America expects the old Clinton deal

Unlike the last Democrat to be re-elected, Franklin D Roosevelt, Bill Clinton is mediocre, insincere and irresolute. He's not even a liberal: there'll be no New Deal in his second term. But America doesn't seem to be grumbling, says Rupert Cornwell
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The Independent Online
So, it seems, Bill Clinton has climbed his last mountain. For the first time since Roosevelt, 60 years ago, a Democrat has been re- elected to the White House. For many Americans, it has been a slightly queasy experience. Thus far, the man they are returning to power has been no FDR, but a mediocre President, who on occasion is uplifting and purposeful, but often insincere, opportunistic, and irresolute.

Always he is dogged by scandal. No President, not even Richard Nixon, has been so scrutinised and psychoanalysed; but despite a score of Clinton books, not to mention a best-selling novel, the 42nd President remains an enigma, ever capable of reinvention. Is he a liberal, a centrist, a pragmatist without principle - or all three?

The conservative talk-radio hosts, who hate him, have no doubt that a Clinton liberated from the need to win elections will metamorphose back into the liberal they insist he has been all along. Almost certainly. they are wrong. The reasons are three, two practical and one personal.

Whichever party controls Capitol Hill will probably do so by a slender margin. If the Republicans retain a majority in both Senate and House (which seems probable), then a Democratic President and a hostile Congress will be forced to do business - as they have done, productively and to the broad approval of the ordinary voter, for the past six months. The fruits include welfare reform, a sweeping telecommunications Bill and a modest extension of healthcare coverage.

In the best of all worlds, that co-operation would broaden into a bipartisan deal to rein in Medicare and Medicaid, whose projected runaway future growth has been the great unmentioned of Campaign '96. These past few weeks, Clinton has made much of the fact that during his term the deficit has shrunk from $290bn to $107bn. What he did not say was that, barring a deal on the two federal entitlement programmes, the deficit will start to climb uncontrollably from 1997. And who knows: respectively shamed by the Indonesian/Taiwanese follies and the conviction of Bob Dole's finance vice-chairman for money laundering, Democrats and Republicans might just cleanse the Augean stable of campaign financing. But, as they say in these parts, don't bet the ranch on it.

But even the return of a Democratic Congress should not greatly scare the talk-show brigade. Any Democratic majority, in either chamber, will be tiny. In both House and Senate, the balance of power is likely to lie in the centre, among conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans.

Second, do not underestimate the restraining force of Al Gore, the counsellor to whom Clinton listens most and the most influential Vice-President of modern times. Mr Gore is no liberal; and, more important, has every intention of dropping the "Vice" from his job description come 2001. That ambition would be wrecked were Clinton, whom he has served with unflinching loyalty, were to embark on a liberal binge.

Third, there is Clinton himself. At the tender age of 50, he is already in the glowing late afternoon of a political career, a moment when statesmen ponder their place in history. The America entering the new millennium is if anything more conservative than the one he took over in 1992. Clinton wants to be remembered as the symbol of his era. He is also a man who craves affection, who prefers to swim with tides rather than, Thatcher- like, fight his way upstream.

Hence the relentless centrist of the past two years, who from the healthcare reform debacle of 1994 has learnt where "liberal" interventionist hubris can lead. From the wreckage emerged the man who stole every popular Republican policy in sight, to the point of signing a Bill that jettisoned the federal welfare guarantee dating back to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal - before vowing, in the Clinton tradition of seeking to have it both ways, to correct the measure's cruellest excesses in a second term.

For the rest, a few clues may be gleaned from his standard campaign speech. He will seek modest tax cuts, to help people to send their children to university, and buy their first home. There will be incentives for companies to take on workers previously on welfare; perhaps a small further measure of gun control; sundry small "pro-family" measures.

As always, the rhetoric soars: but look closely into the glistening torrent of words, and for solid proposals you will find only minnows. As he proclaimed in his State of the Union speech last January, "The era of big government is over." We should not expect a burst of legislation, like the one initiated by FDR in 1933 - the famous "hundred days" that culminated in the New Deal, which brought political stability to the entire industrial-capitalist system.

Still, Clinton the policy freak must fill the void; hence the enthusing on the campaign about research into cancer genes and severed spinal cords, and a computer under development by the US Government and IBM which "can do more calculations in one second than you can do on your handheld calculator in 30,000 years." It was vintage Clinton, futuristic and inspirational, but ultimately signifying next to nothing. For Ronald Reagan's ill-defined "shining city on a hill", read the present incumbent's "Bridge to the 21st century".

But then again Bill Clinton, with all his imperfections, is a man of his time. He leads an America at relative peace with itself and the rest of the world, an America of diminished fears but also of diminished expectations - not least regarding the presidency. Obscured by the posturing and promises of both candidates is the fact that an American President has far less power in the domestic arena than a French President, a British Prime Minister or a German Chancellor. He can blow up the world, but he cannot set interest rates or impose a budget; least of all can he fend off the recession that one day will end what is now the third longest US recovery since the Second World War. Since 1991, the economic cycle might have been scripted by the Clinton/Gore campaign. Sooner or later it will turn against him, further impeding his room for manoeuvre.

Small wonder, then, that second terms generally disappoint. His last election behind him, a President can take chances he otherwise might not. More often, a combination of exhaustion and arrogance take their toll. Within a couple of years, mid-term elections usually produce congressional losses for the party that controls the White House and weaken the President's authority. By that point the lame duck has become a virtual dead duck.

And look not for sweeping initiatives in foreign fields, the preferred theatre of second-term Presidents. The main one has probably already been vouchsafed: his campaign pledge that by 1999 Nato will have been enlarged, whatever the objections of the Russians. It is now an open secret that, contrary to previous assurances, some American troops will stay on in Bosnia into 1997. With the election over, Clinton may consent to a compromise over the tenure of Boutros Boutros-Ghali at the UN; maybe, now that the Jewish lobby need no longer be placated, he will get tough with Benjamin Netanyahu. He may aspire to be a peacemaker, but his greatest legacy would be a durable framework for relations with China, just as Ronald Reagan the former red-baiter is remembered above all for his second term decision to "engage" Moscow - a policy which ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But firm predictions are impossible. The fractured, multi-polar world of the post-Cold War era does not lend itself to grand designs, while the Clinton mettle has not yet been tested by a hot war. And if the occupant of the White House does not change, his foreign policy team probably will. The Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, the Defense Secretary, William Perry and the National Security Adviser, Anthony Lake, may all shortly leave the administration.

Then there are the scandals. If 1996 has a parallel, it is less Reagan 1984 than Nixon 1972, when an incumbent's massive victory was followed within two years by resignation and disgrace. By no stretch of the imagination is Whitewater another Watergate, but assuming the Republicans cling to even one chamber of Congress, then old land deals in Arkansas, improper purloining of FBI files, cronyism at the White House travel office, and now the squalid saga of foreign financial contributions to Democratic party coffers, are enough to keep half a dozen congressional committees in business for years.

Before yesterday, the Republicans were vowing no let-up, and Ross Perot was even warning that the President would face criminal charges, and should have resigned already to spare his country further agony. Perhaps the investigative ardour will slacken now that the election is past. But for the White House, the Chinese water torture of revelation and inquiry will continue, from which only defence attorneys will emerge the richer.

The administration may dismiss events on Capitol Hill as a partisan witch- hunt. Far harder to brush off are the labours of the special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who has already secured convictions against several Clinton business associates in Little Rock. Starr says he is making "substantial progress" in his investigations, which might conceivably lead to an indictment of Hillary Clinton for perjury and concealing evidence before a grand jury. Separately, the Supreme Court will shortly rule whether the sexual harassment suit brought against Clinton by the former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones may go ahead before he leaves office. If it does, then the tabloidisation of the presidency will be complete.

Hence the vague yet widespread queasiness, which does not need a Ross Perot to articulate it. Clinton's entire career has been a continuing cycle of success, disaster and recovery. Indeed this hugely talented, yet hugely flawed child of the late 20th century seems unable to exist without adversity. If the pattern holds, he is now due for a fall - and a big one.

On the Edge was the title of one of the best of the books about the Clinton first term. If he remains halfway true to himself, then his second will be more of the same.