The shrunken presidency

By Joe Schembrie
web posted June 5, 2000

Democrats are truly puzzled as to why Al Gore isn't doing better in the polls. The country is at peace and the economy is booming, so why isn't President Bill Clinton's chosen successor getting the credit?

Perhaps it's because Clinton has shrunk the presidency. In the public perception, the presidency under Bill Clinton is no longer relevant with regard to foreign policy or macroeconomics. Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War and Bill Gates marketed the Internet -- but what Big Thing has Bill Clinton done?

Clinton didn't intend to become the Incredible Shrinking President. He once tried to accomplish a Big Thing -- national health care. He was going to nationalize one-seventh of the economy in one swift stroke. Secret meetings were held, eight-hundred page master plans were distributed. Everybody would carry an ID card and dissidents would be imprisoned.

Lenin would have been impressed. The public wasn't.

Clinton proved capable of showmanship but not of leadership. He couldn't defend the idea or organize support. He couldn't even work around the legal obstacles. The plan died, his approval ratings plummeted. National health care was the biggest flop of his administration and certainly contributed to Clinton's party losing control of Congress for the first time in decades.

Having been burned by big issues, Clinton learned to stick to the small ones. He proclaimed, "The Era of Big Government is over," and became The President of Small Things -- school uniforms and trigger locks overshadowing tax policy and nuclear missile treaties on the national agenda. Even his wars are trivial -- bombing third-rate countries for a week or two, as a sideshow distraction to his ongoing domestic scandals.

Yes, the government is as big as ever, and there's still a man following the President around with a briefcase full of nuclear codes. But in terms of what were once the big issues, the Clinton Presidency has shriveled into irrelevance. He leaves the status quo untouched -- and obsesses instead on minor, personal issues.

Elian Gonzalez, case in point. In previous presidencies, child custody disputes were handled in the family courts. Now the White House takes direct charge. In Clinton's shrunken perspective, the Elian Saga loomed as large as the Gulf War, with Uncle Lazaro cast as Saddam Hussein. There were six months of massive propaganda -- and a small army was mobilized. But at least when President Bush liberated Kuwait, he didn't see it necessary to trample on the Fourth Amendment. Bush, after all, had a sense of proportion.

During all those months of strategy, negotiation, and planning over the Elian Crisis, didn't even one Clinton advisor say, "Excuse me, Mister President, don't we have a country to run?"

But the obsession over Elian is a step upward, relative to the presidential puniness achieved under Impeachment. There, because Clinton chose to commit perjury and abuse of power rather than apologize or take the Fifth Amendment, a boorish sexual harassment case was swollen into a national crisis. He dragged the country through a year of tedious agony, just to cover up his sex life -- and in true Clintonian fashion, he completely bungled the conspiracy and the details oozed out anyway.

And once again, the President and his staff were found concentrating their full mental energies over a personal matter, while issues of foreign policy and national economics were shoved into the ditch.

By now, multitudes have caught on that Clinton is a captain who is absent from the bridge of statecraft for months at a time. Instead, you'll find him rearranging the chairs on the deck, or helping arrest a stowaway child, or having sex with a subordinate -- or conferring with his lawyers about the latest corruption charges filed against him. Realizing by now that he oversees neither the navigation nor the steering, the passengers have ceased to credit Captain Clinton with where the ship of state is or how it got there.

Clinton's approval rating has slipped below fifty percent, signaling that half the voting population now wants a real captain -- before we encounter icebergs. They sense the leadership vacuum created by the shrunken presidency, and they want a leader who will fill the office.

Gore is not that leader. By telling us that he looks up to Clinton, he acknowledges that he's even smaller. And with campaign spending reform as his keynote theme, he's admitting that he thinks the most important issue of his presidency will be how he'll run for re-election!

Meanwhile, George W. Bush talks about big issues of actual governance: tax cuts, Social Security privatization, nuclear missile defense. It's as if he's the only candidate who realizes that the presidency is a very important job.

Possibly, the public agrees. That would explain the polls saying that he'll be hired.

Joe Schembrie is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

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