Throughout the 1980s the Democratic party’s collective political judgment was blinded by a visceral hatred of Ronald Reagan. Left-wing pundits couldn’t fathom the affection of the American public for Reagan, nor, worse still, its agreement with his right-leaning ideas on the military, the economy, and moral values. In 1988, Michael Dukakis’s biggest blunder was his insistence on running against Reagan, not George Bush. The Democrats bemoaned the policy failures of “the last eight years,” and warned voters that Bush would deliver more of the same. Voters replied: That’s good, because that’s exactly what we want. In short, the Democrats made the 1988 election a referendum on Reaganomics. Bush carried 40 states.
It wasn’t until the public learned that Bush was not, in fact, “just like Reagan” that they rebelled against the GOP, and that the party’s “electoral lock” on the White House vanished. In 1992, Bill Clinton was smart: He ran not against the ghost of Reagan, but against the defective policies of Bush. And he won by promising to recreate the prosperity that Bush’s mismanagement of the economy had let slip away.
Could it be that Republicans have now tripped into the same political ditch? It’s no secret that Republican party loyalists have a deep-rooted antipathy toward Bill Clinton. For eight years now, this contempt for the man they call “Slick Willie” has short-circuited their political acuity. If Ronald Reagan was the most underestimated politician of the past half-century, surely by now we can all agree that Bill Clinton is, at least, a close second.
The Bush campaign strategy of tying Bill Clinton’s scandals and sexual escapades around Al Gore’s neck isn’t just ineffective; it’s completely counterproductive. There are, no doubt, some similarities between Clinton and his vice president: Both have the same tendency to view truth-telling as optional. But the American public simply doesn’t believe that Al Gore is the kind of sexual predator that Bill Clinton is; and, thankfully, they are right.
Voters still have a very negative attitude toward Clinton’s vile personal behavior in the Oval Office, but they’re hardly in revolt over his performance when it comes to matters of state. That’s not too surprising, because Clinton’s overall economic record is more favorable than many Republicans and conservatives wish to concede.
Bill Clinton did not, of course, cause this magnificent expansion. But when someone is raking in a huge pot at the poker table, you don’t lecture him about how he played the hand all wrong. Voters don’t care all that much about who deserves the credit; what they know for certain is that this truly is a marvelous economy—and, more than anything else, they want more of the same.
That’s entirely rational. If we were to rank presidents on the basis of their success in generating prosperity, jobs, and income growth, Bill Clinton gets a surprisingly strong report card. Let’s take a look at how past presidents have fared, using an objective economic index constructed by Harvard University and Hoover Institution economist Robert J. Barro. Barro measured the change in four key economic indicators over the last 13 four-year presidential terms: the inflation rate, the unemployment rate, the GDP growth rate, and interest rates.
Conservatives will be cheered to learn that Reagan’s first term ranks first on the Barro index. But—and this is likely to hit Republicans right in the solar plexus—Clinton’s second term ranks a strong second, blowing away Bush, Ford, and Nixon. Barro explains Clinton’s high standing by noting: “When it came to growth, [Clinton’s] good policies—such as free trade, welfare reform, spending restraint, and stable monetary policy—outweighed his bad policies [such as] the income-tax rate hike, minimum-wage increase, family-leave regulation, and overzealous antitrust enforcement.” NR economist Lawrence Kudlow has made exactly the same point over the past four years. In some ways, Clinton’s success is the ultimate validation of the Reagan supply-side model.
Barro’s index underscores the folly of the GOP strategy of running against Clinton in this year’s election. The key to winning for George W. Bush is to separate Gore’s policies from those of Clinton: Gore is simply more liberal, across the board. Clinton is genuinely a New Democrat; Gore is not. Gore is economically risky. He is reflexively pro-government in ways that Clinton is not. Gore is much more reminiscent in philosophy of the European socialist leaders of the 1980s—François Mitterrand, for example—than of the reformist New Democrat movement built by Clinton.
It’s a worthwhile exercise to step back a minute and contrast Bill Clinton’s policy successes with Al Gore’s shifty campaign positions. First, free trade: Gore says that he wants a union-dictated, environmentalist “fair trade” policy; nowhere does he trumpet free trade. “Fair trade,” of course, is a code word for protectionism.
Second, welfare reform: Gore’s nanny-state proposals for free health care, child care, preschool, etc., would resurrect the old morally decrepit welfare state under a different name. His goal is much the same as that of the Great Society: to place the state in the role of surrogate father/breadwinner. We have 30 years of evidence that that’s a prescription for social and economic disaster.
Third, spending restraint: Gore has proposed about $1.6 trillion in new spending over the next decade. That’s more money than Mondale, McGovern, and Dukakis proposed—not individually, but combined. Message: Gore’s a big spender, par excellence.
Fourth, Clinton has cozied up to business interests, and has fixated on the financial markets as a performance gauge. Gore, in contrast, is campaigning as a demonizer of “big business,” regularly attacking industries he disagrees with: oil companies, HMOs, drug companies, Microsoft, and big tobacco.
On economics, Gore is a “Clinton Democrat” only when it comes to perpetuating Clinton’s debilitating economic policies. He wants a higher minimum wage; he’s against pro-growth tax cuts, and supported Clinton’s veto of the repeal of the death tax; he wants paid family leave; and he wants to hike the budget for the Justice Department trustbusters. He recently told the Washington Post that he relishes the opportunity to run as a progressive, trust-busting, anti-corporate crusader. On environmental policy, Clinton has been friendly to the radical greens; Gore would paint the Oval Office green. The Kyoto global-warming treaty alone ought to give Americans pause about a Gore presidency. The Bush campaign has to start pounding Gore-Lieberman mercilessly for lurching the Democratic party back to the loony left. Tying Gore to Clinton simply makes Gore seem reasonable on policy, and a decent enough standard-bearer for prosperity. He’s nothing of the sort. He could very easily be to Clinton what Herbert Hoover was to Calvin Coolidge.
Bush should debate Gore dozens of times before the election. Each time Gore opens his mouth on national TV, he utters some new scheme to boost government spending and undermine individual liberties. That’s an act that wears thin, over time, to an American public that still prefers a paycheck to a welfare check.
I’m a fan of Dick Cheney, but he said something at the Republican convention that encapsulates why the GOP ticket has lost 15 points in the polls in the last four weeks. He said: “Does anyone . . . seriously believe that under Mr. Gore, the next four years would be any different from the last eight [under Clinton]?” If Americans conclude on Election Day that Gore would govern just like Clinton, the election is lost—for the Republicans. The message of the Barro index is that the only way for Bush-Cheney to win is to convince voters that four years of Al Gore would be nothing at all like the last eight.