A lot has been made of George Bush's victory last week. But while controlling the White House and both houses of Congress is impressive, there was an additional triumph to savor: driving a stake through the Clinton era. Although he wasn't running, Bill Clinton was a major presence, raising funds, campaigning for candidates and generally trying to help his party regain its mojo. Tuesday's vote was a repudiation of his efforts. What's more, last week's rout may well quiet critics who continue to suggest that with help from his brother and the Supreme Court, Bush had stolen the 2000 election from Al Gore. This is Bush Country now.
Clinton compounded his problems at the infamous memorial service for Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone. There he was, his face blown up on the Jumbotron, cheering and swaying as if he were at Woodstock IV, showing no disapproval then or later over the booing of Republican Senator Trent Lott, who had come to pay his respects. If Jesse Ventura, the ex-wrestler, can credibly take offense and, with impunity, order flags flying at half-mast to be raised early, you know it was unsavory. Here's how Congressman Tom Davis, chairman of the Republican Congressional Committee, summed it up: "Nothing gets Republican voters more hyped up than seeing President Clinton on the tube...it got our base ginned up."
Coattails? Not on Bill. During the primaries, association with Clinton proved toxic. Three of his former Cabinet members lost. His intervention to help shore up black support for his wife in the New York State primary by getting his former Cabinet Secretary, Andrew Cuomo, out of the race led to one of the most impressive losses of the election. Comptroller Carl McCall lost to Governor George Pataki by 16 percentage points. In North Carolina, former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles wouldn't even let the former Chief Executive visit. Where Clinton did go, candidates like Maryland's Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Massachusetts' Shannon O'Brien lost. In Florida, where Clinton went to help Bill McBride, who was still within striking distance of Governor Jeb Bush, the ex-President failed decisively to get out the vote. Turnout actually dropped 17% from 1994, the last Democratic gubernatorial win.
Clinton wasn't, of course, the primary reason the Democrats lost, but there's no reason to think he would accept responsibility if he were. At a postelection dinner in his Harlem office, Clinton, his voice hoarse after three red-eye flights, said only that you can't beat a party with a message with a party without one, ignoring the fact that he is the master of blurring the differences, of shaking down the same wealthy donors as the opposition in exchange for a similar nonthreatening agenda.