A Clinton Legacy? No Thanks

Italian team Azzurra competes in Nice southeastern France, Monday, Nov. 16, 2009, during the sailing match racing competition "The Louis Vuitton Trophy."
AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau
This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

Irony and its pal hypocrisy are bipartisan. Only the most dogmatic would disagree.

So we're not surprised to see former Education Secretary William Bennett take time away from the slot machines to peddle the theory that "moral values" (not "immoral values") gave the election to George Bush. Nor are we shocked to see the theory taken to a grandiose strata of flim flam by Newt Gingrich, swaddled in his third marriage, prospering after his disgraced exit from the House.

Crusader Ralph Reed, formerly of the Christian Coalition but lately of Bush-Cheney '04, was too busy figuring out how to help fellow GOP operatives rip off Native American tribes of their casino money to chime in on the moral values debate. And House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is so heavy into morals that he got a rule passed to make sure party officers could stay in their posts even after they were indicted.

We're not quite slack-jawed to hear the Democratic suckers who buy the "values voters" hooey croaking that the path to moral and political redemption, and the White House, is in the footsteps of Bill Clinton.

That would be the Bill Clinton who dated Monica Lewinsky - you remember him. That would be the Bill Clinton who rented out the Lincoln Bedroom to the highest bidder. That would be the Bill Clinton who pardoned one of our most notorious white collar Capones, Marc Rich. (Skit idea for Saturday Night Live: Bill Clinton's prescription for reviving the Democrats luster on moral values issues - insert blue dress joke here.)

The idea at play here is that Bill Clinton provides the model to bridge the morals gap. He's got a Southern accent and plays well in black churches. As governor, he executed a black man with brain damage. As president, he gave up on gun control and gay rights issues.

This quarter-baked fantasy is based on two profound misconceptions.

The first is that there is a fast growing cadre of values voters who are against abortion, against stem cell research, against gay marriage, and against cleansing schools and traditional civic rituals like the Pledge of Allegiance of all religious references.

Many such voters exist but there is no evidence their legions are reproducing like reality TV shows. There is no evidence that there are more values voters in 2004 than there were family values voters in 1984. Voters with these concerns have been around for a long time and there is no compelling evidence that they have fruitfully multiplied.

The second isn't really a misconception; it's insanity. One powerful conviction shared by many, many values voters is that Bill Clinton is the antithesis of their moral values, a cracker Satan with listening ears, a silky drawl and friends like Webb Hubbell and Gennifer Flowers. Yet some Democrats actually think this legacy is their path to resurrection.

Many of these poor souls who have yet to be deprogrammed will flock to Little Rock Thursday to kiss the ring, pat the backs, and consolidate their control of a rudderless, Beltway-based Democratic Party.

Clinton did not leave the party with a strong bench of nationally known Democrats. He did, however, enable a takeover of the party by a Washington-based insider network of FOBs, administration alumnae, lobbyists, lawyers, consultants and think tankers. Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, concierge of the Lincoln bedroom, is an apt symbol of this, but just one of many.

There is, obviously and lucratively, a parallel Republican universe in Washington. But they don't run the Republican presidential campaigns; they just profit from Republican government.

The team that got Bush elected in 2000 was Texan: Karl Rove, Joe Allbaugh, Karen Hughes, Don Evans, and Mark McKinnon. Washingtonians made fun of them and now live off them. The same basic team ran the 2004 campaign; they didn't cede control to K Street and Massachusetts Avenue think tanks.

The Clinton team did. The '92 campaign had some old DC hands but was dominated by out-of-towners: Betsy Wright, James Carville, Paul Begala, Eli Segal, Bruce Lindsey, and David Wilhelm. Carville is now too famous to be inside.

The people who have run every Democratic campaign since '92 are now a revolving door of established Beltwayistas (even if a few actually live in New York): Bob ("0-8") Shrum, Terry McAuliffe, Harold Ickes, Doug Sosnik, Joe Lockhart, Mike McCurry, Mary Beth Cahill, Jamie Rubin, Stan Greenberg, Carville and Begala.

They are supported by a cadre of in-town lawyers, field specialists, policy guys, and once feisty think tanks that are now establishment. All these people are smart and, I believe, civic-minded. But they don't live in the exurbs of Kansas City.

And they aren't going to give up control of the party, the DNC and fundraising apparatus. They ate Howard Dean's lunch. And they lost the general election.

And now they're going to try to find a Southern governor to remake in Clinton's image, give him a chain saw and teach him how to say special moral values words like "God, pray, faith, sin and 'ppreciate your vote."

Two things will make that process, even if there is a genuine candidate, difficult: the legacy of Bill Clinton's shabby moral values and the power of the establishment that took root during his reign.

It could be worse. It could be that Bill Clinton's legacy in 2008 will be named Hillary.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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By Dick Meyer