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Democratic drama at the edge of the millennium

I remember it all like it was just yesterday. Election night, 1994 in the procastinariffic Joline TV room during my formative Mathey years. Some nefarious columnist from the now-defunct Princeton Sentinel sat in the back of the room literally licking his lips as he tallied the Republican bloodbath in Congress, while my neighbor Paul Serritella '98, a thespian and Knicks fan by trade, sat clutching his shaking head in a mix of grief and disbelief when Peter Jennings announced the fall of N.Y. governor and Democratic stalwart Mario Cuomo.

For Democrats, that (un)forgettable evening was worthy of a few rounds of Prozac Jell-O shots. Republicans, on the other hand, couldn't get enough of their rout. By the end of the night, Newt Gingrich was on Good Morning America announcing the start of a "Republican Revolution" that he boldly characterized as the popular repudiation of the "liberal" excesses of the fledgling Clinton Administration.


By the end of the week, Republican freshmen were singing the praises of their Contract with America like Coca-Cola executives just before the release of some revolutionary new formula. And by the end of the year, the words "Dole" and "Oval Office" were being juxtaposed ad nauseum in national oped sections a full 19 months before the '96 election.

So much for high hopes. When and if this whole Lewonica Moninsky jazz subsides – and Clinton's record public approval rating hints that it will – history will remember the Clinton Administration, which at its nadir had to endure the ignominy of reassuring the media that it was still relevant, for shrewdly adopting popular centerism en route to pummeling candidate Dole and redefining the Democratic agenda.

Under the tutelage of Dick Morris, Clinton started associating himself with middle-of-the-road catch phrases like "welfare reform" and "an end of the era of big government," a strategy that stymied his Republican foes in Congress by co-opting some of their own bread-and-butter campaign initiatives. That much is old news.

But while blurring the distinction between himself and many Republicans may have safeguarded him his full eight years, Clinton is now in the ironic position of returning to his progressive roots in order to reach two remaining goals that most often itch a second-term President: a majority in Congress to afford him an activist blank check and a post-presidential legacy – the latter in the form of Al Gore's successful ascent to the Oval Office in 2000. Paradoxically, these two goals stand in each other's way.

Look at the goal of winning back Congress in 1998. In a clear departure from the rented conservatism that staved off both a Dole victory and a continuation of Congressional Democratic hemorrhage in 1996, Clinton has kicked off the new year with progressive initiatives that now stand to differentiate him from even the most moderate of Republicans: the expansion of Medicare coverage for individuals not quite 65 but still in peril of high medical insurance rates, a $22 billion plan to make quality child care more affordable for working families and more generous allotments for everything from Work Study to the Peace Corps to food stamp transfers – the budgets of all of which have been beleaguered under the Republican retrenchment.

If all works as planned, voters will smell another ill-fated "Republican Revolution" and give Clinton an unlikely off-year majority in Congress that will help ratify some of his loftiest initiatives yet. For Clinton, then, the 1998 elections chiefly represent a race against a ticking clock constantly pressing him to succeed on a substantive agenda that will end his presidency on its highest note, especially after Interngate.


And, as demonstrated by the words of Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), one of the Administration's most fiscally-stingy foes, the race has officially begun: "I think this is an interesting week we are in; the president has a new idea to create new massive programs every single day."

But Clinton's right-hand man and potential legacy, Vice President Al Gore, is also starting to contemplate his own place in history, i.e., his impending bid for the Presidency. But get this: if the Democrats regain Congress, the President may very well have a legislative feast, but at the great expense of marginalizing Gore's chances in 2000.

"How?" you ask. For starters, Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo), Gore's biggest rival for the Democratic nomination, could gain increasing party popularity and a powerful campaigning podium as Speaker of the House. And even more compelling, the electorate will be quite leery of giving one party a full legislative buffet in both the Presidency and a Congressional majority in 2000; recall the 1994 election.

Here precisely stands the intriguing tightrope that the Clinton, Gore and the entire Democratic Party will have to cross between now and Election '00 – an event that is already commanding more Vegas odds-making than the Triple Crown, Super Bowl and "Who Shot J.R.?" combined. Without a doubt, a DNC strapped for cash will have little choice but to ask itself which of the two prizes it wants most.

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In the meantime, sit back and enjoy the political balance of power that will occupy the rank and file of Democratic Party – for better or for worse – as it struggles to answer that very question in 1998. For my own part (mostly because my job search is hurtin' pretty badly right now), I'll again be watching from the Joline TV room.