by Ralph Brauer | 4/08/2008 09:29:00 AM

bill clinton as grover cleveland

Sometimes one line in a speech stands out for its ability to sum up the speech's entire message. Bill Clinton's Second Inaugural contains such a line. Unlike some recent speeches the line is not there to serve as a soundbite for the reporters who love to chop off a few lines and paragraphs to write their stories. John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan gave two of the greatest Inaugural Addresses of the last century, yet both of them had the misfortune of having one phrase lifted from their speeches as the only memorable words.

The line from Bill Clinton's Second Inaugural is not like those lines. In fact, as far as I know, no one has even pointed it out. Yet the line may be as important as the oft-cited words of Kennedy and Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt's "fear itself" phrase, for it marks the end of an era for America and the Democratic Party. In its syllables you can hear the door to the American Century slam shut.

A few minutes into the pretentious introduction to the speech the phrase opens the sixth paragraph:
Now, for the third time, a new century is upon us, and another time to choose.

The words "another time to choose" refer to the title of what is still known simply as "The Speech," a Ronald Reagan oration that has been compared to William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold." Delivered in support of Barry Goldwater's 1964 Presidential Campaign, "A Time to Choose" remains one of the most important and hallowed documents of what I have termed the Republican Counterrevolution. It states the GOP's desire to end the reforms of the New Deal and along with that the Democratic Party of William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman that built the American Century.

Bill Clinton's reference to the title of Ronald Reagan's famous speech signals the main message of Clinton's Second Inaugural. Almost the way historians speak of the First and Second New Deals, there is also a first and second Clinton Presidency, with the first term advocating a more traditional Democratic agenda while the second makes a sharp right turn.

The 1994 mid-term elections had ushered New Gingrich into a leadership role for the Republican majority that ended forty years of Democratic Congressional control. Under the watch of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council the Democratic Party had ceded an institution it had controlled for much of the Twentieth Century.

The relationship between the Gingrich Congress and the White House can only be described as trench warfare. Gingrich purposely sought to dig in his troops, preferring combat to compromise, even if it threatened to bring the government to a halt. Significantly, the Gingrich Congress made Rush Limbaugh an honorary member of the GOP delegation, openly expressing admiration for a scripted role that seems borrowed from a barroom bully who can't wait to break a bottle and carve up someone's face.

The Gingrich Congress was not Harry Truman's Do-Nothing Congress. Rather it brought to mind those contentious sessions leading up to the Civil War whose lowest point came when Preston Brooks beat Charles Sumner with a cane, leaving a pool of blood that would soon become a river.

As America threatened to fragment into a culture war, the Democratic Party wisely made Gingrich the villain in the 1996 campaign. Bill Clinton might have gone the way of Jimmy Carter, but instead eked out a victory against an opponent who seemed to lack the full support of his own party. Somehow it seems fitting that Republican candidate Bob Dole would soon star in commercials for Viagra and that "erectile disfunction" would become Dole's most memorable phrase.

When it came time for Clinton's Second Inaugural, both Democrats and Republicans anxiously awaited Clinton's words. The time all but begged for Clinton's seductive voice. What we did not know at the time was that Bill Clinton was engaged in an affair that would make Monica Lewinsky the staple of Late Show monologues.

Although not the direct "I'm sorry" of his famous Arkansas comeback, the Second Inaugural has a similar tone, only instead of apologizing for taxing license plates this time Clinton all but concedes to the Republicans. The Second Clinton term is often cited as a prime example of triangulation, a term coined when Clinton was Governor of Arkansas by then political advisor Dick Morris. He explained:
You have to one minute go right for the objective, and then at some point when you find the boat is about to tip over, you steer the other direction until the boat regains stability, then once more you head to the objective. (quoted in David Maraniss, First in His Class, p. 398.)

The Second Inaugural seems to tack left then right as if following a course designed by Morris. Yet the overall direction of the speech and the Second Clinton Administration lie in those words taken from Ronald Reagan. In short, in the Second Inaugural Bill Clinton declared himself the heir to Reagan and not Franklin Roosevelt. That is why I style what some term Clintonism as the New Bourbonism, in reference to the nineteenth century Democrats of Grover Cleveland who adopted the laissez-faire beliefs of their Republican adversaries.

Perhaps the most crucial example of this comes in the ninth paragraph of Clinton's Second Inaugural. It begins with a sentence that is pure Clinton exaggeration.
And once again, we have resolved for our time a great debate over the role of government.

The man who maneuvered his way to the front of a Rose Garden reception for delegates to Boy's Nation so he could have his picture taken with John Kennedy now claimed to have "resolved" an issue that has plagued this nation since delegates gathered in Philadelphia for the Continental Congress.

Like an oversized dollop of whipped cream on a too-rich desert, Clinton tops this hyperbole with a sentence that may well rank as the ultimate triangulation statement. "Government is not the problem, and government is not the solution," says Clinton. Think about those words for a minute. If government is neither the solution nor the problem, what is it?

In case his audience might think too long about that bizarre and ultimately meaningless sentence, Clinton quickly adds, "We-the American people-we are the solution."

At this point you get the impression you are witnessing the verbal equivalent of the old shell game. You think you know where Clinton stands and he moves off in another direction. Clinton defenders might assert the Second Inaugural seeks to move beyond the infamous liberal and conservative boxes the media used to sort voters and politicians alike, but that does not explain Bill Clinton, for in this speech he seems not so much to transcend this false dichotomy as to attempt to embrace both sides. In doing so he ends the belief that government exists to keep the playing field level, a belief that guided the Democratic Party for most of the American Century.

The tenth paragraph of Clinton's Second Inaugural makes this clear.
As times change, so government must change. We need a new government for a new century, humble enough not to try to solve all our problems for us, but strong enough to give us the tools to solve our problems for ourselves; a government that is smaller, lives within its means, and does more with less.

Having capitulated to the Republicans, Clinton embraces a concept that, like much with Bill Clinton, sounds good, but lacks any depth.
Each and every one of us, in our own way, must assume personal responsibility, not only for ourselves and our families, but for our neighbors and our nation

That every American should accept responsibility is difficult to argue with, until you realize that from a rhetorical perspective Clinton has just shifted the pea from under one shell to another right before our eyes. Remember that several paragraphs before Clinton had spoken about the role of government and now suddenly we find government has vanished and we have entered that realm of individual responsibility that has served as Republican dogma since the Gilded Age of the nineteenth century.

In that masterful rhetorical trick lies the story of the end of the American Century as the nation moved from the New Deal to the Republican Counterrevolution. In philosophical terms we have traveled back in time, from the belief that one of the functions of government is to keep the playing field level to the belief of the guru of the Gilded Age, William Graham Sumner, who advocated that individuals bore the prime responsibility for their fate.

That people could end up with the equivalent of a bad hand through no fault of their own was a touchy subject for the Sumnerites, even at the turn of the last century. But there is in their condemnation of charity an older belief extending far back in Western history, that what we might term "bad luck" and "good luck" had nothing to do with luck, but in fact represented God's way of sorting the elect from rest of humanity. Success came to the virtuous. Poverty came to the sinner. For government to seek to level the playing field by helping those who drew a bad hand was to aid the "weak" and prevent "the survival of the fittest."

The Counterrevolution never openly espoused Sumner's more radical ideas, but rather clothed them in the more respectable garments of an anti-government philosophy that used code words like "welfare queen." If they were less radical about charity than the Sumnerites, the Counterrevolutionaries were in perfect agreement with the idea that government had no business keeping the playing field level, but instead should aid those at the top though what became known as "trickle-down" economics.

Bill Clinton's Second Inaugural puts the exclamation point on that change. The word government will never more appear in Clinton's speech. Instead he replaces it with a generic "we" that reminds me of the apocryphal story where two people find themselves facing an impossible situation. "We need to do something about this," says the first. Whereupon the second immediately begins to try to work his way out of the morass only to turn around and find the first person has disappeared. Shrugging his shoulders as he looks upward, the second asks,"Just who is this we?"

By taking government out of the equation to replace it with "we," Bill Clinton performs a similar feat. In the remainder of the Second Inaugural the "wes" flow quickly. Racism, which Clinton describes as "America's greatest curse" is resolved by a "we." Cribbing unabashedly from the Civil Rights anthem, he states, "We shall overcome them." The world? "We will stand mighty for peace and freedom, and maintain a strong defense against terror and destruction." Political divisions? "We will have reformed our politics so that the voice of the people will always speak louder than the din of narrow interests." The comes the most airy Clinton statement of all:" The greatest progress we have made, and the greatest progress we have yet to make, is in the human heart."

Someone with better knowledge of grammar and anatomy than I have, please tell me how we make progress "in" the human heart? And just what exactly IS "progress in the human heart?" That former college president, Woodrow Wilson, would have recoiled from such flabby thinking.

It is such rhetorical excess that caused Ronald Reagan's speech writer Peggy Noonan to offer a scathing view of Clinton's Second Inaugural. Speaking of the upcoming inaugural address of George W. Bush she said,
You give your speech four years after the worst inaugural address of modern times, Bill Clinton's second. It won't be hard to surpass it. It's good to follow inadequacy.

The problem with Clinton's Second Inaugural isn't merely that it is a weak speech, it is that it is a transactional speech trying to sound transformational, a Republican speech trying to sound Democratic, a speech devoid of values trying to sound inspirational, a mediocre President trying to claim a place on a pedestal somewhere on the Washington mall. Clinton's "we" is a hollow, even cowardly concept, that lacks the elaboration and specific proposals a Wilson or a Roosevelt might have used to make it meaningful.

The most unique property of Clinton's Inaugural may lie in its lack of specifics. To those who had endured the divisions of the Gingrich Congress and the contentious fights between the two parties, Bill Clinton offers only vapid homilies. Traditionally inaugural addresses have had two main purposes: to offer a vision for the future and to outline specific proposals for how to achieve that vision. Clinton offers neither.

Lurking behind Bill Clinton's "we" is not merely a repudiation of his own party's past, but in addition a repudiation of transformational leadership. Of course we should not have expected more from someone who made "triangulation" a household word, for even at its best triangulation is not transformational but transactional.

James MacGregor Burns, who originated the concept of transformational leadership, wrote Bill Clinton came to Washington with every intent of stamping his Presidency as transformational. The key moment occurred with the failure of the Clinton health care proposal, which Burns terms "His first-and some would say only-act of courageous innovation."

After the failure of the health care bill, the Clinton Administration overreacted to its defeat. Burns contrasts Bill Clinton's attitude toward defeat with that of Franklin Roosevelt, who after the failure of his minimum wage bill in 1937, waited a year and then tried again, this time successfully. It is telling that Bill Clinton would give in so easily, but even more telling are the reasons for his acquiescence. Burns implies Clinton was so concerned with his ratings and his polls that he lacked the will to become truly transformational.

But Burns is too kind. Unlike a transformational leader such as William Jennings Bryan who was willing to suffer three failed campaigns to forward his ideals, Bill Clinton quickly abandoned his causes, which suggests they never mattered much in the first place. True transformational leaders are driven by values, but for Bill Clinton values do not play that role. The key to understanding this is to ask if anyone can remember what were the values of Bill Clinton's eight years in the White House?

Burns' final judgment of Bill Clinton captures the essence of the Clinton Presidency:
The health bill defeat strengthened the hand of those in the administration who wanted the president to follow a political strategy of centrism, moderation, and bipartisanship, operating in the middle of the political and ideological spectrum. Urging transactional rather than transformational leadership, they would have the White House negotiate with friends and foes, left and right, on an ad hoc step-by-step basis.

This was the incrementalism of "policy bites," such as favoring school uniforms or advising mothers how to put their children in seat belts.

Since Clinton's Second Inaugural, the Democratic Party and the nation seem to have lost their sense of purpose. That is because Bill Clinton's Second Inaugural buried it. The conventional wisdom holds Ronald Reagan as responsible for the travails of the Democratic Party, but it was not Reagan, but Bill Clinton who rightly deserves that honor, for he tried to remake the Democratic Party as a triangulated version of the Counterrevolution.

Gone is the heart of the Democratic Party's greatest campaign speech, delivered by Harry Truman:
The Democrats have believed always that the welfare of the whole people should come first, and that means that the farmers, labor, small businessmen, and everybody else in the country should have a fair share of the prosperity that goes around.

Gone are FDR's ringing phrases:
These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power, for plans like those of 1917 that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid. [My emphasis.]

Gone is the philosophy of Woodrow Wilson's First Inaugural:
With the great Government went many deep secret things which we too long delayed to look into and scrutinize with candid, fearless eyes. The great Government we loved has too often been made use of for private and selfish purposes, and those who used it had forgotten the people.

Gone are the words from Bryan's "Cross of Gold":
There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.

In the flaccid rhetoric of William Jefferson Clinton, the ideas that had guided Roosevelt, Wilson and Bryan were abandoned and with them the moral compass that guided much of the American Century. A decade after Clinton's Second Inaugural, the 2008 election asks, "Can we recover it?"