The President and the Vital Center

Article excerpt

The president needs to advance an agenda for nonbureaucratic, activist government that can muster bipartisan support.

On the eve of the 1996 election, Washington opinion leaders shared a powerful consensus that Bill Clinton was about to win a second term with no real mandate for a particular course of action. He lacked, in their view, an internal compass to guide him in the absence of a future campaign.

Many Republicans appeared to believe their own campaign rhetoric about the outcome of congressional races determining "which Bill Clinton" would govern from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Many traditional liberals nourished hope that a Democratic president, once freed from the constraints of electoral politics, would "rediscover his principles" and devote his second term to the vindication and expansion of New Deal and Great Society programs.

Continued Republican control of Congress and the personnel changes the president made after the elections effectively laid to rest both the hopes and fears that 1997 would feature a return to loud-and-proud liberalism in Washington. But conventional observers have continued to assert that the centrist message the president campaigned on--and has emphatically announced as the touchstone of his second administration--is a matter of crude positioning rather than firm principle.

Furthermore, many assume that the president's success in governing from the "vital center" depends entirely on the willingness of congressional Republicans and Democrats to forge policies that represent a split-the-difference compromise between their traditional liberal and conservative positions. In effect, many of the voices now calling for bipartisanship in Washington are implicitly asking policymakers in both parties to adopt the same unprincipled, crude positioning that they believe the president has successfully pursued.

These assumptions arguably (and crucially) misjudge public opinion, the nature of the "vital center" in American politics, Clinton's record and current intentions, and the value of bipartisanship.

A mandate for an activist government

The 1996 vote expressed a sense of revulsion against traditional Left-Right partisanship in Washington. Voters demanded that both parties cooperate to make the federal government an instrument for addressing the nation's problems and helping them solve their own.

But they did not demand bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship--or some imaginary midpoint between traditional liberal and conservative positions.

In 1996, as in '92 and '94, voters sent the message that they want an entirely different style of governing in Washington: nonbureaucratic, activist government.

In electing Clinton in 1992, in chastising congressional Democrats in 1994, and in reelecting Clinton by a larger margin in 1996, swing voters have not been lurching from left to right to left again. As presidential pollster Mark Penn demonstrated in his postelection survey for the Democratic Leadership Council, the voters deciding the presidential election strongly rejected "big government" solutions to national problems. Just as strongly, the voters endorsed "smart government" activism, in which public resources are used in imaginative ways to equip Americans with the tools they need to deal with the problems of daily life.

That is why they responded positively to presidential proposals--almost universally derided in Washington as small-bore, symbolic measures--such as the V-chip, family medical leave, teen curfews, school uniforms, and tax credits for higher education and home purchases. And according to Penn, that is why they failed to give Democrats control of Congress, even as they expressed but limited enthusiasm for the Republican majority: Unlike Clinton, congressional Democrats were perceived as mired in an old-fashioned, tax-and-spend, big government mind-set.

Most traditional liberals and conservatives have a hard time discerning, much less embracing, the public's craving for nonbureaucratic, activist government. …