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Conservative tide checked

According to conventional wisdom, the impeachment has precluded the possibility of President Clinton's leaving a legacy of achievement. It is his disgrace, it is said, that will be his legacy. At best, the scandal robbed Mr. Clinton of precious time in which to accomplish something.

Although the conventional wisdom may be right, it may be only partly right. Another part of the truth may be the very opposite proposition: that it is actually the process of this scandal that has helped Clinton to complete his principal legacy - the reversal of the direction of the American political tides.

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For at least the period from 1972 to 1994, the tide was moving away from liberalism toward conservatism. The failure of some liberal programs, and of liberals to notice increasingly evident defects in their ideology, had discredited liberalism in the eyes of Americans.

Clinton began to resurrect the more liberal of our two parties by moving it toward the center. But his decision to begin his presidency with a national health care program, and his mishandling of that battle, fortified conservatives and led to the Republican revolution of 1994 with its takeover of both houses of Congress.

Then Clinton, with his extraordinary resilience and political skills, managed to regroup and to maneuver the Republicans into self-destruction. The scandal and impeachment process may prove, however unintendedly, to have been one of the vital arenas of that achievement.

Doubtless, Newt Gingrich and his lieutenants had their own self-destructive tendencies. But Clinton seems to have had the gift of luring his enemies into undoing themselves through the excesses of their passions. He became the first Democrat to win a second term since FDR by out-maneuvering the GOP in the budget battle of 1995. Mr. Gingrich and his allies, in their showdown with the president, shut down the government in the mistaken belief their antigovernment passion was shared by most Americans. It wasn't. Polls from then on showed that the Republicans had no chance to recapture the White House.

Then came the scandal, which highlighted the inability of the right to keep its moralistic passions, and its hatred of this president, within the bounds of the sensibilities of the American majority. After trying for five years to catch Clinton in wrongdoing to destroy him politically, the Republicans finally succeeded. But after obligingly and recklessly putting his head in the noose, Clinton refused to be destroyed.

Though hurt and discredited, Clinton bounced back. Whether condemning his shamelessness or admiring his pluck, or both, one could not help but be impressed with his 1998 State of the Union performance when the scandal had just exploded and the pundits were predicting he'd not last the week. His poll numbers shot up beyond what they'd ever been, and the shape of the battle for the next year was set. Clinton's enemies on the right would labor to destroy him. Clinton would work to be visibly serving the needs of the people.

He won that battle because his enemies couldn't hide the gulf between themselves and most Americans. As the nation witnessed how possessed the right is by its passion for moral condemnation, it turned against the right to support its centrist-liberal president.

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Each side of our political divide has its excesses and blind spots. Clinton's achievement has been not only to move his side away from its excesses, but to help expose those of his foes. Even while tarnishing him, the scandal has helped Clinton achieve this legacy.

* Andrew Bard Schmookler is a writer living in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. He is the author of the forthcoming 'Debating the Good Society: A quest to bridge America's moral divide' (MIT Press).

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