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Clinton could be a great president

The election is over. But cynics and skeptics are already taking aim.

Clinton’s agenda, they say, will be captured by the tax and spend leadership of the Democrat Congress or by the liberal forces of McGovern and Mondale that populate the policy haunts of Washington’s Democratic government-in-waiting. Or: interest groups that dominate the Democratic party will promote a barrage of new entitlements and new special interest legislation that will increase spending, inflation and the deficit and expand the role of government in our lives. This is the disaster scenario: Clinton will be Carterized and we’ll find outselves with a one-term president.

But, before we throw in the towel, let’s try some possibility thinking: What kind of President could Bill Clinton become? With a little bit of luck internationally (where there are serious problems — including a looming trade war, a shooting war in the Balkans, and the disintegration of Yeltsin’s Russia) and some discipline in his own ranks, Bill Clinton could become one of the great presidents of this century.

Like Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Clinton has the opportunity to lead a political realignment. Clinton won the election because he was able to attract the suburban vote, which abandoned the Democrats in the 1972 McGovern debacle. The 1990 Census tells us that a majority of all Americans now live in the suburbs. If Clinton is able to develop policies and programs that continue to appeal to suburban America, he can lead a political realignment as profound and durable as that led by FDR who shaped a governing coalition rooted in what was then Amerca’s new urban majority.

Like Lyndon B. Johnson, Clinton is a man of unbounded energy and a hands-on approach to working with members of the legislative branch. Though many factors account for the large turnover in Congress, Clinton’s call for change helped elect more than 100 new members. Like LBJ, Clinton could have enormous influence with Congress. He could use this leverage to drive a Clinton agenda to reform and streamline government, stimulate economic expansion at home, increase trade abroad, control entitlements, and restructure the mission and operations of the defense establishment, freeing up resources for deficit reduction.

Like John F. Kennedy, Clinton could benefit from the media’s fascination with his youth, energy and “new generation” qualities. Clinton knows how to use the media, and the media are sympathetic to Clinton. If he is able to continue this kind of coverage, he can use it to great advantage to reestablish America’s self-confidence, a prerequisite of national resurgence.

Like Ronald Reagan, who (with Britain’s Margaret Thatcher) led a global movement toward democratization, deregulation, and privatization, Bill Clinton has an opportunity to define the core principles that will drive domestic and foreign policy in the post-Cold War era.

No other president in history has had this kind of possiblity. FDR had stroke with Congress and was an effective communicator, but mass communications were much less important in his day, the dawn of the radio age, than in ours. And much of his time was consumed by war.

LBJ was effective with Congress but a woeful communicator and unable to move the electorate to support him, much less engineer a relaignment.

JFK was an effective communicator but barely won his election, had an anemic record with Congress and was battered early by an international crisis: his failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.

Ronald Reagan could communicate his “opportunity society” vision of a new America, but Congress balked, his movement failed to develop roots in the popular culture and its most effective spokesmen (e.g., Jack Kemp, Vin Weber and Newt Gingrich) were sidelined by George Bush.

So, Bill Clinton has a unique opportunity. Let’s hope he makes the most of it.

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