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2008: The Battle for a Generation

Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy will be an epic struggle between conservative baby boomers and her fellow Coat and Tie Radicals.

By 3.20.07

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This excerpt from RET's new book The Clinton Crack-Up, which hits the bookstores today, also appears in the March 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here. To order The Clinton Crack-Up, click here.

HILLARY CLINTON is about the last major Democrat from the left-wing of her generation capable of taking on her generation's right-wing for the presidency. The year 2008 will witness Hillary and her fellow opportunistic 1960s student protesters known as the Coat and Tie Radicals campaigning against the young conservatives who in the late 1960s were dismissed as negligible but a decade later manned the Reagan Revolution. It is going to be an epochal match-up and a very bitter one.

Though the generation that fought World War II is called the "Greatest Generation," the 1960s generation is the most momentous political generation of the 20th century. Now its left and right are squaring off for one last battle to claim title to their generation. Whoever triumphs, it will be as memorable a victory as Franklin Roosevelt's defeat of President Herbert Hoover or as Ronald Reagan's victory over President Jimmy Carter. What will make it even more momentous is that Hillary now represents the political heritage of liberalism that Roosevelt began. Though in the Clintons' hands that liberalism has been disfigured, Hillary embodies an Old Order that is desperate for victory. The looming battle between the two wings of the 1960s generation -- one championing the Roosevelt heritage, the Old Order, the other championing the Reagan heritage, a New Order -- explains much of the bitterness of contemporary politics.

The Washington Post's David Broder is the only major political commentator to take note of this intragenerational contest. Observing from a vantage point a generation older than the 1960s generation, Broder wrote that the 2004 dispute over John Kerry's Vietnam record "confirms my fears that my generation may never [live to] see the day when the baby boomers who came of age in that troubled decade are reconciled sufficiently with each other to lead a united country." He even adduced an example of this bitterness, citing the outburst of a 1960s conservative against the 1960s leftists. Broder quotes Vice President Dan Quayle's wife Marilyn (Purdue University '71) at the 1992 Republican National Convention declaiming: "Dan and I are members of the baby boom generation, too. We are all shaped by the times in which we live. I came of age in a time of turbulent social change.... Remember, not everyone joined in the counterculture. Not everyone demonstrated, dropped out, took drugs, joined in the sexual revolution or dodged the draft. Not everyone concluded that American society was so bad that it had to be radically remade by social revolution.... The majority of my generation lived by the credo our parents taught us. We believed in God, in hard work and personal discipline, in our nation's essential goodness, and in the opportunity it promised those willing to work for it.... Though we knew some changes needed to be made, we did not believe in destroying America to save it."

Those who want Hillary to be famous are for the most part the members of her 1960s generation who shared her Coat and Tie Radicalism and were the targets of Mrs. Quayle's comprehensive ire. They are leftists of various degrees, though years ago they lost sight of Marx or for that matter of any other systematic thinker on the left. In their twenties they went into politics, social work, the media, and the corporate world. They donned bourgeois attire when appropriate, or when advantageous they affected leftist fashions. That is why, since college days, we on the right have called them Coat and Tie Radicals. In the 1980s, they were driven to the peripheries of politics by the surging forces of Goldwater conservatism then led by Reagan. Hillary's husband returned them to power in 1992. Having through the 1970s been billed as the true voices of the 1960s generation, they now felt vindicated. In the Kultursmog, once again, they were presented as the true representative voices of the 1960s, an idealistic and progressive generation that rendered conventional America passe.

Then tragedy struck these left-wingers, and it was worse than the tragedy of Reagan's 1980 victory. In the election of 2000 the other side of their generation rose to a prominence that the media could not ignore. That is to say, the side of the 1960s generation that had not protested and stupefied itself in what was called "flower power" defeated its old rival. A frat boy, George W. Bush (Delta Kappa Epsilon '64), beat Al Gore, a veteran of every 1960s New Age enthusiasm, flower power included. In characteristic 1960s petulance, Gore's people claimed that they won the 2000 election but were denied their victory because of skullduggery in the Florida vote count. Then Bush beat them handily in the 2002 off-year elections, elections in which an incumbent president usually suffers congressional losses. Bush actually increased his margins on Capitol Hill. Then in 2004 Bush beat another of the Coat and Tie Radicals' prodigies, Jean-Francois Kerry, the anti-Vietnam War Vietnam War hero. To be sure, in the 2006 off-year elections Bush suffered losses; but they were basically only the normal losses that a two-term president can expect to suffer in his second off-year election, and many of the newly elected Democrats were spouting conservative lines: pro-life, anti-gun control, no new taxes. The election set the stage for a colossal intragenerational match-up in 2008.

For the past three decades, with only the respites of Boy Clinton's 1992 and 1996 victories, the left-wing wunderkinds of the 1960s have been suffering decline among the American electorate. Among the elites who shape the political culture, however, they have remained preponderant-for instance, in the media. Now, gearing up behind Hillary, they are readying themselves for one final shot at the White House. It will be the last battle between the Coat and Tie Radicals of the 1960s and their hated rivals, the conservatives who took a pass on student protests for leisure time spent by the beer keg and the barbecue pit.

THE CLINTONS ARE the two most exaggerated figures in modern American political history, more overblown by their supporters than Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt were by theirs. Of course, the Clintons got some minor legislation through in the 1990s. That is the modest assessment of a widening number of professional historians, most of whom note that the Clintons' main preoccupations were to batten down scandals and hold off various independent counsels while important initiatives were delayed -- for instance, Social Security reform and the war against terrorism. The Boy President got himself elected and re-elected while the Democratic Party's dominance in the country shrank. Hillary got herself elected to the Senate; but she has no legislation to show for it, only presidential preference polls, some of which show that nearly half of the American electorate would "definitely not vote for her." As politicians, the Clintons' main achievement has been raw survival, at a cost that has been enormous in terms of destructive legal precedents, eroded ethics, and infringements on the rule of law.

Though the historians are filing increasingly restrained evaluations of the Clintons' political achievements, the journalists continue to inflate the Clintons' importance. A particularly egregious example of this inflation came in the first years of Clinton's retirement when the Washington Post's national correspondent, John F. Harris, published his reassessment of the Clinton presidency, The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House. Though he is younger than the Clintons, Harris's appraisal of them puts him on their side in the 1960s intragenerational rivalry. Perhaps he will be remembered as one of flower power's fellow travelers.

Writing in the aftermath of Pardongate and the other scandals attending the Clintons' White House departure, and despite growing evidence of Clinton's lax terror policies, Harris appraises the Clintons as "the two most important political figures of their generation." He renders that judgment despite their contemporary, Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," used by Gingrich in 1994 to end four decades of Democratic control of the House of Representatives. Nor is Harris apparently impressed by another of the Clintons' cogenerationists, George W. Bush, who won the presidency twice and commenced America's war on terror. Harris's insularity is now characteristic of liberal journalists. One sees it even on the jacket of his book, where another Washington Post writer, the early Clinton biographer David Maraniss, claims that Harris "is the most lucid writer in American political journalism... especially when he writes about Bill Clinton." Beyond producing such stupid observations, this insularity produces delightful moments of comedy, for instance, the selection of photographs Harris includes in his book. One shows Clinton conferring with aides in a public lavatory. There is no hint of irony.

THE CLINTON-GORE team made its debut in 1992 with these two lovable narcissists jogging through Washington, D.C. in what appeared to be their undershorts. Many adults thought that bizarre, but the oblivious Harris displays many other bizarre interludes from the Clinton years in his book's photographs, unaware of what they reveal about his hero. There are pictures of a soused Boris Yeltsin, a contrite and blubbering Webb Hubbell, and a stupendously self-satisfied Monica Lewinsky. Then there is the Lavatory Scene: Clinton, Gore, and White House aide Harold Ickes (described in the caption as "tough-minded") conferring in a men's lavatory. Gore has his hand on the sink, Bill and Ickes their backs to the stalls. Is it even imaginable that their cogenerationist from the right, George W. Bush, would allow himself to be photographed in a lavatory? Possibly, if Hillary wins in 2008, this pioneering picture will be hung in the White House waiting room. So far as I have been able to establish, it is the first picture ever published of a president conferring in a men's room -- though possibly it is a women's room. Only stalls, no urinals, are visible.

In truth, neither of the Clintons is the Political Genius that the Kultursmog beholds. They are an epiphenomenon of their generation. No political duo caught lying, cheating, and breaking the law so many times would remain politically aloft if there were not support for their publicly exposed misbehavior within the culture. That support comes from the Coat and Tie Radicals, whose standards are much different from those of their rivals on the right and from those of the American majority, if recent political trends mean anything. Yet if the Clintons are not Political Geniuses they are political automatons, ceaselessly politicking back and forth, back and forth across America. This sempiternal politicking is another innovation of the Coat and Tie Radical. Bill and Hillary have been doing politics all their lives. George W. Bush, though raised in a political dynasty, has spent more of his life in business than in politics. That is typical of conservatives from his generation. On the other hand, the Clintons have had no life beyond politics. They are political creatures to the utmost, as are Gore and Kerry and most of the Coat and Tie Radicals. Gingrich is the rare conservative whose life has been wholly devoted to politics, but then in his college days he was at least a mild Coat and Tie Radical.

Precisely when the Clintons decided Hillary would enter politics once Bill's career had run its course might never be known. In their long politically besotted marriage the understanding doubtless simply grew. We do know that at some point in the last years of the Boy President's tumultuous presidency, probably in gratitude for Hillary's services during the Lewinsky hullabaloo and his impeachment, he promised her his political assistance. Further, Hillary set her sights on Moynihan's Senate seat much earlier than she admits in her memoir. The First Lady had her eye on the seat prior to February 12, 1999, when the Senate acquitted her husband. As the Senate deliberated Bill's fate, Hillary was conferring with Harold Ickes in the White House. With her aides bringing in the latest reports on the impeachment vote, the First Lady questioned her old political adviser on her prospects for a New York senatorial campaign.

Yet whereas Bill was a natural pol, Hillary had to acquire at least the social skills of politics much as had another charmless, calculating, and relentless political creature, Richard Nixon. Here is where her huckster from Hot Springs was doubtless invaluable. Day in and day out through the decades she could watch his moves, and though she was ungainly at hers he was always supportive. He may have been unfaithful, but rarely has Hillary's husband failed to be a booster of Hillary. In the social skills of politics -- the one area she surely lacked confidence -- Bill served as both exemplar and coach....

From her years of acrimonious cohabitation with Bill she has taken with her two great lessons. Raise enormous sums of money regardless of its provenance. Adhere to policies that are centrist left-the press will report them as centrist. How far to the left Hillary might be in her heart of hearts is unknown. As a candidate and as a senator she has been, as she herself has said, "a New Democrat," working with the moderate liberal organization that her husband worked with from the 1980s, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). As the 2008 presidential race beckons, she has taken prominent positions in the DLC; announcing in the summer of 2005 that she would travel the country, engaging it in a "national conversation," an effort that, perhaps, brings to mind her New York "listening tour" before her Senate race.

SENATOR CLINTON'S first two years in the Senate were years of quiet industriousness that reminded political observers of LBJ's early Senate years. She put in such long hours that in 2002 she became one of only six Democrats to earn a Golden Gavel award for presiding over the Senate for more than 100 hours, admittedly mostly to empty seats. She cultivated senators on both sides of the aisle, particularly senior senators such as the West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd and the Arizona Republican John McCain, but also such conservatives as then House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, with whom she worked on foster-care legislation. Following the Johnson model, she landed choice committee seats, including a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee that in time of war might protect her from her antimilitary past. She also is on the Democrats' powerful Steering and Coordination Committee, thus giving her influence in setting the Democrats' agenda. By 2004 no senator since Johnson had amassed so much power so fast. Hillary has been collegial, but she can also be brutal. Senators still recall her insulting remarks about Sen. John Edwards looking "pretty." On another occasion, at a closed-door meeting with fellow Democrats she assailed her colleague Sen. Russ Feingold for the mischief his campaign finance reform bill had caused her fundraising. "She tore into Feingold," a Senate aide says. "Other people at the caucus were not happy about it. The other senators resent her. But they're so weak. Their weakness permits her to grow."

Perhaps it is with an eye to the schizoid nature of her party, divided as it is between its Angry Left and its Establishment, that she has devised an ambiguous approach: in policy she is centrist; in rhetoric she is caustic -- especially toward President Bush, whom the Angry Left detests. The centrism is catnip for the Establishment. The sarcastic rhetoric is raw meat for the Angry Left.

In her Senate floor speech before voting for Bush's option to go to war with Saddam Hussein, she employed her ambiguous approach relentlessly. She criticized the United Nations for limiting inspection sites. She warned of Saddam's ambitions for weapons of mass destruction: "It is clear, however, that if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons." She also worried that an unchecked Saddam could endanger the entire Middle East. On the other hand, she fretted that a "unilateral" attack on Saddam would prompt Russia to attack Chechen rebels in Georgia, China to attack Taiwan, and India to attack Pakistan. Her vote was to enable the President to go to war, but her conclusion was that doing so "on the present facts is not a good option."

So effective has she been in repositioning herself that in 2005, the Observer, one of Britain's most prestigious left-wing newspapers, noted, "Her list of conservative credentials is growing." It reported her "espousing homespun values and with a fondness for prayer." She sympathized with a faith-based charity led by a clergyman opposed to homosexual marriage and appeared with "ultra-conservative" Sen. Rick Santorum to introduce legislation to probe sexual and violent images in media. As a senator she favors the death penalty and more money for firefighters and other first responders. Despite her vaunted feminism, she has sympathized with opponents of abortion. From the Armed Services Committee she has supported increased veterans benefits and -- unlike Senator Kerry -- she voted for the $87 billion legislation to fight the Iraq war. But on international relations and economics she is witheringly critical of the Bush administration. She is also a reliable opponent of tax cuts, insisting that they are a scheme to enrich the wealthy and take money from government's assistance to the needy.

SO ARE THE CLINTONS about to come together, unite their party, and lead the youthful idealists of the late 1960s in a return to the White House and a vindication of their claim to being the true representative voice of their generation? Or is another child of Goldwater conservatism going to sweep past them, reminding the world that Ronald Reagan's 1980s and the administrations of Bush 41 and Bush 43 were not flukes? Republicans are fearful of a Clinton victory. They know the power of the Kultursmog can overcome the Clintons' scandalous past and engaud their paltry record. Who knows; maybe these Republicans, too, think Hillary a rock star. Democrats, at least Democrats with their antennae to Middle America, fear she is a sure loser. They fear that her past will not be forgotten. They fear the power of the Republican "smear machine" as deeply as Republicans fear the power of the Kultursmog.

Hillary has a tremendous challenge ahead. By 2005 a news story had crept into the media, remaining long enough to take on the character of Truth, to wit, that her party is fragmented and without direction. This became a Truth even in the Kultursmog. The fragmentation within the party might have become too bitter even for such masters of mob psychology as the Clintons. On July 25, when Hillary agreed to the DLC's offer to set off on her "national conversation" as part of its "American Dream Initiative," she let the Republicans have it: "After four years of Republican control, our country has not only gone off track, it has reversed course." But she also said something that got her into dreadful trouble hours after she uttered it. She said, "It's high time for a ceasefire. It's time for all Democrats to work together," and "Let's start by uniting against the hard-right ideology."

Kaboom! "Clinton Angers Left with Call for Unity," read the headline in the next day's Washington Post. "Long a revered figure by many in the party's liberal wing, Clinton (D-NY) unexpectedly found herself under attack after calling Monday for a cease-fire among the party's quarreling factions and for agreeing to assume the leadership of a DLC-sponsored initiative aimed at developing a more positive policy agenda for the party," went the story, whose import echoed in most of the nation's major media. The left-wing blogs such as Daily Kos were gravely disappointed. Spokespersons for the Angry Left's new organizations, such as the Campaign for America's Future and MoveOn.org, were also antagonistic. "There has been an activist resurgence in the Democratic Party in recent years," the Post noted, "and Hillary risks ensuring that there's a candidate to her left appealing to those activists who don't much like the DLC."

For three decades, the 1960s Coat and Tie Radicals have been the dominant influence in the Kultursmog and an influence in the Democratic Party disproportionate to their numbers. Now there are signs that a rising generation might be ready to replace this influence. If so, the intragenerational war between the 1960s left and right might not have its anticipated last battle. Political historians will tell you that though Hillary has been the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination since her first year in the Senate, no modern-day Democrat who has been a frontrunner so steadily in the years before the election has won the nomination, with the lone exception of Walter Mondale.

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About the Author
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is the founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator. He is the author of The Death of Liberalism, published by Thomas Nelson Inc. His previous books include the New York Times bestseller Boy Clinton: the Political Biography; The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton; The Liberal Crack-Up; The Conservative Crack-Up; Public Nuisances; The Future that Doesn't Work: Social Democracy's Failure in Britain; Madame Hillary: The Dark Road to the White House; The Clinton Crack-Up; and After the Hangover: The Conservatives' Road to Recovery.