Eye on the Prize

Al Gore and Bill Clinton
Al Gore and Bill Clinton; drawing by David Levine


In the understandably general yearning for “change” in the governing of this country, we might pause to reflect on just what is being changed, and by whom, and for whom. At Madison Square Garden in New York from July 13 until the balloons fell on the evening of July 16, four days devoted to heralding the perfected “centrism” of the Democratic Party, no hint of what had once been that party’s nominal constituency was allowed to penetrate prime time, nor was any suggestion of what had once been that party’s tacit role, that of assimilating immigration and franchising the economically disenfranchised, or what used to be called “coopting” discontent. Jesse Jackson and Jimmy Carter got slotted in during the All-Star Game. Jerry Brown spoke of the people who “fight our wars but never come to our receptions” mainly on C-SPAN.

“This convention,” Representative Tom Foley declared, and a number of speakers echoed him, “looks like our country, not like a country club,” but the preferred images were precisely those of a sunbelt country club, for example Tipper and Al Gore dancing sedately on the podium. The preferred sound was not “Happy Days Are Here Again” but Fleetwood Mac, Christine McVie’s request before the New Hampshire primary that the Clinton campaign stop using her song “Don’t Stop” notwithstanding.

Those who wanted to dance with the Gores, join the club, made it clear that they were transcending, as their candidate had often put it, “the brain-dead policies in both parties,” most noticeably their own. “Democrat” and “Republican,” we heard repeatedly, as if a prayer for electoral rain, were old labels, words without meaning, as were “liberal” and “conservative.” “The choice we offer is not conservative or liberal, in many ways it is not even Republican or Democratic,” the candidate told us. “It is different. It is new…. I call it a New Covenant.”

What Governor Clinton had been calling “a New Covenant” (for a while he had called it “a Third Way,” which had sounded infelicitously Peruvian) was essentially the Democratic Leadership Council’s “New Choice,” or more recently its “New Social Contract,” a series of policy adjustments meant to “reinvent government” (as in Reinventing Government by David Osborne, a Clinton adviser) not at all by diminishing but by repackaging its role. There was in the New Covenant or the Third Way or the New Choice or the New Social Contract much that was current in Republican as well as Democratic policy thinking, but there was also a shell game; part of the “New Covenant,” for example, called for the federal government to “cut 100,000 bureaucrats” by attrition, but it was unclear who, if not a new hundred thousand bureaucrats, would administer the new federal programs ($133.7 billion to “Put America to Work,” $22.5 billion to “Reward Work and Families,” $63.3 billion to encourage “Lifetime Learning”) promised in the…

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