Clinton, So Far

The Scar of Race

by Paul Sniderman and Thomas Piazza
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 212 pp., $18.95

Mad as Hell: Revolt at the Ballot Box, 1992

by Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover
Warner, 534 pp., $24.95

The Lincoln Persuasion: Remaking American Liberalism

by David Greenstone
Princeton University Press, 352 pp., $24.95

Bill Clinton’s successful campaign seemed to restore the Democratic Party’s competitive strength in presidential elections. For the first time since 1964, Clinton showed that it was possible for a member of his party to make the case for stronger government intervention in the economy and particularly in health care—central factors in increasing Democratic votes in states from New Hampshire to California. Clinton’s campaign also prevented conservatives from successfully exploiting the racial and social issues that had divided the Democratic Party for a generation. The Republican coalition was in shambles, torn apart by differing views on abortion and taxes, by Bush’s failure to deal with the recession, and by its own populist insurgency from the right.

Still, within six months, the passage of Clinton’s budget proposal by two votes in the House and one in the Senate barely averted a defeat that would have severely damaged the Clinton presidency. Similar tests of presidential strength are quickly approaching with the North American Free Trade Agreement and the plan for health insurance, both of which will require bipartisan support. Has Clinton’s behavior during the first six months of his administration made impossible what he once seemed well-equipped to accomplish—the rebuilding of the power of the Democratic Party to win elections and to set national goals? That question cannot be answered this early in a new administration, but the available evidence suggests that Clinton has badly damaged the opportunities he had to create a strong Democratic coalition. He has revived just those conflicts growing out of the politics of race, gender, and sexual identity that his campaign sought to smooth over, if not resolve.

At the root of Clinton’s difficulties is his inconsistent approach to the conflicting, and often contradictory, forces within contemporary liberalism—his failure to balance the tensions between majority and minority interests, between the goals of equality of wealth and equality of opportunity. J. David Greenstone’s recent The Lincoln Persuasion: Remaking American Liberalism has provided for Clinton a useful example of the effective use of executive power in its account of how Lincoln succeeded in addressing the central failing of the American liberalism of his day—slavery. Lincoln, Greenstone argues, created a moral consensus that placed the highest value on the preservation of the Union, a position with wide support in the North, while skillfully improvising a policy reflecting the principles in the Declaration of Independence that implicitly called for eliminating slavery.

Lincoln, according to Greenstone, prevented a destructive polarization from taking place between the Puritanical absolutism of the Abolitionists and the practical, calculated approach of the conservative Whig tradition, exemplified by Henry Clay. Lincoln won wide support in the North by establishing a morally coherent position that combined some of the arguments of both the pragmatists and the absolutists. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, Greenstone writes, Lincoln developed the view that,

In order to promote a national unity, the Union had to “faithfully observe” all the constitutional guarantees that protected slavery in the slave states and had to…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.