are having. This will be an opportunity for some leader to challenge the “old political establishment” — when his or her party is hungry enough again.

michaelgerson@washpost.com

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