WASHINGTON — Washington. -- America's politicians seek elevation while denying any desire to be special. Neither Bill Clinton nor George Bush need fear the accusation that they are special. That bad news is obvious. The good news is obscured within it and is more important.
The bad news is that both nominees are now known, so we are virtually certain to have four more years of feeble presidency. The good news is the coming renaissance of Congress and the ongoing revitalization of federalism. We are moving back toward the American norm and the Founders' intentions, with the
presidency marginalized and Congress ascendant in Washington, and the central government less central in American life.
No indices of national vigor indicate that Mr. Bush is a successful president. His second term probably would be even worse. Second terms usually are disappointments, and he will win even less of a mandate this time than last. It is not likely that America would be much worse governed by Mr. Clinton.
In 1988 I wrote that there were 5,000 reasons for voting for Mr. Bush. These were the presidential appointments that set government's tone and course. The Republican pool from which such appointments are drawn was, I argued, markedly less inclined than the Democratic pool to intrusive, overreaching statism. That no longer seems clear, the Bush administration having presided over an explosion of domestic spending and regulating.
So today we are down to about 170 reasons for re-electing Mr. Bush. Terry Eastland notes that since 1981 presidents have appointed an average of one federal judge every nine days. Extrapolating, the next president will probably appoint two Supreme Court justices and about 170 other judges. The elite bar and elite law schools are sanctuaries of litigious liberalism which aim to expand government power through enforcement of freshly minted "rights." The Bush administration has been a bulwark against this.
The more Mr. Clinton chants his mantra "change," the more he seems to be playing the old political game, cultivating a crybaby nation by saying that America's principal problem is "unfairness" afflicting the middle class. New York magazine's Joe Klein reports that at a New York pander session with mayors, Mr. Clinton seemed "to buy into the brain-dead city politics as usual: that the urban 'crisis' is entirely the fault of, and fixable by, the federal government. He did not ask [New York Mayor] David Dinkins why school custodians in New York get paid an average of $57,000 per year and have to mop the cafeteria floor only once a week, or why the number of city employees continued to increase dramatically after Reagan-Bush cutbacks began."
They increased by 40,000 in the 1980s, to 62 for every 1,000 residents, four times higher than in Chicago and Los Angeles. But Mr. Clinton, the candidate of "change" and of the public employees unions, is an old-fashioned blame-Washington-first Democrat.
He does routine political dances with the aplomb of someone who probably when 9 years old was practicing press conferences in front of a mirror the way other 9-year-olds practice their batting stances. Here is vintage Clinton on subsidizing the arts: "While I believe that publicly funded projects should strive to reflect the values most Americans share, I strongly support and will defend freedom of speech and artistic expression."
The presidency is an inherently, meaning constitutionally, weak office. There is little a president can do alone, besides move the country by the rhetorical force he gives his convictions, and by doing so move Congress. Ideologically, Mr. Bush is a stammering cipher. Mr. Clinton is fluently conventional.
Because that is America's choice of futures, note the news that came last Tuesday not from New York but Colorado. There Tim Wirth, a first-term Democratic senator, announced he will not seek re-election.
So far, seven senators and 33 representatives have said that. Another 10 representatives are running for Senate seats and two for governorships. Another five members lost primaries and six coming primaries pit incumbents against one another. So the next Congress, which already is guaranteed many new faces, will have what used to be normal -- a large freshman class and little reason to be deferential toward whomever is president. Furthermore, federalism is being revitalized as state governments fill the vacuum created by the Washington paralysis from which so many incumbents are fleeing.
That is the future -- congressional ascendancy and vigorous federalism. We can live with that. The Founders said we should.
George Will is a syndicated columnist.