1998 Elections Redefine U.S.  Political Policies
 

The past week has demonstrated that Bill Clinton is the most extraordinary politician of our time.  He took a draw in the 1998 by-elections in which the Republicans retained control of both houses of Congress,  and managed to define it as an overwhelming defeat for the Republicans and a major personal victory for himself.  The generally accepted consensus was that the elections ended any chance of an impeachment of the President.  As pure icing on the cake,  the elections destroyed his archenemy,  Newt Gingrich and with it,  redefined the Republican Party.

The President achieved his tremendous victory by defining the basic issue as whether having sex with Monica Lewinsky was or was not an impeachable offense.  He was actually aided in this by Ken Starr and the Republican right wing,  which in fact did regard having sex with Monica Lewinsky as being an impeachable offense.  The issue of lying under oath became a subsidiary matter.  The really critical issue: whether the President raised funds from Chinese and Indonesian government and commercial sources in return for skewing U.S.  foreign policy in their favor was shoved off to another investigation where it languishes,  mostly forgotten.  This was the true tail wagging the dog: Monica Lewinsky's tail wagged a dog of an investigation. 

How was this permitted to happen?  The cultural conservatives in the Republican Party simply failed to understand that the dominant culture in the United States draws a fundamental difference between public character and private behavior.  Most Americans were personally offended by the President's behavior,  but did not translate the private failure into something that defined the President.  Clinton understood this.  He allowed his enemies to do exactly what they wanted to do: paint Clinton as a degenerate womanizer.  He allowed them to win that battle,  knowing that he would win the war,  since being a degenerate womanizer was not an impeachable offense.  Clinton sandbagged the Republicans.  The Republicans then sandbagged themselves by permitting the elections to become a referendum not on whether Clinton was a degenerate womanizer (that was already conceded) but whether he should be impeached over it.  They then allowed the Democrats to define a draw as a victory,  and the results sent Gingrich packing his bags. 

There are two domestic political results here.  The Christian Right sees itself as engaged in a struggle for the cultural soul of the United States.  They have just been handed an overwhelming defeat.  The culture that won this battle was the secular,  hedonist culture that holds that what people do of their own free will behind closed doors not only is their own business,  but does not in any way effect public life.  The inability of the Christian Right to bring down a President caught literally with his pants down will be seen as a signal that the Christian Right simply doesn't have the power to define the important issues.  If they could not bring down Bill Clinton over admitted sexual misconduct,  they are simply not as powerful as they would like to think they are.  Their influence in the Republican Party will diminish after this,  or the Republics will slip back into minority status. 

The second political result is the effective collapse of feminism as a political force.  Feminists savaged Clarence Thomas as being unfit for the Supreme Court because a former employee of his,  Anita Hill,  provided uncorroborated testimony that on several occasions he had asked her out on dates and that he had even made several dirty jokes in her presence.  Feminists seriously regarded this as evidence that Thomas was unfit to sit on the Supreme Court.  Clinton was charged (with certainly at least as much evidence as Anita Hill brought forward) with exposing himself to an employee (Paula Jones),  groping another employee (Kathleen Willey),  and having an affair with young student doing an internship in the White House (Monica Lewinsky).  Where lesser charges were enough to mobilize feminists against Thomas,  the charges against Clinton were not seen as sufficient to demand his resignation.  In fact,  feminists argued that the good Clinton did the feminists outweighed whatever personal misconduct he engaged in.  In other word's,  powerful liberals are to be held to different standards than conservatives. 

The feminists have now created the Clinton Test for sexual harassment.  Unwanted sexual advances,  actual exposure of private parts,  and taking advantage of a powerful office to seduce young women,  do not constitute sexual harassment if you support the feminist agenda.  Asking employees out on dates and telling dirty jokes in front of them does constitute sexual harassment if you are on the feminist hit list.  The utter cynicism of the feminists will cripple the movement for a generation.  No one will take seriously NOW's calls for greater protection of women in the workplace after their refusal to condemn Bill Clinton. 

This is the interesting outcome of the elections.  The two wings of the cultural wars,  the Christian Right and feminists,  have both suffered massive damage.  The ability of the Christian Right to strike fear into the hearts of politicians has been severely diminished,  certainly on a national basis.  The moral and intellectual credibility of their main opponents,  the Feminist Left has also been shattered.  Thus we will make an extreme but we think defensible statement: the cultural wars that have defined much of the nation's politics since about 1980 are over.  Both sides have lost and have lost decisively. 

If this is true,  then the battles that energized the Christian Right and the Feminist Left,  but which left the center generally uneasy and unengaged,  should slowly decline in importance.  Abortion is,  of course,  the core issue.  Issues like pornography,  on which both flanks agreed and which failed to excite the rest of the spectrum should also decline in importance.  In short,  a new political agenda should be emerging in time for 2000.  What will that agenda be? 

It is increasingly clear that Bob Livingston of Louisiana will be the next Speaker of the House of Representatives.  That means that the Republican leader of the House will be from the Deep South,  along with the Republican leader of the Senate,  Trent Lott.  This is an extremely dangerous situation for the Republicans,  who have just been devastated by cultural conservatism.  But there is a reverse twist to this.  Precisely because both Livingston and Lott come from the deep south and have strong credentials among the powerful Christian Right within the Republican Party,  they have more room for maneuver within the Party than others might have.  Moreover,  both Lott and Livingston are more creatures of Washington than the South by now,  and we should remember that Washington won this election.  They will be able to define a new agenda without alienating the Christian Right.  They can lighten up on family values if they have another issue that the Christian Right resonates to but that has broader appeal.

That issue is economic nationalism.  Bob Livingston was the key figure in the recent debate over an $18 billion payment to the IMF for use in addressing the global economic crisis.  While some in the Party wanted to block the payment altogether and while the President was simply in favor of it,  Livingston crafted a solution which permitted the money to be paid if the IMF underwent massive reforms that would actually change its very nature.  Rather than supporting proposals for increased power to the IMF bureaucracy,  Livingston crafted legislation that both supported the IMF while decreasing its power.  He forced Clinton into accepting what was,  when viewed carefully,  a very radical piece of legislation.  Given the new proposals being floated for $80 billion bailouts and the creation of a larger,  more powerful bureaucracy to control international currency controls,  proposals almost but not quite creating a global central bank,  Livingston has already shown himself to be a powerful opponent to Clinton and Rubin. 

It is interesting to note that issues like the power of the IMF are increasingly motivating the Christian Right as much as cultural issues.  There is a deep and growing distrust on the part of the Christian Right of the trend toward multilateral solutions,  like NAFTA,  IMF,  UN,  WTO and so on,  that the Democrats are so fond of.  What is most important,  is that this sense of unease is not unique to the Christian Right.  Dick Gephardt represents a serious faction within the Democratic Party that is equally dubious about what is seen as a transfer of power from the United States Government to multilateral organizations. 

Now,  the most important issue facing Congress when it returns will be the future of the international financial system founded at Bretton Woods.  There are proposals being made to dramatically increase the power of organizations like the IMF and World Bank,  transferring regulatory powers over world financial markets into their hands.  These proposals are being made by France,  Germany and Japan.  The Clinton administration has recently appeared to be increasingly in favor of these changes.  These proposals will rip Washington apart.  They may well be supported by major banks looking for a way out of the crisis.  Free traders who have tended to line up with the banks,  like Jim Leach who chairs the House Banking committee,  will be torn between his ideological loyalties and his institutional proclivities.  Labor Democrats like Gephardt will be opposed to any such institutional shift.  The Christian Right will be utterly opposed.  Corporate Republicans will tend to favor the proposals.  In short,  there will be chaos. 

With the cultural wars at an end,  the new defining issue in the United States will be economic nationalism versus internationalism.  This is an issue that cuts between parties.  Pat Buchanan and Bill Gephardt are on one side,  Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton are on the other.  But Newt Gingrich is gone.  Pat Buchanan is a pale reflection of his old self.  In fact,  both parties are up for grabs.  It is not clear which party will become the party of economic nationalism.  However,  the dynamics surrounding Bob Livingston's elevation to power seem to indicate that he will take the mantle of economic nationalism and run with it.  It will protect his Christian Conservative flank while allowing him to define the difference between Republicans and Democrats.  Livingston could turn out to be a pivotal figure in American history. 



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