How Clinton Shifted the Center of American Politics
2004 Jefferis Kent Peterson, I
Although the Democrats decry George W. Bush for being a willing accomplice of corporations bent on economic domination of the middle class, the truth of the matter is that George Bush has moved the United States further down the road towards economic socialism than has any previous president, including Bill Clinton. In the 1996 Presidential campaign, Bill Clinton won the economic debate by painting Republicans as callous scrooges who want to rob the poor and elderly. His ploy worked and he convinced the average American that Democrats were more compassionate. In framing the debate this way, Clinton crushed the Conservatives under foot. Ever since that time debates on economic policies have taken a decided turn to the left. The ideas of true economic conservatism do not stand a chance in the current political climate. In order to prevent a repeat of the accusations of the past, George Bush strategically moved far to the left, adopting liberal economic policies as his own. The left turn was necessary to stop Republicans from becoming easy targets for the Democrat's slogan machines. George Bush learned well: if you want to win elections, don't debate real issues, use slogans and sound bites. And above all, don't require the electorate to have to think. It is a recipe for disaster.
First of all, we must distinguish between moral and economic conservatism. Democrats are far more upset over Bush's traditional values and military policies than they are over his economic plans. They are scared to death Bush will get reelected and appoint the next Supreme Court justices. However, anti-war sentiments and judicial fears resonate only with the left-most segment of the Democratic party. The Democrats need a broader political issue that can catch fire, so they pick the economy because people are always afraid of losing their jobs. While the country remains fairly divided over moral issues, what has changed is popular agreement on matters of economics. Even Compassionate Conservatives have become economic liberals.
What happened to Conservatives? Bill Clinton happened to them in 1996. In 1994, Bill Clinton was chastised by a huge midterm Republican victory in the House of Representatives. This victory was in part a backlash against Clinton's promotion of homosexuality in a the military and Hillary's secret plan to put all medical services under government control. It seemed at the time that Clinton's days were numbered. But in 1996, Clinton capitalized on America's fears and emotions to turn the debate to issues of economic policy. The conservative push for a balanced budget was a gold mine for Clinton. While the Republican House wanted to restrain the growth of federal spending, Clinton accused the Republicans of wanting to cut school lunch programs for hungry and needy children and starve the elderly by cutting Social Security. In truth, the Republicans were allowing spending to increase in both of those areas; they were just not spending as much as Clinton wanted to spend and that opened them to the charge of "favoring the rich and not caring about the poor." This perception stuck in the mind of the electorate and the truth became irrelevant.
The American people are a compassionate people, and they don't want the elderly or the young to starve. Clinton's rhetoric struck a chord with the compassionate nature of most Americans. The Conservative's problem is that the American people no longer respond to facts, they respond to perceptions and emotions. They were convinced by the slogans that the Republicans were mean spirited and heartless. A complicit media was largely silent and did not bring up Clinton's factual errors, while the majority of the people were content to decide major issues on the basis of television sound bites. Without bothering to check the facts, the people believed what they were told. So, they voted Bill Clinton back into office by good margin, and the Republicans, tails between their legs, learned a valuable lesson. You cannot win the presidency by promising fiscal responsibility if being responsible opens you up to the charge of oppressing the poor and the needy. Even if you are not trying to deprive the poor, it only takes one political lie to create the perception that you are, and you will lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people.
In 2000, the country was equally divided. Bush's election victory over Al Gore was probably due more to the nation's disgust over Clinton's sexual indiscretions than to any policy views. Bush was chosen just as Jimmy Carter was elected to cleanse the country of the Nixon stain. Bush's narrow margin of victory assured that attempts to privatize Social Security went nowhere. Tax cuts passed, yes, but even the average Democrat likes tax cuts, so aside from tax cuts, Bush has not made much progress on his economic agenda.
As Bush as positioned himself for the next election, we see that he has ceded all economic ground to liberal causes to the point that Democrats accuse Mr. Bush of stealing their issues. Bush has given the Left no room to criticize him for hard heartedness towards the poor or seniors. Bush has proposed massive spending for education, vast government policies to govern national education goals. He had Ted Kennedy co-author the legislation. Bush has proposed public school performance accountability. He has proposed and passed prescription drug coverage for the elderly, creating a new entitlement and retirement benefit that will end up raising deficits and costing the taxpayers a great deal of money. He and his Republican allies have spent on domestic programs of every sort, robbing the Democrats of issue after economic issue. None of these programs could be called conservative economic policies. Yet strategically, George Bush has realized that to win the vote and to win the hearts of the American people, and to win in November, he must pander to the people who cry out for services and benefits from the government. Bush has ceded the issues of economics in order to win what he considers the most important battle of all: the war on terror. He is willing to abandon conservative economic principals, and he must, in order to pursue his other agendas. Rather than blame Bush for his surrender on economic polices, one must commend him for his shrewdness. He does not fight battles he cannot win. He has recognized the mood and the heart of the American people. We have become socialist in our economic ideas and in our desire to have the government fix and solve all our personal problems and financial ills. No one who advocates true conservative economics can get elected in this climate. No one who really believes in smaller government can succeed.
When waging political war, you must recognize the battles you can win and those you cannot. Winning the hearts of the people over fiscal conservatism is a lost cause. The only remedy for this excess will be the collapse of the economy in massive debts, or the rebellion of the people over the crushing taxes they have voted for themselves. That's right, it is not George Bush who is to blame for this demand for government services at public expense, we the people are. Alexander Fraser Tyler wrote prophetically, "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can exist only until the voters discover they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that democracy always collapses over a loose fiscal policy, always to be followed by a dictatorship." We, the people, who now look to the government to solve all our problems, have abandoned that self-reliant spirit that founded the nation. Instead, we are becoming serfs on the government's plantation doomed to pay more taxes as a percentage of our income. In exchange, we expect the government to assure us health care, jobs, food, clothes, and contentment. If those things are not provided, we will blame the man, or woman, and party in office. George W. Bush wisely does not want to find himself the target of popular wrath, and so he has done his best to fight a rear guard action restraining what expenditures and polices he can, but he has given up the battle. He wouldn't even dare risk the political fallout that would have occurred if he had opposed prescription drug coverage for seniors. The next election would have turned on that one sloganeering issue, defining Bush forever as a heartless extremist who cares nothing for the elderly poor. His recent promise to veto a national highway bill is mere tokenism a gesture of sympathy to the tiny minority of fiscal conservatives left in his Republican base. In the end, they too will vote for Bush because he promises to be the lesser of two economic evils, but they will not be happy about it.
Whether George Bush will win is now an open question, but it is clear he believes that in order to win he has had to implement most of Democrat's economic agenda. Bush moved to the left to stay in the center where Bill Clinton and the Democrats have drawn the new mid field line.