The Puritans are on the run

Clinton may succeed in changing America if he makes it more tolerant of individual failings
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The Independent Culture
TODAY'S MID-TERM elections in the United States have commandeered more attention than usual for one reason and one reason alone. We all want to know how, when left to themselves and their conscience in the privacy of the polling booth, Americans will judge their President.

Small matter that Mr Clinton's name is not actually on the ballot paper - these are Congressional and state-level elections. Small matter, too, that the overwhelming majority of voters categorically deny that their vote will say anything at all about Bill Clinton. They will be voting, they insist, on local issues, on the character and competence of their senator, representative, state governor, or whomever, not on whether the President should remain in office.

Whatever the opinion polls say, though, and however many the complicating factors - the likely low turnout, the large number of incumbents standing for re-election, the closeness of several dozen races and the possibility that voters have misled the pollsters about their motives or intentions - the fact is that today's elections will be widely seen as a referendum on Bill Clinton. They will also have immediate practical consequences for the President.

A greater number of Republicans in the House and the Senate increases the likelihood that the impeachment process will be conducted by the book, up to and including a Senate "trial". It would also increase the moral pressure on Mr Clinton to resign. A good result for Democrats, on the other hand, would put pressure on Congress to reach an arrangement with the White House that would slow, perhaps even halt, the impeachment process.

The reality is that a bigger swing in either direction than the "no change" results predicted on the basis of current economic, social and "John Glenn" factors will be interpreted as a vote of confidence or no confidence in the President. The results will determine his future.

Momentous though that makes this mid-term vote, it will not just be a referendum on the President. Even more, perhaps, it will be a referendum on the state of America and the direction of American opinion. If the Democratic vote is significantly dragged down by the "Clinton factor", America is standing by its church-going conservatism. But if the opinion polls are right, and the voters are truly unworried by Mr Clinton's behaviour, what then?

As well as letting Mr Clinton off the hook, such an outcome might signify only that Americans genuinely like their President and are willing to let him break rules they want to enforce for others. But it could indicate something more profound: that the climate of social and moral opinion in the United States is shifting. The evidence from the campaigning is sketchy, but consistent.

In all but the safest conservative constituencies the L-word - "liberal" - has ceased to be the sure-fire stick for beating a Democrat. It has hardly been mentioned. Gone, too, are several of the central pillars of the Republicans' successful 1994 campaign of retro-Reaganism. While Republicans still press for lower taxation, concern about high federal taxes has been largely replaced by calls for reductions in specific local and state taxes. Crime, welfare "scroungers", immigration are far down the order of priorities, replaced by schools and healthcare standards. The religious right, so much in evidence for the past two decades, has raised its head only fitfully and to little effect.

Two touchstone issues for left and right - gun control and abortion - are also proving less reliable vote-catchers for the right than many candidates anticipated. The spate of school shootings over the past year has given gun control advocates a weapon against the firearms lobby, while a number of Democratic candidates, most notably Senator Barbara Boxer in California, have not only parried attacks on their abortion stance but scored points in attacking the anti-abortion views of their opponent.

Another straw in the wind is a cleavage that has opened up in the Republican Party between Congressional old-stagers and a new generation of hands- on mayors and governors who are striking a populist pose, courting ethnic minorities (especially the fast-growing Hispanic minority) and talking about social "inclusion". Led by the hugely successful Governor of Texas, George W Bush, son of the former president, they are less dogmatically opposed either to government - only to ineffective government - or, dare one say it, to taxes. George W, as he is widely known, is frequently compared in policies and manner to Bill Clinton in his first presidential campaign.

One view is that the remedies initiated by Ronald Reagan, then briefly revived by Newt Gingrich four years ago, have worked, and the Democrats have reaped benefits of policies - reforming welfare, cutting taxes, balancing the budget and strengthening law enforcement - that were not theirs and will not last.

The evidence from this campaign, however, is that the policy gap between left and right in the United States, at least between electable left and right, has narrowed considerably over the past four years. There are signs, too, that the shift towards what is described as a "moderate middle" may be more durable and reach further than modes of government.

The fact that the Republicans were unable or unwilling to capitalise on the Monica Lewinsky affair - and were painfully tentative when they finally broached the subject in campaign advertising last week - betrayed two problems. As gleeful Democrats noted, even the religious right had difficulty finding anyone in Congress sufficiently without reproach to cast the first stone at the President. Republican leaders also seemed to recognise that there was no real public appetite for attacking Mr Clinton's morals: for lying, maybe - but not for sex.

At this early stage it is possible only to hazard a guess at the reasons for such a shift. The rise to power and influence of the Sixties generation - of whom Bill Clinton is a prime example - may be one, with its live- and-let live attitude, especially to sex. Another may be the personal experience of many Americans. Asked why they remain so sanguine about Mr Clinton's behaviour, many speak of family break-up and deceits of their own.

Where government is concerned, the diminished public hostility may reflect the rise of competent technocrats and the decline of machine politicians in local government. It may also reflect a recognition of the damage - to education, to the infrastructure - wrought by California's low-tax experiment.

Nor should the effect of immigration and ethnic change be under-estimated. The move to the "middle" is most perceptible in California, Texas and Florida, where Hispanics are gaining a political voice. The Puritans and their descendants are losing ground across the United States, but nowhere more so than here.

In some ways, as in the push for women's rights and opportunities, the rise of an "anything goes so long as no one is harmed" attitude could be retrograde. If Bill Clinton gets away with breaking the rules on sex in the workplace set by US society less than a decade ago, if Monica Lewinsky was offered a high-paid job because she provided sexual services to the President, and if the President can dissemble under oath with impunity, what does that tell us about values in the United States today?

But if it also brings a more charitable view of individual failings, more tolerance of differences, and a recognition that not everything that governments do is bad, Bill Clinton may indeed have succeeded in his quest to change America. And it will not have been for the worse.