But is the Comeback Kid in the FDR class?

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The Independent Online
He looks set to be remembered as the Comeback Kid of all time. Two years ago, a second victory for Bill Clinton seemed inconceivable. Yet long before yesterday, it had already become inevitable. If, in addition to Mr Clinton's return to the White House, the Democrats win back control of Congress, then Mr Clinton's achievement will be doubly astonishing, matching that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

At first glance, that comparison looks feeble. After all, FDR was the architect not only of the modern Democratic Party but of the modern presidency as well. Seizing the opportunity created by the Great Depression, he forged an alliance between the two great blocks of voters who hated the Republicans: white southerners who could not forgive them for winning the Civil War, and northern immigrants who saw them as a discredited, self-satisfied Protestant business elite. It was FDR's great achievement to weld these improbable partners together under the leadership of progressive intellectuals.

But that coalition has been falling apart since the Vietnam war and the civil rights revolution tore away great chunks of Democratic support in the 1960s. The task for Mr Clinton was to hold on to the remaining bastions of Democratic support - among them blacks and other minorities and a majority of women - and attract as many other voters, and especially southern and western white males, as possible. That, to a remarkable degree, he has achieved, and that is how he has won a second term. By this test, Bill Clinton is far from puny.

As a campaigner, Mr Clinton is in FDR's class. As a politician, he has been far less successful. But the difference lies less in the two men's talents than in how the context of American politics and the mood of the American people have changed. Party machinery has atrophied. Candidates campaign in the media and largely with paid advertisements. That costs money - hundreds of millions of dollars - and Republicans have more money than Democrats.

In any case, FDR wasn't truly the FDR of legend. His personal glamour and his political skill, not to mention the prestige he acquired later as the architect of victory, obscures the fact that the New Deal didn't really work. It was the Second World War, not the National Recovery Act, that ended the Depression.

Nor was FDR in all respects the noble figure his admirers presented to the public. Like Mr Clinton, he had his sexual peccadilloes and his political skeletons. In those days the press did not write about such things. But Roosevelt was more than just a man who won elections. He saw that the president's strategic strength lies in the fact that he is the only leader all Americans vote for. He alone can reach out over the heads of politicians and interests alike, portraying himself as "the president of all the people".

Americans in FDR's time were full of righteous anger and long-term optimism, full of dreams of building a more prosperous society at home and a safer world. Today they are at once wrapped in ideas of their own "exceptionalism" and full of self-doubt, largely indifferent to the outside world, suspicious of government, yet determined not to lose its benefits. In his campaigns, Bill Clinton has shown a rare gift for articulating this mood of discontent. In a second term, he may surprise everyone by taking radical action to assuage it.