Hail Bill! Vote-Stealer Supreme
Esler, Gavin, New Statesman (1996)
Next week's Republican Convention could have been a triumph, but the GOP overreached itself. Now Bill Clinton is the man with the winning smile
The Republican Party has a secret, desperate, masterplan to win the 1996 presidential election. The plan consists of dropping Bob Dole and replacing him with a younger, more articulate nominee with an extraordinary conservative pedigree, a candidate more in tune with the core values of modern Republicanism.
He is intelligent, telegenic, with long executive experience at the highest political levels. He supports tax cuts, reducing welfare payments, balanced budgets and deficit reduction. He is tough on crime, enthusiastically backs the death penalty and is popular where Bob Dole is weakest, in vital electoral states such as New York and California.
There is only one catch. The near-perfect Republican candidate for 1996 is William Jefferson Clinton, who, it must be assumed, will continue to call himself a Democrat despite compelling evidence to the contrary.
Bill Clinton's political kleptomania in stealing the best clothes of the Republican Party has compounded a sense of disarray on America's right. The new Bill Clinton is, in everything but name, an Eisenhower Republican. He even admitted as much, according to Bob Woodward's inside account of the first months of the Clinton presidency, The Agenda.
"I hope you're all aware we're Eisenhower Republicans," Woodward quotes the president bitterly lecturing his staff. "And we're fighting the Reagan Republicans. We stand for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market. Isn't that great."
Maybe not great, but certainly useful, because Bill Clinton's perpetual political flexibility has allowed him to ride a seismic shift in American politics while more brittle ideologues have broken. Whatever happened to the "Republican revolution", for example, which swept to power in both Houses of Congress in November 1994's elections? It not only lost its way, it lost its enemy. Big government, the bogeyman of the right for more than 60 years since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, has gone the way of communism and the Hula-Hoop. And without the bogeyman of big government, righting Republican ideologues appear as lonely as Abbot without Costello.
To understand the sombre mood of Republicans gathering for their San Diego Convention next week you first have to recognise that two apparently unrelated events have brought about a profound change in the way "government" is regarded in the United States. The first was the bombing of the Alfred P Murrah federal building in Oklahoma city in April 1995. The second was the failure of the Republican revolution.
The day before the Oklahoma explosion Bill Clinton was at the lowest ebb of his presidency. The Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich had become the intellectual centre of political Washington, and when Mr Clinton tried to organise a news conference it sounded like a cry for help. The most powerful elected official in the most powerful country on Earth was reduced to bleating plaintively that "the president is still relevant" to the process of governing the United States.
But within hours Bill Clinton -- and the idea of government -- began to bounce back. Suspicion of the government is America's oldest and most noble tradition. The country was founded on rebellion against the British and almost fell apart in the Civil War revolt against centralised federal power. But in Oklahoma the noblest tradition of patriotism mutated into terrorism. Attacking the institution of government in April 1995 meant planting five tons of explosives to murder government workers without warning. Big government suddenly looked less like an Orwellian nightmare and more like the folks next door. It had a face: the face of the man who sent out social security cheques and who died in the rubble; the face of the recruiting sergeant for the army; or of the woman from the Veterans' Administration, the clerk who had her legs blown off. …