Clinton and His Party

A president's troubles are also his party's. Democrats in Congress and around the country are learning just how true this is.

Some Democratic candidates are shying away from presidential campaign visits; many are going public with criticisms of the president's behavior. The party's voters, too, are deciding how they'll respond to President Clinton's admission that he'd been untruthful about an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Some analysts of voter behavior expect many Democrats to simply stay home come November.

A deeply felt speech last week by Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, a longtime political ally of the president's, struck a tone of moral indignation. That was quickly amplified by other prominent Democrats, such as Sens. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. This chorus could grow now that Kenneth Starr's report to Congress has turned the next page.

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That this should be happening to this party under this president is sharply ironic. Mr. Clinton, in the late '80s, was prominent among a cadre of rising Democratic stars who felt the party had to chart a fresh course if it wanted to become competitive after the Reagan-Bush years. They felt the country had decisively veered away from the big-government, Washington-centered heritage of the New Deal. They preached new partnerships with business, greater emphasis on state and local action, innovative school reform, and fiscal responsibility. A new group, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), was formed to advance this agenda.

And their man, Bill Clinton, made it to the top. His record in office of championing "new Democratic" centrism has been mixed. The president's initial push for a vast, new national health insurance system allowed Republicans to tag him immediately as an old-style liberal intent on expanding government. That label was inaccurate. Clinton has many times shown himself the New Democrat he professed to be - both rhetorically ("The era of big government is over") and legislatively (the balanced-budget agreement and welfare reform).

Will the new course he helped set for his party survive his own indiscretions? The president's infidelity to New Democrat principles like personal accountability and the primacy of family values helped feed the sense of betrayal felt by Senator Lieberman, current chairman of the DLC, and others.

They had labored with Clinton to reorient the party. That effort has strengthened two-party politics in America and helped pave a wider middle ground at a time when major elements of the Republican Party had turned hard to the right.

The New Democrat movement should endure as a worthwhile accomplishment regardless of how the scandal story plays out.

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