Clinton Struggles to Cast Off the Democrats' legacy of the Left

GEORGE F. WILL

July 16, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

NEW YORK. — After Dorothy Parker's third or fourth suicide attempt (as with the Democratic Party's attempts at self-destruction, it was hard to keep count), a friend said, ''You know, Dottie, if you keep this up you are going to make yourself very sick.''

That is approximately what Bill Clinton is telling Democrats as he tries to tug them away from the preoccupations that have made them vulnerable to Republican onslaughts about ''values.''

Twenty years ago, when Mr. Clinton was a cherubic corporal in George McGovern's army, the convention roll call that officially nominated Senator McGovern called the states in a scrambled order to prevent the injustice of alphabetism -- discrimination on the basis of placement in the alphabet. Because of all the lunacy this symbolized, the country, not being crazy, decided that Democrats were.

This week, Democrats, putting behind them the schisms and chaos that have been their quadrennial lot since the 1968 convention-cum-riot, are using this convention to advertise their conventionality, nowadays called ''centrism.''

Centrism is the message of Governor Clinton's choice of running mate -- Al Gore, the Knight of the Earnest Countenance. Centrism is the message of the many speakers who, when they refer, as they reflexively do, to the crushed and groaning and toiling masses, say they really mean the middle class.

Beginning in the 1960s, the message of the Democratic left was that America was unfree. The left said that an increase of freedom -- understood as more ''rights'' for Americans to throw like sharp elbows against one another, and less deference to social norms -- would produce personal ''fulfillment'' and social fraternity.

The concomitant of this now-frayed theory was the determination of the Democratic left to define the party's agenda primarily with reference to forms of victimization.

That became a non-stop, whiny indictment of America. It proclaimed that the nation was divided between the guilty (the white middle class) and the victims who have a right to remedial action at the expense of the guilty. The white middle class is a majority and is not masochistic. Hence the run of Republican presidents.

The seeds of the Democrats' difficulties were sown 40 years ago in the candidacy of Adlai Stevenson. He was, as Michael Barone writes, ''the first leading Democratic politician to become a critic rather than a celebrator of middle-class American culture.'' He attracted activists who used the Democratic Party less as an instrument to win elections than a means of expressing their cultural stance.

The nature of the New Deal coalition -- blacks, the South, Northern working class whites and intellectuals -- required of Democrats a disposition they lost in the 1960s and are still struggling to regain, a willingness to express disagreements without moral and cultural disdain.

Democrats' fortunes soured when the party's intellectuals said not just that the conditions of blacks must be ameliorated, but that those conditions proved that Southerners and the Northern white working class needed moral reconstruction at the hands of government in the hands of intellectuals.

Democrats started the current plague of our politics, the slinging of ''values'' attacks. Republicans paid them the compliment of emulation, also attacking Democrats' ''values.''

In 1972 Republicans talked about ''acid, amnesty and abortion,'' TTC in 1984 they talked about ''San Francisco Democrats'' and ''blame-America-first Democrats,'' and in 1988 they talked about murderer-furloughing Democrats who were too sensitive about ''rights'' to give the Pledge of Allegiance its due.

Mr. Clinton is working hard to make it hard for Republicans to make such attacks this year. But they will try, because they have nothing else to say.

It is a paradox about the working of the political ''market.'' The out-of-power party benefits when the in-power party achieves what it has defined as success, that is, when it eliminates the grievances that propelled it into power. Such successes whittle away a party's agenda, leaving it looking superfluous.

Republicans rode into power 12 years ago on a wave of anxiety about inflation (the great stimulus to middle class conservatism) and the Soviet Union. Voters considered Democrats insufficiently hawkish -- how anachronistic that adjective now sounds -- about both.

Inflation has been dampened, the Soviet Union has disappeared. So look for Republicans to continue to attack Democrats' ''values,'' because morality is the last refuge of the politically desperate.

It doesn't always work.

In 1908, Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan said his Republican opponent, William Howard Taft, was unfit to be president because, as a Unitarian, Taft did not believe in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. Taft won and the Republic survived Unitarianism in high places.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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