Magazine article Tikkun

Clinton's Moral Backbone Problem and the Fate of the Democrats

Magazine article Tikkun

Clinton's Moral Backbone Problem and the Fate of the Democrats

Article excerpt

If Bill Clinton wanted to ensure his re-election, he would have to tell the truth about the failures of his first four years. He would have to say, unequivocally and candidly, that he had failed to achieve many of his goals, and that the reason he had failed was that he had been too opportunistic, too concerned about popularity. He would have to demonstrate that he knew that he had failed to stay adequately committed to his own values in his first term, giving us a plausible reason to believe that he could and would change in his second term. Don't hold your breath.

Clinton is far more likely to run his campaign based on manipulation of images and vacuous sound bites and to assume that anyone who has been conscious and aware of politics in the past four years (and hence who will "see through" the hype) will nevertheless side with him because of "lesser evilism."

This strategy may work, but it's not a sure bet. If Bob Dole manages to distance himself from the more extreme elements of his own party, the political differences between the two candidates will seem rather narrow to many. Clinton has already begun to position himself so much further to the Right than any previous Democratic Party leader that it would be hard to distinguish many of this recent pronouncements from, say, the liberal wing of the Bush administration in 1989. Luckily for Clinton, Dole is unlikely to embrace a rightwing politics of meaning, because he doesn't understand that his best chance of winning rests in his ability to speak to the heart and soul of Americans and to offer a vision that addresses their deepest hopes.

If Clinton's and Dole's political differences remain obscured, the public might be forced to choose solely on the basis of personality, and in this arena Clinton seems to have a clear lead, since he embodies far more life energy, hopefulness, and intelligence than Dole. Clinton still resonates the hope for meaning that shaped the baby boomers and that remains the secret and often unconscious aspiration of most everyone else. On the terrain of personality, Clinton wins.

Personal magnetism may win for Clinton, yet it is a thin reed on which to hang his future. Politics is unpredictable, and there may be some who remember the way they were seduced and abandoned in 1992.

Four years ago, Bill Clinton enthusiastically borrowed from this magazine our politics of meaning to steer his election campaign. When, after listening to one of his campaign speeches, I mentioned to him that he seemed to be repeating themes in our editorials almost verbatim, Clinton responded, "I read your magazine very carefully. "

Translating the politics of meaning into campaign language, Clinton promised to move the society away from the selfishness of the Reagan/Bush years. He held out the prospect of the emergence of a caring community that would privilege "we" over "I," a new commitment to each other over the narcissistic self-indulgence that had characterized America in the 1980s.

Many Americans were skeptical. The dominant cultural assumptions reinforce selfishness and teach us that "looking out for Number One" is the common sense of everyday life. So, most of us are torn between our aspirations to live in a more caring world and our resignation to the status quo, which tells us that our highest aspirations are totally unrealistic.

Clinton dared us to hope again. And in the days after his election in 1992, when he seemed to reiterate those themes and suggest that we could really change society, his popularity surged as people allowed themselves to fantasize that perhaps it would be safe to side with their most idealistic goals.

This was the climate within which a majority of Americans began to tell pollsters they were willing to pay higher taxes or higher health-care premiums. When people believe that they are part of a "we" that is committed to taking care of each other, many are willing to make personal sacrifices. …

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