Lament of a Clinton Supporter
Just a year ago, in August 1992, I signed a statement (whose publication in the New York Times was paid for by the Clinton campaign) endorsing Bill Clinton for President. Although I, and all the other signers of the statement, were Democrats, most of us were notable for having taken “hard-line” positions in the controversies of the 1980’s, and it was on such grounds that we made our case for Clinton.
The statement praised him for his support of “authentic democrats in the societies of the former Soviet Union” and for his “opposition to the brutal and archaic Communist dictatorship in Beijing.” It praised him, too, for having “taken the lead in urging international action—including, if necessary, the use of U.S. air and naval forces—. . . to prevent Serbia’s national Communist regime from doing violence to neighboring peoples.” It commended him for having “resisted those at home—and in his own party—who propose reckless cuts in our national defense capabilities.” And it asserted that Clinton “understood that this is a time when American leadership can give new energy and purpose to traditional alliances . . . such as . . . NATO . . . [and] can forge closer cooperation . . . with emerging powers, such as Japan.”
The issues enumerated in this statement, however, did not fully explain my support for Clinton. Most of the statement’s 33 signers had been consistently loyal to Democratic candidates despite being out of step with the party’s recent stands on foreign policy. But I, while remaining a registered Democrat, had voted for Reagan and Bush.
As a neoconservative, my overriding interest was foreign policy, and my strongest conviction was that American policy should embody a fusion of idealism and strength. For twenty years the Democrats had been indifferent, even hostile, to the maintenance of American strength. The Republicans, on the other hand, had often been deaf to idealism. Until, that is, Ronald Reagan came along and broke that mold. Reagan, a Republican, combined strength with idealism more effectively than any President since the Democrat Harry Truman.
But then George Bush brought the Republicans back to “realism.” Although he rose admirably to the challenge of Iraqi aggression, he left Saddam Hussein in power for fear of creating a regional “power vacuum.” On other issues, Bush’s foreign policy seemed guided by political expediency, except for his manifest convictions that America should exert less pressure against Deng Xiaoping and more pressure against Yitzhak Shamir.
Not that any of this came as a surprise; Bush was pretty much an open book before he won the presidency. Even though I knew he would pursue a foreign policy deficient in idealism, I supported him in 1988 because his opponent, Michael Dukakis, was a typical Democratic dove whose policies were bound to weaken America internationally. If forced to choose between strength and idealism in U.S. policy, I would always choose strength. A deficiency of idealism could be remedied, whereas a deficiency of strength could prove fatal.
In contrast to Dukakis, Clinton in 1992 did not seem to represent weakness. True, he advocated defense cuts beyond those already exacted by the Bush administration, to the tune of an additional $60 billion over five years. But his campaign was careful to point out that this mirrored the stance of congressional Democrats known for being “pro-defense,” such as Senator Sam Nunn and Representative Les Aspin. And Clinton’s bold stand on Bosnia suggested a willingness to employ force that had been emphatically absent from prevailing Democratic ideology since Vietnam.
To be sure, aware of his record as a youthful antiwar activist during Vietnam, and his roots as a campaigner for George McGovern and a protégé of Senator J. William Fulbright (who had originated the idea that America was guilty of an “arrogance of power”), I had misgivings about Clinton’s rhetorical embrace of a robust foreign policy. Since, however, this was 1992 and not 1988 or 1984, I was willing to gamble. The cold war was over, and there was a greater margin for error. Not that weakness had now become safe; the world remained a dangerous place. But it was a lot less dangerous than it had been. If America had survived four years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency during the very acme of the evil empire, it would, so I reasoned, easily survive four years of Bill Clinton if he were to disappoint me and turn out to be the second coming of Jimmy Carter.
Still, there were reasons to think that Clinton would not disappoint, and these went beyond the encouraging foreign-policy declarations of his campaign. One was the fact that he had served as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a faction within the Democratic party whose express purpose was to pull it toward the Center of the political spectrum. A second was that his campaign had taken the initiative of reaching out to me and other neoconservatives. Of course, all campaigns are eager to find support wherever they can, but we neoconservatives were particularly abhorrent to many Democratic liberals, and by courting us the Clinton campaign seemed to be making a statement.
It seemed to be making a statement as well by keeping Jesse Jackson at arm’s length. For Jackson was the symbol of another cardinal characteristic of the Democratic party during the past twenty years—the uncritical embrace of black militancy. The party often acted as if it took the view that since blacks had been the victims of grievous mistreatment, it was therefore tantamount to racism to resist any black demand, to criticize any black leader, to oppose any policy of preferential treatment of blacks. This way of thinking reached an apogee at the 1984 Democratic convention when a resolution denouncing anti-Semitism was turned aside because it might be seen as a rebuke to Jesse Jackson who had referred to New York City that year as “Hymietown.”
The main practical expression of this patronizing attitude was quotas and other forms of preferential treatment—not only for blacks but also for Hispanics, Native Americans, women, and homosexuals. First adopted by the Democrats in the “McGovern reforms” of 1972, these became a fixture of the party’s own internal organization as well as of the public policies it advocated.
The McGovern rules were notable, among other things, for their double-talk. While they required proportional representation of the accredited groups, a footnote specified that this was not to be achieved “by the mandatory imposition of quotas.” This may have been the origin of a long history of deceit associated with the issue. To this day, the perpetrators of preferential treatment deny that they are imposing “quotas” so long as they do not insist on a precise demographic mix. Yet by selecting people on the basis of their ethnicity, gender, or other group characteristic—as opposed to their individual qualifications—they are engaging in discrimination, and this, not numerical rigidity, is the crux of the matter.
The steadfast opposition to American strength in global affairs and the regimen of special preferences for particular demographic groups constituted the twin pillars of “McGovernism.” Watered-down versions of two key tenets of the New Left of the 1960’s—that America was the great threat to peace in the world, and that the proper goal for American race relations was not civil rights but “black power”—these ideas had been carried from the barricades to the voting booths in 1968 when student activists went “neat and clean for Gene” in working for Senator Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. They had then triumphed within the party in 1972 when McGovern won its presidential nomination. And they had remained party orthodoxy ever since.
My great hope now was that Bill Clinton would break the thrall in which McGovernism had held the Democratic party for twenty long years. Clinton’s advocacy of an assertive foreign policy, his coolness toward Jesse Jackson, his outreach to the party’s Right—not to mention his selection in Al Gore of a moderate running mate and his positions favoring welfare reform, capital punishment, and more police on the beat—all pointed to a new direction. And not just to me, as witness all the talk about Clinton as a “different Democrat” and a “new Democrat.”
Nurturing my hopes even further, soon after our August statement appeared, the Clinton campaign asked some of the signers, including some of us neoconservatives, to draft a speech for the candidate about global democracy. Clinton delivered the speech in Milwaukee on October 1. It turned out to be the only one he made on foreign policy between the nominating convention and the election, giving it a certain centrality.
Then, during his television debates with President Bush, Clinton reiterated his emphasis on the spread of democracy as a principal goal of American foreign policy and, to my delight, he also spoke of the need for a stronger stand on Bosnia. On election night, after winning with 43 percent of the vote against two rivals who stood to his Right, Clinton expressed his wish for a broad government, even including Republicans.
My hopes for a new era of Democratic centrism ran high.
Alas, these hopes almost immediately began to be deflated by the appointments Clinton made in the interregnum between the election and the inauguration.
Three things were disconcerting to me about these early appointments. The first was the choice of Warren Christopher as Secretary of State. A low-key, highly successful corporate lawyer, Christopher had only limited experience in foreign policy, as deputy to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance during the Carter administration and then briefly as Acting Secretary after Vance resigned.
During his tenure under Carter and in the twelve years that followed, Christopher had almost never voiced an opinion in public on any international issue. Therefore his views had largely to be inferred from the record of his patron, Vance, who had been the main architect of Carter’s policy of seeking peace by palliating all adversaries—an approach branded “appeasement” by the late (Democratic) Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson.
That Vance had changed little since his Carter days was obvious from his role in the recent Bosnia crisis. He and Britain’s Lord Owen busied themselves drawing maps while campaigning against military assistance to the Bosnian victims of Serbian aggression, oblivious to the reality that no compromise could be reached unless the hand of aggression could be stayed by countervailing force.
As for Christopher himself, his sole publication was a monograph issued by his law firm titled Diplomacy: The Neglected Imperative. Here, in reviewing the Iran hostage crisis, Christopher declared: “I believe we should grasp, as a central lesson of the crisis, the wisdom in seeking negotiated settlements to international disputes.” Insofar as it was not just vacuous, this sentiment revealed the same spirit that Scoop Jackson had characterized as appeasement. Why label Iran’s unprovoked attack on American civilians as a “dispute” to be “negotiated,” rather than a crime to be punished, an aggression to be repulsed, or an injury to be avenged?
Nor was the Clinton State Department leavened by the next level of appointees; on the contrary, the emptiness was reinforced. Clifton R. Wharton, Jr., an economist, former college president, and pension-fund administrator unknown in most foreign-policy circles, was named Deputy Secretary, apparently because he was black.
To the Department’s third-ranking position, Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Clinton named Peter Tarnoff, another Vance protégé. Of establishmentarian demeanor and dovish opinion, Tarnoff had accused the Bush administration of having a “cold-war mentality”; opposed the war against Saddam Hussein; and called the Pentagon’s plans to preserve American preeminence “chilling.”
With the appointment of Christopher and this team, my fond hopes for a vigorous Clinton foreign policy, as expressed in the August ad, were all but out the window. True, the appointment of R. James Woolsey as director of Central Intelligence was heartening; he had been one of the other signers of that ad. And Les Aspin was a reasonable choice for Secretary of Defense, although I would much have preferred Congressman Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma, an early and ardent Clinton supporter who had spearheaded the recruitment of neoconservatives to the campaign.
In any case, however worthy these other men, foreign policy is formulated and executed primarily by the State Department, and I could not imagine how a policy combining strength with idealism could be led by a man like Warren Christopher, who was so manifestly indifferent to both.
The second troubling thing about Clinton’s early appointments was the rampant imposition of ethnic and gender preferences. Among others, the position of Attorney General was widely—and accurately—reported to be reserved for a woman (even after two consecutive female nominees had to be withdrawn, Clinton persevered in finding a third woman for the post).
Meanwhile, all over Washington, Democratic acitivists and officials were sharing anecdotes about aspirants who had been turned aside for being white and male, and about requests from Clinton talent-hunters for names of women or minorities for one subcabinet position or another. Even homosexual groups were carefully given their due, with the gay activist Bob Hattoy employed in the White House personnel office and the lesbian activist Roberta Achtenberg—who had opposed United Way funding of the Boy Scouts for barring homosexual scoutmasters—named Assistant Secretary of Housing.
Thus, as my hopes for a vigorous foreign policy had been dashed by the appointment of Christopher, so now my hopes that Clinton would return the Democratic party to its honorable tradition of championing equal rights were mocked by the madcap pursuit of “diversity.”
The third thing that bothered me about Clinton’s early appointments was in part personal. Having actively supported Clinton, and having written books about human rights and democracy as issues in foreign policy, I felt I was a plausible candidate for the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights. But as a neoconservative, I was anathema to the party’s Left, which mounted a fierce opposition to my candidacy that succeeded in killing it.
By contrast, when an equivalent position was created within the Defense Department, it was immediately filled (on an interim basis to begin with), without protest or demurral, by Morton Halperin, a veteran battler for causes that ranged from liberal to hard-Left. From the mid-1970’s until the mid-1980’s, for example, Halperin served as the director of the Center for National Security Studies, a spin-off of the radical Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). He also served in the 1970’s as chairman of the Campaign to Stop Government Spying, an anti-intelligence coalition numbering among its member organizations the Black Panther party, the Committee for Justice for Huey P. Newton, the National Committee to Reopen the Rosenberg Case, Women Strike for Peace, the National Lawyers Guild, the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, and sundry other hard-Left groups. Clearly, it was easy to be too far to the Right for the Clinton team, but it was hard to be too far to the Left.1
One office-seeker, however, managed that difficult feat. This was Johnetta Cole, the president of Spelman College in Atlanta, who headed the Clinton transition team dealing with education, labor, and the humanities, and was considered likely to be named Secretary of Education. But her elevation was aborted when the Forward and then other news organizations reported her record of leadership in the blatantly pro-Soviet U.S. Peace Council and the Castroite Venceremos Brigade. When the story of Cole’s political affiliations broke, Clinton spokesmen at first dismissed it as “something we’re just not concerned about.” But eventually they quietly distanced themselves from her, without explaining why they had entrusted an important responsibility to the political likes of such a person in the first place.
A politically-outré candidate like Johnetta Cole aside, liberal Democrats fared very well with Clinton. Donna Shalala, Robert Reich, Ron Brown, Mickey Kantor, and scores of others won the appointments they coveted. On the opposite end of the Democratic spectrum, however, I was not alone in my failed ambitions. Most of my colleagues in the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM) who had worked for Clinton’s election met disappointment. More surprisingly, much the same held for the leaders of the Democratic Leadership Council, even though it was regarded as Clinton’s home base.
Later, a few CDM and DLC types did get appointments, but rarely what they had wished for, and not nearly enough to change the feeling I shared with many other people that the Democratic Center and the Democratic Right were the big losers in the job sweepstakes.
In Addition to the problem of appointments there was the problem of the new President’s wife. After the election she stopped calling herself Hillary Clinton and began to use the name Hillary Rodham Clinton. The change was innocuous, but it sounded an alarm within me. She had gone by her husband’s name during the campaign. Why not stick with it? Apparently using her maiden name was important enough to her so that she and Bill were willing to endure some raised eyebrows. But this meant that she had submerged her true preferences during the campaign for the sake of appearances—the rhetorical equivalent of going “neat and clean for Gene.” It made me wonder what other true preferences she might have hidden.
Daniel Wattenberg of the American Spectator and others had reported on Mrs. Clinton’s background as a student radical in the 1960’s. As spokesman for her Wellesley class at its commencement, she declared:
Our freedom from the burden of an inauthentic reality allowed us to question basic assumptions underlying our education. . . . Our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.
That was 1968, but the record of her chairmanship of the New World Foundation during 1987 and 1988 indicated that she might not entirely have outgrown her youthful leftism. Wattenberg revealed that the foundation had supported such hard-Left fringe organizations as the Christic Institute and CISPES (the support group for El Salvador’s Communist guerrillas); and a small flap ensued during the campaign when it was reported that some New World money had also found its way indirectly to the PLO.
Friends within the Clinton camp with whom I discussed these revelations pointed out that although she had been chairman of the board, Mrs. Clinton might have been led by the foundation’s staff to approve things she knew little about. This was plausible, and I was told by leaders of the DLC during the campaign that she had been an ally, not an adversary, in their efforts to keep her husband on a centrist course. She understood well, they said, that a tack to the Left would be a severe liability. Yet her change of name on the morrow of the election made me wonder whether the political centrism she had demonstrated during the campaign had also just been a temporary bow to political expediency. Perhaps something of the real Hillary Rodham Clinton was to be found in the New World Foundation?
A closer look at the record of that foundation gave more reasons for concern. Since its staff remained relatively stable while the chairmanship rotated every two years, I had imagined that the donations to the far Left were a tradition that had merely been continued during Mrs. Clinton’s tenure. But it turned out that under her chairmanship, the number of leftist groups receiving funding actually increased several times over.
Thus, in addition to Christic and CISPES, the list of beneficiaries included such politically like-minded organizations as the National Lawyers Guild; Clergy and Laity Concerned; the Center for Constitutional Rights; the Youth Project and the Institute for Southern Studies (two IPS spinoffs); the Institute for Media Analysis (which sponsored a celebrated conference against “anti-Communism”); and lots more.
Moreover, in her foreword to the board’s biennial report, Mrs. Clinton took explicit note of the increase in the number of such beneficiaries. “The foundation has turned increasingly to the support and development of progressive activist organizations,” she wrote. “. . . We have made mostly general support grants, rather than project grants, so as to provide core support to organizers and advocates.”
The issue of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s ideological bent gained urgency from the other major change in her status that emerged after the election—her role as a full partner with her husband in making governmental decisions.
Early in the campaign, Bill Clinton had been quoted as saying of himself and Hillary: “Buy one, get one free.” But this had not gone over well, and Hillary had adopted a lower profile during the heart of the campaign. Now it appeared not only that she was involved in all decisions about staffing the administration, but even that candidates for posts in the cabinet had gone to the White House once for an interview with Bill and then again for (a longer) one with Hillary. Newsweek quoted an unnamed White House aide: “She isn’t just in the loop, she is the loop.”
Thanks to all this, by Inauguration Day, my Election Day hopes were turning into fears.
In the next five months, things got worse.
As it happens, I was all in favor of Clinton’s announced determination to reduce the deficit, and I had no quarrel with his view that this could not be done without a combination of higher taxes and spending cuts. But what did bother me—and what belied Clinton’s rhetorical campaign commitment to American strength—was the difference in the way he treated domestic spending as against spending for defense. Whereas the Clinton budget proposed a mix of increases and cuts in domestic spending that resulted at best in a wash, the Pentagon was being asked to drink the bitter potion of stringency to the last drop.
Gone now was the Clinton campaign’s pledge of a $60-billion cut, in line with Aspin’s and Nunn’s proposals; instead, Clinton proposed a cut of twice that size, $120 billion. This cut, furthermore, was calculated against a “baseline” of the last Bush-administration defense projections which themselves had called for annual decreases. (Clinton’s domestic cuts, in contrast, were calculated against a baseline that increased every year to compensate for inflation and growth in the number of people served by each program.) On top of this, some of the funds counted with in the defense budget were earmarked for converting defense industries to civilian ones, a project which would contribute nothing to military strength.
The deep cuts proposed by Clinton were driven entirely by budgetary goals, and the administration conceded that it had not yet completed its own “bottom-up” review of American defense needs and costs. What was undeniable, however, was that cuts of this magnitude would compel not only more big reductions in land and naval forces and the cancellation of weapons, but in all likelihood reductions in force readiness as well.
The practical implications of Clinton’s plan became clear when Secretary Aspin suggested that the Pentagon was moving from a “two-war” to a “one-and-a-half-war” capability. This new strategy was dubbed “win-hold-win,” meaning that if faced with conflicts in two theaters—say, the Persian Gulf and Korea—the United States would have only enough forces to win one at a time. We would aim merely to hang on in one theater while using most of our forces to win in the other, and then redeploy them. A former Pentagon official, Dov Zakheim, called this a strategy of “win-hope-win” because of the uncertainties of military outcomes, and the Washington Post quoted senior officers who were even less charitable in their alternative tags: “win-hold-oops” and “win-lose-lose.”
Michael Handel of the Naval War College observed that an earlier version of “win-hold-win” was the Schlieffen Plan that drove German strategy in World War I. The idea was to defeat France quickly while “holding” Russia and then transferring forces to the Eastern front. The imperative of defeating France quickly led Germany to violate Belgium’s neutrality which, fatefully for Germany, precipitated Britain’s entry into the war. (The irony that Germany won on the front it was trying to hold and was stalemated on the front it was trying to win only underlines the limits of military foresight, and therefore the wisdom of erring in the direction of maintaining too large a force rather than too small.)
Finally, “win-hold-win” would mean that every time the United States deployed its forces against a Saddam Hussein, some other miscreant would be emboldened by the knowledge that we lacked the ability to stop him from any adventure he might be contemplating.
Nine days after announcing the new strategy, Aspin recanted, declaring, according to the Washington Post, “that the United States can and should preserve its ability to fight and win two regional wars at once, even while making big cuts in forces and personnel.” But since the administration was not backing away from any of its defense-budget cuts, Aspin’s recantation offered cold comfort. If there is one thing more dangerous than a one-and-a-half-war strategy, it is a two-war strategy with one-and-a-half war forces.
Clinton’s defense budget followed hard upon his order to admit homosexuals into the military and Aspin’s order to allow women in combat roles. Whatever the merits of these two innovations, they were unwelcome to most men and women in service, who were already reeling from the announced cuts that jeopardized their careers and seemed to belittle the importance of their mission. Taken together, these policies were certain to undermine the morale of the military, just when the élan and competence of the all-volunteer force had shown itself, in Operation Desert Storm, to be one of our country’s great assets.
Clinton’s highly publicized visits to military ships and bases were evidently intended to counteract this blow to morale. But such pats on the head could scarcely erase the impression that Clinton saw the military not as intrinsically precious but as a resource to be exploited for more important purposes—a milk cow for other budgetary priorities and a laboratory for social experiments.
During the presidential campaign, Clinton, chastised for having evaded the draft, labored to portray himself as equal to the responsibilities of commander-in-chief. The earnest of his toughness was his advocacy of military measures to thwart Serbian aggression in Bosnia. But once in office, Clinton turned a blind eye to Bosnia, complaining that “I don’t want to have to spend any more time on [Bosnia] than is absolutely necessary, because what I got elected to do was to let America look at our own problems.”
When the administration addressed the issue in February, Christopher announced that America would “throw the full weight of our diplomacy” into it—apparently an application of his “neglected imperative” theory. Then in May, after the situation had grown worse, Clinton made it known that he had settled on military action—arming the Bosnians and aiming airstrikes against Serbian artillery—and that Christopher would travel to Europe to sell this to our allies. But the “neglected imperative” failed again: upon his return, Christopher announced that he could not persuade the allies.
Questions later arose about just how hard Christopher had tried to win allied backing for Clinton’s military proposal. William Safire of the New York Times reported that the NATO commander, Manfred Wörner, had offered to help line up support but that Christopher had brushed this aside. And some British officials hinted to journalists that their government had been prepared to yield to American pressure, but, as one of these officials put it to Time, Christopher left “the impression that he had no views one way or other.”
Thereafter, the administration addressed the problem mostly in alibis. Clinton insisted that he had not changed his mind about the desirability of military action but that he was helpless because “The United Nations controls what happens in Bosnia.” Christopher moaned that Bosnia was a “problem from hell,” while dismissing Margaret Thatcher’s appeal for action as “emotional.” Shamefully, he testified in mid-May before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that “there is considerable fault on all three sides” in Bosnia and “atrocities by all three,” assertions that were at once contradicted—in a secret memo eventually leaked to the New York Times—by the State Department official charged with monitoring human-rights abuses in Bosnia.
In June, Clinton sent a letter to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl requesting that he raise anew the issue of military action on Bosnia at a meeting of European leaders. Kohl complied, only to have the administration announce that Clinton had not meant it. The Washington Post noted “the amazing incompetence of having the President say something one day to a foreign leader on a subject of great sensitivity and importance and almost immediately claim it wasn’t at all what he meant.”
Still, as the Post added, the problem went deeper than incompetence; it went to outlook or vision. Midway into Clinton’s fifth month in office, the Post columnist David Broder reported that “the NATO allies, along with the leaders of the major trading nations and the former Soviet empire, . . . are united in their dismay at what they see happening to America’s President and America’s capacity to lead.” And Flora Lewis wrote in the New York Times that “What is bothersome is the odor of weakness coming from Washington.”
This odor was made even more pungent by Peter Tarnoff, the Under Secretary for Political Affairs. In a background briefing to reporters he explained that Christopher’s failure to win European support for military action in Bosnia was not a setback but rather the opening of a new era of deliberately reduced American leadership. In this era, he said, “our economic interests are paramount” and America must “define the extent of its commitment [which] may on occasion fall short of what some Americans would like and others might hope for.”
About Christopher’s European consultations, Tarnoff observed that European leaders “were genuinely disarmed by the fact that he was there to consult. . . . He did not have a blueprint.” He added: “The approach is difficult for our friends to understand. It is not different by accident, it’s different by design.” Difficult to understand, indeed. The outcry of alarm from foreign leaders extended even to the Foreign Minister of Sweden, not a country famous as a cheerleader for American power, who commented: “What the United States says about its own role is very important. It is really tragic to give a signal to the world that you are not prepared to pursue your leadership.”
The White House and Christopher quickly disavowed Tarnoff, but he was not punished and the disavowals rang hollow. After all, what Tarnoff said at the briefing was not much different from what Christopher himself said that same night on Nightline. Also defending inaction on Bosnia, he argued: “If we insisted on doing everything ourselves, we would not be a superpower.” We must, he continued, “save our power for those situations which threaten our deepest national interest.” Such as? “If we were really threatened by something, if our national interest were at stake—for example, if somebody was invading us—of course we’d act alone.”
Christopher’s failure to offer any illustration of a proper use of U.S. military power other than to defend our own shores surely heightened, rather than allayed, anxieties in friendly foreign capitals. So, too, with his implication that power is a commodity that gets used up if it is not husbanded—a remark which made the Secretary appear to be completely innocent of the dynamics of international politics.
While Tarnoff and Christopher were pouring cold water on the hopes I and other neoconservative Democrats had for Clinton in foreign policy, the nomination of Lani Guinier to head the civil-rights division of the Justice Department and some speeches by Hillary Rodham Clinton were doing the same in the area of domestic affairs.
Critics dubbed Guinier the “quota queen,” an unfortunate epithet because it seemed mean-spirited and because the nostrums she favored in fact went far beyond quotas. As her writings demonstrated, Guinier would not be satisfied with proportional representation of minority groups in education, jobs, and government office. For her, the holy grail was “proportional legislative power” in which “each group has a right to have its interests satisfied a fair proportion of the time.” The goal was “Roughly equal outcomes, not merely an apparently fair process.”
Toward this end Guinier would dismantle the American system, by court decree, and replace it with one tailored less to the representation of individuals and more to the representation of ethnic groups—a system reminiscent of the former Yugoslavia. Or, to take the example that Guinier herself offered: “What I am talking about is really no different than what the white minority is talking about in South Africa.”
Nor was this all. Representation for blacks, she explained, required not merely black representatives but “authentic” black representatives who, unlike Virginia’s Governor Douglas Wilder, would be “politically, psychologically, and culturally black.” Guinier, in short, held views on race about as extreme as anyone this side of the apostles of violence. Her nomination as the nation’s top civil-rights official reinforced the message of the “diversity” crusade—that this President was aiming for something other than a color-blind America.
As for Mrs. Clinton, she was making statements that to me—and again, not to me alone—called into question the administration’s underlying intellectual seriousness and even its common sense.
Speaking to an audience in Texas, the First Lady asserted: “We are, I think, in a crisis of meaning. . . . What do our lives in today’s world mean?” She continued: “We need a new politics of meaning. . . . It is not going to be easy to redefine who we are as human beings in this postmodern age.” When Michael Kelly of the New York Times suggested a little wickedly to her during an interview that it sounded as if she was “trying to come up with a unified-field theory of life,” she replied: “That’s right, that’s exactly right.” She confessed, however, that “we have to first create a language that would better communicate what we are trying to say.”
Kelly pointed out that passages of Mrs. Clinton’s Texas speech were nearly the same as passages from her Wellesley commencement address, which raised anew the question of how straight, and how short, a line she had traveled from Wellesley in 1968 to the New World Foundation in 1987 to the White House in 1993. The question was underscored by her widely-publicized acknowledgment of the influence on her of the editor of the leftist Jewish magazine Tikkun, Michael Lerner. It was Lerner who had coined the phrase, “the politics of meaning,” and who had advanced the ludicrous proposal that “Clinton require every administration program to be accompanied by an ethical impact report that would demonstrate how the program contributes to a sense of solidarity and caring among the people whose lives it touches.”
As a busy New Left activist in the 60’s, Lerner had been, among other things, a leader of the Seattle Liberation Front which violently closed down the University of Washington in 1970. Although he no longer professed Marxism, Lerner’s current writings often amounted to much the same thing in many of the same words. Recently, for instance, he had lamented “the reorganization of the workplace in ways that increased productivity or profit by decreasing for most workers the degree to which they could use their intelligence and creativity” and “the commodification of nearly everything . . . the fostering of a marketplace mentality in human relations.” Instead of attributing these well-worn formulas to the Communist Manifesto, where most college students first encounter them, Lerner claimed to have discovered them in his psychological “research.”
Lerner was ostentatiously Jewish, which made some people think that he had outgrown his juvenile political fanaticism. But a closer look revealed that his religiosity consisted largely of reducing Judaism to a collection of leftist fads and New Age clichés. To cite only one illustration, he had amended the confessional Yom Kippur prayer (al het) to include the “sins” of “accepting the current distribution of wealth and power,” “participating in a racist society,” “not doing enough to save the environment,” “not doing enough to challenge sexist institutions,” and “turning our back on the oppression of gays and lesbians.”
Like Mrs. Clinton, Lerner came across as someone who yearned to think deep thoughts. Their partnership brought ridicule on the administration even as Guinier inspired outrage and Tarnoff aroused alarm.
After four months, the Clinton presidency found itself in free fall. Time ran a cover title, “The Amazing Shrinking President,” and Clinton’s approval ratings dropped to the lowest in the history of polling for this point in a President’s term. Gallup found that only 37 percent approved Clinton’s performance while 49 percent disapproved. This correlated with a change in perceptions of Clinton’s ideology. A CBS/New York Times poll showed that while in January 39 percent had identified Clinton as a moderate and 36 percent as a liberal, by June 47 percent saw him as liberal and 31 percent as moderate, a swing of 19 percentage points. Yankelovich meanwhile reported that 41 percent found Clinton “too liberal” while only 15 percent found him “not liberal enough” and 35 percent “just about right.” This, too, was a big shift since January.
In response to the sense that his presidency was dying in its cradle, Clinton stunned political observers by hiring a former Reagan strategist, David Gergen, to be his communications director and senior counselor. Then, in short order the President yanked the nomination of Guinier on the ground that her writings “lend themselves to interpretations that do not represent the views that I expressed on civil rights during my campaign”; appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg, widely regarded as a moderate, whom he had previously passed over, to the Supreme Court; backed down in the Senate on parts of his economic plan; retreated considerably on the issue of lifting the military’s ban on gays; and ordered a modest military strike against Iraq in retaliation for the plot to assassinate former President Bush. Along the way, in an interview with the columnist Ben Wattenberg, he described himself as a “moderate” rather than a “liberal.” All this seemed to signal a rather sharp course correction.
But so what? Much that Clinton has done since the election gives the impression that the inner compass that was forged in the McGovern campaign, and perhaps in his marriage to Hillary, pulls him to the Left until the force of public opprobrium deflects him back toward the Center. If that is so, we may be in for three-and-a-half more years of zigs and zags.
On the other hand, it is not too late for Clinton to make something more than a tactical shift. Not everything he has done since January has been disappointing to me. I was heartened by the support he gave to Boris Yeltsin at the Vancouver summit and by his decision to launch Asia Democracy Radio, an analogue to Radio Free Europe. Perhaps he can yet rediscover the moderate voice that he found as chairman of the DLC and during much of his campaign.
Some commentators say that to do this, Clinton should focus on “New Democrat” issues like welfare and education reform. Perhaps, but those issues turn out to be slippery. Although his “New Democrat” pledge to “end welfare as we know it” played well with conservative voters, his task force on the subject revealed that the new services contemplated to replace welfare would actually cost taxpayers more. And while Clinton was once an apostle of the “standards” movement in education reform, his administration introduced an education-reform bill that called for national student tests to be graded by race.
To me, as I have already indicated, being a “New Democrat” means more: it means breaking with the twenty-year tradition of McGovernite liberalism. To do that, Clinton would have to execute an about-face on his policies toward the military. He would have to get himself a Secretary of State capable of conducting the kind of engaged policy described in the statement I signed last August. And he would have to return to the creed of equal rights and equal opportunity instead of discrimination in the name of “diversity” and “equal results.”
I certainly hope that Clinton will do all these things. But this time around, after watching him in action since Election Day, I am hoping with a sinking heart.
1 Five months later, as Republicans in the Senate began mobilizing against Halperin's confirmation, Clinton—by then in the midst of the effort, described below, to play down his liberal image—was reported to be backing away from the nominee.