Programmed to Fail

Edward Luttwak on the American Presidency

What happened in the 1994 Congressional elections was much more than the defeat of President Clinton and his post-leftist policies, though that it certainly was. And the election was much more than the defeat of the Democrats as the party of all Americans (with the exception of heterosexual white males and non-feminist white females), though that too it certainly was. At a slightly deeper level the election results reflect the breakdown of the Cold War structure of US domestic politics – exactly the same kind of breakdown that has been manifest in a far more obvious form in both Europe and Japan.

In theory, this should not be happening. After all, in the United States there was no significant Communist or neutralist party, and therefore no equivalent to the alliance/anti-alliance party alignments of Europe and Japan. Instead there was a ‘bipartisan’ consensus on the need to oppose the Soviet Union. That still left much room for controversy over the best way of waging the Cold War, with hawks stressing military power and doves stressing diplomacy. But hawks and doves were found in both parties, and in fact Southern Democrats were routinely more hawkish than Northern Republicans.

And yet it is no mere coincidence that the passing of the Cold War has been followed by basic changes in US party politics. In place after place, the traditional, affluent, socially tolerant country-club Republican leaders and their kind of candidates, have been challenged, and are increasingly being replaced, by religiously-motivated activists as interested in outlawing abortion as in reducing taxes. Sometimes those activists promote candidates just like themselves, too extreme to have much electoral appeal: hence the fact that Oliver North failed, despite all his money and the weakness of the two opponents who divided the anti-North vote. More often, however, the new Republican activists are fielding non-fanatical ‘culturally conservative’ (and very white) candidates who appeal to semi-affluent and non-affluent white male and white female voters, including those who are not especially interested in abortion, but who are strongly opposed to the excesses of feminism, affirmative action for blacks, and O.J. Simpson-type legalism in dealing with crime. Because these less affluent ‘new Republicans’ come straight from the traditional base of the Democratic Party, what is happening among the Republicans is also destabilising the Democratic Party.

The connection with the passing of the Cold War is very direct. For the chain of events that has brought about the present situation started with the carefully calculated attempt by leading Republican politicians to find what is virtually a one-for-one substitute for a hawkish Cold War stance in the promotion of Family Values. In that complex of socially conservative attitudes, the common denominator is opposition to legal abortion: a theological imperative for some, but mostly a way of attacking sexual permissiveness, and of attacking all expressions of personal and social liberalism, which are seen as the cause of the disorder of everyday life in present-day America. The Family Values theme translates into a variety of specific political issues, but two of them are definitely salient. These are, at the Federal and State levels, opposition to legal abortion; and at the local (i.e. school board) level, opposition to sex education in schools.

A hawkish Cold War stance and the advocacy of Family Values both have authoritarian undertones. But that is all they have in common: they attract quite different segments of American society. The traditional Republican élite, affluent, only casually church-going, and inclined to be socially tolerant, has little interest in Family Values. That much was already obvious in the 1992 Presidential election. In fact George Bush was himself a perfect representative of the socially secure, socially tolerant, country-club Republicans who were most uncomfortable with the anti-abortion position imposed on candidate Bush.

Those to whom the advocacy of Family Values appeals most strongly are Catholics, who are traditionally Democrats (with the exception of Italo-Americans); Southerners, although the South was traditionally Democratic; and the less educated, who are less affluent, hence traditionally less Republican. It very effectively attracts the growing number of newly suburban, newly middle-class, and newly but only moderately affluent voters in higher-growth parts of the country, especially the South, South-West and the mountain states. Socially insecure by definition, and economically insecure in a globalising economy undergoing structural change, this often fervently church-going new middle class is now voting Republican: in the past the same people would have voted for the Democrats.

The new Republicans are exemplified by the supporters of Newt Gingrich in his suburban, semi-affluent constituency near Atlanta, Georgia – a state once 100 per cent Democratic. They have little in common with traditional Republicans, who are defined precisely by their sense of economic and social security – which inclines them to oppose government activism as unnecessary for themselves and disproportionately costly to more affluent taxpayers (such as themselves). The new Republicans, by contrast, are not opposed to government activism – many work for Federal, State or local government – but their multiple insecurities are vented in authoritarian attitudes. Not coincidentally, the privately free-thinking Newt Gingrich was himself the chief inventor of the Family Values theme.

The final step in the chain of events that brought about the transformation of the Republican Party was the successful enlistment of the evangelical fundamentalists. Fundamentalist preachers with political ambitions did not originally fit comfortably into either party. On the one hand, the preachers were antagonised by the social liberalism that the Democrats’ big-city voting base imposed on them at the national level. On the other, fundamentalists as a group are less educated, less affluent and therefore less (traditionally) Republican. In 1980, the Moral Majority preacher Jerry Falwell tried to deliver his supporters to the Reagan campaign, but the results were unsatisfactory: the fundamentalist vote disappeared into the Republican victory without having any real impact on subsequent policies. It was at this point that fundamentalist preachers with political ambitions decided that it was not enough to vote for a party: it was necessary to take one over. In practice, the target could only be the Republican Party. Pat Robertson’s Presidential attempt having failed, the effort shifted to the conquest of the base of the Republican Party.

Certain younger, more intellectual Republican leaders – such as Vin Weber and Gingrich – pressed for the adoption of Family Values as the central element of the Republican platform, in order to widen the Party’s political base by attracting previously Democratic fundamentalists and, more important, the new Republicans, whose emergence as local leaders and candidates was perceived by traditional Republican leaders as a subversive takeover by their social inferiors. In Virginia, for example, the new Family Values leaders (who supported Oliver North) were not even on speaking terms with traditional Republican leaders (exemplified by the much-married Senator Warner, former husband of Elizabeth Taylor).

Under a multi-party system, as in Europe or Japan, the displaced traditional Republicans would now form their own socially liberal, economically conservative party. But even under a two-party system, the cohabitation of incompatible groups under the same party label has become increasingly nominal: in Virginia, many socially-liberal Republicans voted for Ross Perot in reaction to the Family Values George Bush of 1992, and they voted for the unofficial Republican Coleman for the Senate in 1994 instead of the official new Republican Oliver North, who won the primary with fundamentalist support. The transformation of the Republican Party is well underway.

There is, inevitably, a reciprocal effect on the Democrats. To the extent that the Family Values strategy continues to be successful (and it is certainly favoured by the global anti-liberal trend manifest in both nationalism and fundamentalism), the Democrats must continue to lose non-minority, socially conservative, less educated and less affluent voters – i.e. precisely the voters who used to make up the traditional blue-collar base of the Party. This group’s numbers, although declining for structural economic reasons, are still very substantial: 18 million Americans continue to be employed in manufacturing.

Unlike Clinton in 1992, Democratic candidates who faced the 1994 elections did not have a Ross Perot in the running to divide the non-liberal white male and non-feminist white female vote. Unless they had many black and Hispanic voters in their constituencies, most Democratic candidates therefore could not win by replicating Clinton’s collection of feminist white female, non-white, homosexual, and very-liberal white male voters. They needed mainstream white votes too – and they did not get them. Aside from everything else, Clinton’s aggressive affirmative-action policies (first of all in staffing the government) antagonised many white males, including many strongly opposed to Family Values, while Hillary’s role in his Administration has been intensely irritating to non-feminist white females.

In the latest elections, Democratic candidates therefore embraced three remedies. One was a short-term response to the immediate Clinton/Hillary problem: most candidates visibly dissociated themselves from the Clintons, asking the White House not to send them to their constituencies at election time – considering the amount of precious TV coverage that any candidate receives when the President and/or his wife visits, this was most remarkable. More important are two longer-term remedies: Democrat leaders have responded to the Republican Family Values recruitment effort by themselves embracing that same theme; and they are trying to outmanoeuvre the Family Values theme by adopting ultra-tough positions on crime and welfare reform. None of these remedies proved sufficient in the recent elections, because of Clinton’s extreme unpopularity. But the more lasting overall effect – which will be felt in future elections – was to shift the Democratic Party to the right in the attempt to recapture its lost socially-conservative white voters. That in turn is creating and will continue to create severe strains with the Party’s remaining liberals. There is thus a clear parallel with the acute tension between new Republicans and old Republicans.

The Cold War debate between hawks and doves that was the key theme of post-1948 American politics has therefore given way to a new Family Values debate, which sets in opposition the advocates of order, on the one hand, and of more freedom (personal, sexual, social) on the other. And the new Family Values debate is much much more divisive than the old Cold War debate, because of the nature of the issues involved: crime, which is seen as the result of an excess of liberalism in the administration of justice; and affirmative action – in part the old race issue under a new name, but in part reflecting the very real pressure of feminism on white male careers. Moreover, the hawk/dove divide did not threaten the fundamental unity of either party. In Congress, each camp merely voted its own way on the Cold War issues (the defence budget, arms control etc) without causing severe intra-party tensions. In fact, as far as Democratic hawks were concerned, their membership of the same camp served to unify the socially conservative among them with the socially liberal ‘neo-conservatives’. The pro-Family Values/liberal division has undermined the unity of both parties.

Neither Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign nor his various post-campaign political efforts has resulted in the creation of a genuine third party at the national level. But while Perot failed to break the two-party system, the combination of Clinton’s disastrous Presidency with the new prominence of the Family Values theme may now be in the process of creating not merely one but two new parties: one for anti-FV Republicans, and a second for socially conservative white Democrats, as opposed to old Republicans and so-called coalition Democrats (i.e. very-liberal white, feminist, black, Hispanic and homosexual voters). It is only in the state of Virginia that the four parties actually emerged in the course of the 1994 Senate election (until Wilder withdrew):

Family Values Republicans = North
Old low-taxes Republicans = Coleman
Coalition Democrats = Wilder
White Democrats = Robb

Of course it would be foolhardy to predict that what has happened in the peculiar conditions of Virginia will happen nationwide. For one thing, it certainly cannot happen in big-city constituencies were there are few fundamentalists, so that the old Republicans remain the Republicans, and where there are enough liberal, feminist, black, Hispanic and homosexual voters to allow coalition Democrats to win in spite of any number of non-liberal white defections. But the four-way division does fit very well the divergent political impulses of suburban, small-town and rural Americans in quite a few parts of the country. Affluent Americans opposed to Family Values cannot find refuge in a Democratic Party that insists on high marginal income-tax rates; less affluent Americans opposed to affirmative action, feminism etc cannot find refuge in a Republican Party that acts against their economic interests.

In Europe and Japan the breakdown of party structures has been dramatic and obvious. But the less visible convulsions inside each US party may yet lead to the same result – and the same decline in ‘governability’. The divisions inside the Congressional Democratic Party are so great that on high-visibility issues (crime, health care) even the concurrence of a Democratic President with pre-election Democratic majorities in both House and Senate did not prevent legislative paralysis – the so-called gridlock. The persistence of the old party labels means little as of now, and will probably mean even less in the future as four de facto parties continue to develop under two party labels.

As for the Clinton Presidency, its failure can be dated very exactly to 26 August 1994, when the last attempt to enact health care legislation in the US Senate was abandoned. Clinton’s critics naturally blame him and his wife; but whatever their faults may have been, the failure of the Clinton Administration was almost inevitable.

What is certain is that the Clinton Presidency has indeed failed. Having declared that he was committing all his political capital to obtain full-coverage health care reform, Clinton proved successivly unable to have the original ‘Hillary’ plan passed, or any full-coverage plan, or any plan at all even without full coverage. It is this that marks the moment of his political bankruptcy, a phrase which, though often merely a rhetorical jibe, has a very specific meaning in this case: as in a commercial bankruptcy (no credit = no goods = no sales = no revenues = no credit), a vicious circle has been at work. 1. Because of mostly minor but contaminating White House scandals, and because of his failure to exploit foreign policy for political advantage (as his predecessors generally did) Clinton did not gain in popularity and prestige in spite of economic recovery. 2. Therefore Clinton could not help Democrats win election or re-election, by speaking for them or appearing for them during the 1994 campaign season. 3. Therefore Congressional Democrats were not motivated to vote as Clinton wanted, with too many of them unwilling to support his health care legislation to allow its passage. 4. Therefore Clinton was seen as ineffectual, further eroding his prestige ... Moreover, Clinton’s lack of influence over legislation prevented him from delivering legislated favours or punishments to Congressional Democrats hence the latter had even less reason to vote as Clinton wanted them to vote, thereby further reducing Clinton’s influence over legislation.

Clinton’s critics have proffered several accusations against him and his Administration, beginning with managerial incompetence. Clinton started off by filling his Administration with women, blacks and Hispanics (i.e. the groups that voted for him) of variable competence, and further placed dubious or ineffectual white males in key positions, notably on his own White House staff (since then much altered by firings, resignations, suicide) and in foreign-policy positions. Naturally, policy execution has been clumsy – so clumsy in the case of basic White House operations that the Republican David Gergen had to be brought in. Even now, Clinton could find better people to work for him; but there is the deeper problem of his own decision-making.

Clinton refuses to decide by experience and instinct as most of his predecessors have mostly done. He tries to optimise decisions by systematically considering every factor involved, frequently reappraising not only the data but his own goals as well. Along the way, he announces intended decisions, which he feels free to change whenever he glimpses the possibility of a better decision – or an alternative goal. In domestic politics these procedures have badly eroded his credibility: people are reluctant to stand with him because he is apt to repudiate his own decisions at any time. On the world scene, on the other hand, the effect has not been to erode but rather to destroy his credibility: not even minor-league Somali chieftains are afraid of him, and not even the closest US allies are willing to join US initiatives, because they can be abandoned literally overnight.

As for the scandals, Washington insiders do not believe that Hillary killed Foster or that Clinton stole Whitewater money etc. They speak instead of the ‘sleaze’ factor, i.e. a pervasive low-level dishonesty. More widely, there is now the irrevocably entrenched perception that both Clintons lack a natural sense of smell about improprieties: if there is no third lawyer present to tell lawyer Bill and lawyer Hillary that X or Y is illegal, they will do it. That has set the tone in the White House, where full-time lobbyists double as White House advisers with White House passes, until the press finds out; White House travel-office civil servants are fired by a friend of Bill – Hillary with a White House pass and a travel interest of his own, only to be reinstated when the press finds out; White House officials use big helicopters to go golfing, until the press finds out; and, above all, White House officials simply lie about almost anything, until the press catches them in the lie direct. The sexual accusations are also widely believed: they fit the type. But only Family Values devotees accord them much weight – and they vehemently oppose the Clintons anyway.

The accusations listed above are certainly very serious in their totality, and enough of them are already proven to justify many of the claims circulated by Clinton’s critics. Moreover, Clinton’s foreign policy record is no longer debated at all. Having decided from the start to devote no time, energy or political capital to ‘architectural’ initiatives for world order, post-Communist security etc, in order to concentrate on domestic affairs, and having therefore decided to concern himself only with such ‘crisis management’ as could not be avoided, Clinton proceeded to fail in that as well (Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, Cuba). Nor is anyone giving him any real credit for the successes of the Arab-Israeli peace process, partly because it was already very much underway before his Inauguration, and partly because its leading protagonists seem to be the Israelis, a number of Arab leaders, a few Norwegians, and some former Bush officials.

Still, the personal and political shortcomings of both Clintons were not actually necessary to bring about the failure of the Clinton Presidency by August 1994 – a failure that the November election results merely confirmed. In fact all the accusations against the Clintons, all the scandals, merely add the overtones of a crime-and-punishment drama to an outcome that was mechanically inevitable from the start. As almost all Americans, media people most definitely included, would rather forget, the US Presidency has now become an office virtually programmed to fail. Designed in the 18th century, when government only had narrow responsibilities and events could move no faster than horses could gallop, the Presidency still provides only one driving seat for the entire vast vehicle of the US government, which must now contend with every issue and every emergency under the sun, communicated to the White House at the speed of light. That leaves US Presidents with a choice between two kinds of failure: they either make too many decisions too quickly, so that quite a few are bound to be exposed as wrong a day, a week or a year later; or else they are discredited by their visible inability to keep up with the flow of events.

For subsequent historians, the determination of failure and success is a very complicated matter subject to diverse and competing criteria. Thus, for example, Truman’s extreme unpopularity when he left office is now entirely disregarded, and he is generally considered a ‘great’ President by those who comment on such matters. But for the sitting President himself, everything is very simple because there is only one valid criterion of success: re-election. Given the enormous advantage of running for the White House from the White House, not to win re-election amounts to a 100 per cent reliable certification of failure for a practising politician. Yet out of nine Presidents since the Second World War, only Eisenhower and Reagan were re-elected to serve out a second term, while Nixon was re-elected only to be forced to resign in the aftermath. So even if Nixon is generously included, Clinton was facing odds of only one in three – few would risk major surgery, or an investment, with those chances.

A closer look at the record, moreover, reveals an even bleaker prospect for any President with the general characteristics of Clinton, even if entirely free of his particular faults and shortcomings – or indeed any faults or shortcomings at all. Both Eisenhower and Reagan could systematically avoid blame for the inevitable errors of government in ways that Clinton cannot possibly imitate. As much older men, they could present themselves as father figures somewhat detached from the day-to-day activities of government; and both were extremely careful to do exactly that. In business terms, their self-defined role was that of the chairman of the board rather than chief executive. That had the effect of systematically transferring the burden of responsibility to their subordinates. When presented with some government error or misdeed, Eisenhower and Reagan could both react by expressing surprise or even dismay if called for, and then promise to ‘look into it’, exactly as an elderly chairman of the board might do. In the case of the Iran-Contra affair, Reagan’s self-protective stance even survived judicial proceedings and formal investigations. Obviously, a President such as Clinton cannot possibly copy that method. Incontrovertibly young, more of an errant son than a father figure, Clinton needs to be persuasive in the role of a ‘hands-on’ managerial President, who knows everything that government is doing (which is impossible), and who accepts responsibility for all its significant actions (which is fatal).

Moreover, both Eisenhower and Reagan were Republicans, and as such committed to less rather than more government action, and also allowed at all times to express scepticism about the general functioning of government – any and all governments. When faced with instances of government error X or misdeed Y, Eisenhower and Reagan could both react by deploring the vices of ‘the bureaucracy’, then going on to suggest that X or Y were excellent examples of why government should be diminished rather than enlarged. Again, as an activist Democrat Clinton cannot copy these self-protective attitudes. He must instead at all times defend the Government’s ability to perform effectively. Because his health care reform alone would have brought almost 15 per cent of the entire economy under bureaucratic supervision, Clinton could hardly join in the profitable business of criticising bureaucrats as a species.

With Clinton in the White House, the 18th-century Presidential institution was virtually programmed to fail in the face of the 1994 challenges, just as it failed for all but one of Clinton’s comparable predecessors: Truman, Johnson, Carter and Bush. That is why all the faults and shortcomings of the Clintons are much less important than they seem – except of course for their future reputation.

Clinton still has time to reconstruct his Presidency administratively – for example, by appointing an effective foreign policy team. But the dragging out of the Whitewater affair through endless ultra-legalistic investigations (the new Republican-dominated Congress will start some more) means that Clinton cannot hope to reconstruct his Presidency politically.

The great Republican victory may therefore turn out to be only a small part of the story of the November 1994 elections. What may await us is a period in which governing America will be a fundamentally more difficult task than it was in the past. Beyond the obvious problem of a centre-left President facing a centre-right Congress, beyond Clinton’s own personal problems, the Presidency itself is in crisis. And beyond that in turn there is the even greater problem of the breakdown of political cohesion within each of the two US political parties. The experience of Europe and Japan since the passing of the Cold War has shown that political stability is an elusive dream without party stability. The still very polite disagreements between Newt Gingrich, the new House Republican leader, and Bob Dole, the new Senate Republican leader (over Gatt, for example), are a very clear warning of what may lie ahead.