My comments on the need for a President Kerry to find a way early on to find compromise with centrist Republicans, and in effect split the opposition party, stirred up some responses, so much so that it even split Michael Froomkin and Brad DeLong, who, if I recall correctly, are childhood friends. I hate to be responsible for such a breach, so I'll say a little more.
Both see my comments in the context of the omnipresent Clinton administration. DeLong says my advice is similar to the advice that Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen (and others) gave Clinton in 1993: to reach the centrist coalition around Senators like Breaux, Chaffee and Durenberger. (Good advice, although a question remains, which I'll pick up later.) Froomkin thinks the problem with Clinton was that he negotiated too much: "He triangulated. He fogged about. He appointed Republicans as judges." And, he argues, if Kerry wins by a landslide, he will have a mandate to govern and won't have to compromise with anyone, and we should conduct ourselves now as if that were possible.
This quarrel reminds me of what I think is the key thing to realize about the Clinton era: It was not a single administration. The way to understand Clinton is as something like a prime ministers in a European parliamentary system, a Gladstone or a Poincaré, who dominate their era not in a single government, but by moving in and out of power, forming several different governments with different coalitions over the years. Brad DeLong's key political lessons, like mine, come from the first Clinton government. Froomkin is basically complaining about the second Clinton government, which he formed after the brief Gingrich premiereship.
The first Clinton government did not triangulate. It came in with a little much triumphalism, and thought the only task was to organize the Democrats, which turned out to be more difficult than they realized. It had one huge, enormous accomplishment: the budget bill of 1993, which not only brought in the revenues that would eventually get the budget back on track, but also transformed numerous aspects of government: the entire student loan system, for example. That was passed by using the one process by which a single party can move an agenda entirely on its own, if it controls both Houses of Congress and the Presidency: the process of budget reconciliation. (I wrote about reconciliation, which has been the key to Bush's domination of the agenda, in my long essay on the Senate a few weeks ago.) Even then, he had to surrender key parts of the agenda, such as the BTU Tax (a comprehensive tax on energy, which later became Congressional shorthand for forcing House members to vote for something unpopular and then surrendering on it in the Senate: "We got BTU'd"), and it squeaked by on a single vote. But everything else Clinton tried to do -- his economic stimulus package, his crime bill, his health plan, basically foundered on the shoals of his failure to understand the limits of his power and mandate.
The question that remains unanswered is a historical counterfactual: We know that Clinton did not do much to reach Republicans in the first year, but we also know that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, in an unprecedented move, essentially sent the word to his troops that they were not to treat Clinton the way Democrats had treated the first Bush or Reagan -- that they should not give him nothing. Do not allow him to govern. So, if Clinton had tried harder, would he have been able to break Dole's party discipline? I don't know. However, I suspect that the discipline in opposition to Kerry will not be nearly as tight. Back then, even moderate Republicans, especially in the House, were sick of being pushed around by the Democratic majority and could find common cause. Now they're sick of being pushed around by their own conservative colleagues. The split is there.
It was the second Clinton government, the one that he formed sometime in late 1995, that triangulated its way back to reelection. By that point, Clinton was negotiating with Republicans, but he was doing so from weakness, just as I worry about Kerry having to do. He was negotiating with Trent Lott and Orrin Hatch, not choosing who to negotiate with and when to negotiate. This is what I want Kerry to avoid.
I agree that I don't want to concede all of this in July of the election year. That's why making McCain the VP probably wouldn't have made sense. A candidate cannot put forth a persuasive agenda for renewal and simultaneously acknowledge how much of it he will have to compromise on. But, by the same token, I want to avoid the cycle of disappointment when Kerry faces the recognition that his power to implement an agenda depends on his finding a working relationship with Congress.