Shortly after Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996, the Washington
Post ran a fascinating article about the President’s search for a “legacy,”
some great achievement that future generations would look back on with
gratitude. The writer, although a Clinton admirer, suggested that, while
Clinton had at that point no idea what that legacy might be, he clearly
wanted to have one: that he wanted to be remembered for doing at least
one thing no president had done before.
In one very important way, President Clinton has succeeded. Clinton has done something that Richard Nixon, despite his best efforts, failed to do. Something that George Bush failed to do. Something that even Ronald Reagan failed to do.
He has turned the Democrats into the minority party.
When Clinton took office in 1993, Democrats were in control virtually everywhere. They had a huge 267 to 167 advantage in the House of Representatives. They had a 57 to 43 advantage in the Senate. Thirty of the fifty state governors were Democrats.
It didn’t take Clinton long to change all that.
By 1996, disgust with the President and his policies led to a string of Republican victories. The GOP had taken a 55 to 45 lead in the Senate and a 235 to 197 lead in the House—an amazing shift, particularly when one considers that the Republicans hadn’t controlled both houses of Congress since the Depression.
The Republicans had taken over in most states as well. Thirty of the fifty governors were Republicans.
What’s more, it will be very difficult for the Democrats to regain their dominance anytime soon since Clinton has destroyed one of the party’s chief strengths.
For years, the Democrats had a great appeal to idealistic young people. On almost any college campus, one could find dozens of students eager to work for Democratic candidates, to distribute Democratic campaign materials, and to recruit their fellow students to the Democratic Party. They were the True Believers, the ones who really thought being a Democrat could “make a difference.”
They aren’t True Believers anymore.
Notice the very sad article Lisa Ling wrote for a recent edition of USA Weekend. The 27-year-old Ling describes her own disillusionment with politics. “I've grown up and become cynical about the way our government is run. Or maybe I'm disgusted by the hypocrisy and lies that pervade politics. Either way, there's one thing I'm certain of: My friends and fellow young people are just not interested in this election. We're all fed up.”
Ling describes accurately the feeling of many young people.
But not all of them.
It’s mostly the Democrats among them that have given up on politics. Republican young people are as fired up as ever, and even more fired up. They are now the True Believers.
So what happened?
The Democrats made a long-term strategic blunder. Clinton was on the ropes, so scandal-tainted he should not have been able to survive politically. Long before the impeachment, the Democrats should themselves have given up on Clinton. They should have asked Tom Daschle to walk to the White House and tell Clinton that it was all over: for the good of the nation and for the good of his party, it was time to resign.
They didn’t. They circled the wagons, and defended Clinton the only way possible. “Everybody does it,” they told us. Clinton raises money illegally? Everybody does it. Clinton commits perjury? Everybody does it? Clinton bombs innocent people to distract the nation from his own crimes? Everybody does it.
And who believed them? Republican young people?
Not a chance.
But their own young people did, and came to the logical conclusion. If everybody does it, if all politicians are liars and hypocrites, then there’s no point in getting involved in politics at all.
Clinton has left a whole generation of young Democrats disillusioned and unmotivated. He has cut the heart out of the Democratic Party. It is not a legacy to be proud of.