Former President Bill Clinton rambled so much Saturday night in a speech to the Virginia State Democratic Convention — and we all know how he can get sometimes — that just about anyone could cite his remarks as supportive of their position on this stimulus dispute.
I'm no exception. I'm going to appropriate his remarks for my purposes.
First, and Clinton was not at all ambiguous on this: He said Democrats had won the culture war. Yes, he made that pronouncement flatly. He spiked that ball.
Clinton said that Richard Nixon started the culture war in 1968 with that “Southern strategy” to tap white racism to turn old Dixie into a Republican base. He said his own political career had struggled against that tide for 40 years. He said Democrats had shattered it at last with Barack Obama's victory, on account of its placement of an African-American man into the presidency at this very emergence of a post-racial society in which there's so much more than black and white going on.
But Clinton said the victory was not for liberalism, but communitarianism, a big word for bringing us together from our new diversity into common advocacy. He said the victory was not to decide “how much” we spend on noble-sounding programs, which was the old Democratic paradigm, but a mandate for a new imperative based on “how effectively” we spend to solve problems.
He said there was no point in Democrats attacking Republicans because Republicans had rendered themselves irrelevant and now needed to be about the internal work of figuring out how to restructure themselves. He said Democrats had been “hired to do a job,” which was to steer the nation out of this near-depression, and that they'd best be about it without the usual partisan claptrap — claptrap being my word, not his.
I say amen to that, and I presume to co-opt Clinton into my alliance against conventional liberals who disagree with me when I argue that the stimulus bill needs to be pared to a sharp focus on matters that would directly stimulate economic activity. Conventional social spending, no matter how noble, needs to be debated separately and only after we've responsibly fortified ourselves specifically against this frightful recession.
America remains a center-right country. More people will call themselves moderate or conservative than will call themselves moderate or liberal. Democrats get elected president anymore only in spite of themselves and only when Republicans make horrible messes — Jimmy Carter after Nixon's Watergate, Clinton after the first George Bush's economic tin ear and Obama after quite possibly the most thoroughly failed presidency in the nation's history.
Those new Democratic majorities in such unlikely places as Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina weren't for old-style liberalism, but a rejection of Republicans and a reflection of a fear that the country couldn't keep going the same direction.
Laid-off workers in Indiana did not vote for Obama so that the Democrats could, in a desperate $800 billion spending bill, fund anti-smoking campaigns and alcohol abuse programs or even improvements in public school facilities. They voted for Obama with a challenge to the Democrats to create jobs and, in the absence of jobs, take decent care of them on unemployment compensation and health insurance.
Democratic presidents don't fail by offending the left. Carter got renominated even against the challenge of the great liberal lion, Ted Kennedy. Clinton was failing when he began his presidency by trying to champion gays in the military and his own stimulus spending measure. He recovered — and I hate having to admit this — by adapting that creepy Dick Morris' advice on how to “triangulate” between Democrats and Republicans.
Obama's problem will not be Republicans. Clinton is absolutely right that they have their own house to get in order. Obama's problem will be finessing his liberal base.
Liberals ought to cut him some slack. Ruth Ginsburg is ill. John Stevens is old. Liberals are liable to look up one day and see the replacement nominations being made by Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee or Bobby Jindall or Sarah Palin.