At ease with his generals now

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The Independent Online
'THIS has been the worst week since the one when Ronald Reagan was first elected.'

So said a Democratic friend and colleague after hearing the results of this week's gubernatorial and mayoral contests; notably the results in the state of Virginia, and in New York City and Jersey City.

The Virginia result is by far the most daunting for the Democrats nationally since it suggests a spectacular recent decline in the Democrats' fortunes in an important state. The Democratic candidate for governor, Mary Sue Terry, had been reported as 29 per cent ahead in the opinion polls at midsummer, but in the real poll this week the Republican contender, George F Allen, won with 59 per cent of the popular vote.

Ms Terry had run on what is reported as 'a progressive social platform that included gun control and abortion'. In the circumstances, Mr Allen's massive victory has a nationwide effect in increasing the clout of the gun lobby and the religious right - a depressing outcome for most of those who elected Bill Clinton as President a year ago this week.

The results in the New York and New Jersey mayoral contests show far smaller swings, but they are also felt to symbolise a recovery of the right since in both cases Democratic incumbents were seen off by Republican challengers.

The New York contest and its result are particularly fraught, in nationwide perceptions, because the defeated incumbent, David Dinkins, is black and the victorious challenger, Rudolph W Giuliani, is white. Neither of these big-city results really indicates any clear national trend, but the big statewide swing in Virginia has to be taken more seriously.

None of this week's results brings any joy to the Democratic camp. But the 'worst since Reagan' reaction, which I reported above, reflects the disappointment of eager partisans. The Democratic professionals are calm enough - they can afford to be, as long as their party holds both the presidency and a majority in both Houses of Congress. These same professionals claim that the results tell us nothing about the future of the presidency: electoral history shows that the so-called 'coat-tail effect' works - if at all - only for candidates of the President's party in a presidential election year.

However that may be, the President has also been trailing a bit in the polls. Yet - and this may be seen to be more important in three years' time - he has been gaining in the degree of respect accorded him in the media.

During the early months the new President often was treated as a figure of fun. Some of this was due to his own mistakes. More was due to his retaining around him a team that had triumphantly demonstrated its skills in getting a president elected, but was (perhaps in consequence) inept at guiding the new President.

Inevitably, there was conflict between old campaign promises and presidential policy. Some of the promises were trivial gimmicks of the campaign trail, such as the nonsense about sending a 'peace envoy' to Northern Ireland. But there was one promise that was not trivial and that was to cast a heavy shadow over the early months of the new presidency. If it no longer casts a shadow, this is because Mr Clinton has now prudently backed away from it. This was the promise about gays in the military.

Of course, there have been gays in every military organisation in the world, throughout history. But what Mr Clinton had conceded to the gay lobby - in return for its vote - was something different. This was the idea, repugnant to the military establishment, that gays in the forces should have the right to declare themselves publicly as such. It will probably never be known how many gays in the armed forces wanted such a right, or would have exercised it if they had it. Certainly a few of them did, and certainly the civilian militants who led the gay lobby wanted gays in the military to have that right, because this would be good for the status of the gay community generally. So Mr Clinton, needing those votes, committed himself to that programme. When he became President, and tried to honour his promise, he was taking on the military establishment of the United States, which is immensely powerful, not only on land, on sea and in the air, but also in the media. And I don't think it is a coincidence that the period of Mr Clinton's confrontation with the generals over gay rights was also one of the worst patches, in terms of media coverage, that any president has had to endure.

The last prominent American political figure to take on the military establishment was the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy, 40 years ago. Up to the moment when he took on the military - over its being allegedly 'soft on Communism' - McCarthy had been the most dreaded political figure in the States. Within a few months of taking on the military - and without any significant change in his own pattern of behaviour - McCarthy's media image had been turned from formidable to contemptible.

At the time of the story about that expensive haircut on Air Force One, Mr Clinton seemed to be heading in the same direction. Luckily for him, he drew back from the brink, and the media barrage abated significantly.

Today, he and his First Lady are often, and sometimes sharply criticised. But the criticism has in recent weeks and months mainly been addressed to matters of high policy: first the budget and now health policy, the presentation of which on Capitol Hill has been brilliantly handled by Hillary Clinton. Both the Clintons have now an air of taking a grip on things that was lacking even a few months ago. A lot of people still hate them, but the ugly note of general media ridicule and contempt has faded. I don't think it likely that the President will at any time revert to the issue of gays in the military.