Bill Clinton frustrated Republican critics. He passed welfare reform, waged a preemptive war against Slobodan Milosevic without either the approval of the Congress or the United Nations, and reined in federal spending. And so anguished conservatives had a hard time proving that, despite these accomplishments, he was a tax-and-spend bleeding heart.
Instead, they finally charged him with being a lothario who lied about his sexual antics. But he ended up with higher approval ratings than the Republicans who impeached him.
In the same sort of way, a detested-by-the-left George Bush has driven Democrats even crazier.
Take the economy. In Mr. Bush’s first term, the president ballooned the federal deficit. But that red ink wasn’t because of too little money coming in. In fact, the ensuing growth of the economy produced more annual adjusted revenue for the Treasury than had been produced before the Bush tax cuts. This year there has been a whopping 14.6 percent increase in federal income over last.
No, the real culprit was overly liberal federal spending in Mr. Bush’s first term. Not counting the war and domestic security, the president still increased discretionary federal entitlements on average by almost 9 percent a year — signing big-ticket items like the No Child Left Behind Act and a Medicare prescription drug bill. The president did not veto a single spending proposal.
So how does a big-government Democrat score points against a president who outpaced Bill Clinton 3 to 1 in increasing the rate of federal spending?
Democrats have tried the “tax cuts for the wealthy” approach. But, then, how is it that almost every American got some tax relief — and that most in the upper brackets still pay over 50 percent of their salaries when federal, state, local and payroll taxes are considered all together? Furthermore, unemployment and interest rates remain low, while consumer spending and the gross domestic product soar.
The Democrats face the same sort of dilemma in regard to Iraq, even though the war is currently unpopular. They are not traditional Lindberg isolationists who want to stay home. To their credit, most aren’t grim realists who believe we should worry only how thugs abroad treat us, rather than how they treat their own.
So, privately, Democrats concede that, while going to war may have been naive or widely idealistic, it was not done simply out of self-interest.
And since gas prices skyrocketed after Iraq, Democrats can hardly use “No Blood For Oil” sloganeering. Since Israel got out of Gaza, so much for any claims of a surrogate war for Israel. And since U.S. troops left Saudi Arabia, so much for the argument the administration is after perpetual hegemony in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.
As progressives, are Democrats cynically to say that Arabs, unlike Eastern Europeans, Asians or Latin Americans, aren’t ready for democracy? As admirers of John F. Kennedy, are they now to complain we need to deal with the world as it is — not as we dream it might be?
We can best understand the Democratic dilemma on both domestic and foreign issues by looking at growing criticism from the president’s conservative base. For those on the hard right, he is getting uncomfortably liberal and idealistic — in other words, acting too much like a Democrat.
At home, many supply-siders and libertarians charge he is a big spender who is deluded for thinking the federal government can solve social problems by throwing more money at them.
Abroad, paleo-conservatives like Pat Buchanan think Mr. Bush is a neoconservative imperialist, and realists like George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, allege he is a dreamy idealist.
But as George W. Bush oddly seems to be doing many things a Democrat might have done, his base supporters stay with him. They see progress in Iraq (a war most Democrats in Congress once voted for). They know that the economy is strong and that the deficit is starting to decline. And they have nowhere to go anyway.
So, what are the flummoxed Democrats faced with? They’re demanding peace, but have no real future peace candidate. Democrats praise Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha’s courage, but don’t vote to follow his lead. They talk withdrawal, but neither offer a timetable nor cut off war funding.
Some still cry that the rich have become richer and the poor poorer, but there is little actual demand by Democrats for more taxes and more federal entitlements.
That’s why instead of a real debate or an alternative agenda, we get more of the same old, same old: flushed Korans, federal blame for floods in New Orleans, or purported fibs by Scooter Libby — always on the outside chance that some misdemeanor might still turn into a Monica-like felony, and thus make up for Democrats’ inability to provide a comprehensive alternative agenda.
If Karl Rove has copied former Clinton adviser Dick Morris’ playbook, then the frustrated Democrats of the House and Senate in turn have modeled themselves after the crabby contrarian Republican Congress of 1998 — and we all know who ultimately won that showdown.
Meanwhile the economy keeps chugging along, the Iraqis keep voting, and the exasperated Democrats keep digging.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, a nationally syndicated columnist and author of “A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.”