Matt Bai nailed it in last Sunday’s Times Magazine—the good, the bad, and the ugly of Bill Clinton's campaign, administration, and legacy. Short version: Bill Clinton really did accomplish a radical transformation of the Democratic Party in the 1990s, this change really was for the best… and it really doesn’t matter very much for the 2008 election.
Strip away the easy caricature and all the sordid stuff, and President Clinton did something profoundly important and, in my eyes at least, unquestionably beneficial. I didn’t support him as a teenager through the primary phase of the 1992 election, but there’s no question that the candidate he was then comes the closest to addressing the political beliefs I have as a thirty-something 15 years later. Hard as it might be to remember now, there really was a principled foundation to “Clintonism,” and it’s a good one:
Immediately after assuming the chairmanship of the D.L.C. in 1990, Clinton issued something called the New Orleans Declaration, which laid out the D.L.C.’s attack on old liberalism in a series of 15 core principles. By today’s standards, these principles don’t amount to much more than typical Clintonian rhetoric, but at the time, they seemed like a good way for a young Democratic governor to permanently marginalize himself in a party dominated by Big Labor, civil rights leaders and Northeastern liberals. Among the stated principles in the manifesto:
“We believe that economic growth is the prerequisite to expanding opportunity for everyone. The free market, regulated in the public interest, is the best engine of general prosperity.”
“We believe in preventing crime and punishing criminals, not in explaining away their behavior.”
“We believe the purpose of social welfare is to bring the poor into the nation’s economic mainstream, not to maintain them in dependence.”
In 1991, as Clinton prepared for what was then considered a quixotic run for president against a popular incumbent, he expanded on his governing philosophy in a series of speeches that, revisited now, are striking both for their confrontational approach toward expansive liberal government — especially coming from a candidate who needed party regulars to win — and for their ideological consistency with what would later come to pass during the Clinton era. He laid out a forceful case for improving and decentralizing decades-old institutions, from public schools to welfare, and modeling government after corporate America. He talked about revamping a Democratic Party that for 30 years was closely identified with the problems of the poor and retooling it to address the anxieties of a distressed middle class.
“There is an idea abroad in the land that if you abandon your children, the government will raise them,” Clinton said at a D.L.C. gathering in Cleveland in 1991, referring to fathers in the inner city. “I will let you in on a secret. Governments do not raise children — people do. And it’s time they were asked to assume their responsibilities and forced to do so if they refuse.”
“Is what I just said to you liberal or conservative?” he went on to ask. “The truth is, it is both, and it is different. It rejects the Republicans’ attacks and the Democrats’ previous unwillingness to consider new alternatives.”
This, in a few lines, was the essence of Clintonism. Was it an innovative governing vision or a cynical strategy? The truth is, it was both.
Bai goes on to detail that once in office, Clinton’s reformist zeal ebbed; while his new vision of Democratic governance notched some very worthwhile policy accomplishments, from the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit to the Family Medical Leave Act and, albeit not in the form that he or I would have chosen, welfare reform, the whole seemed somehow less than the sum of its parts. Pushed back into a defensive crouch by the failure of Hillary Clinton’s health care reform effort and a seemingly endless succession of scandals real and imagined, the administration’s focus shifted from transformation to survival.
There were five syllables that for these Democrats summed up all the failures of Clintonism: “triangulation.” The word was originally popularized by Dick Morris, who advised Clinton in the dark days of the mid-’90s (and who, not incidentally, was brought in to the White House by the first lady). Triangulation, as Morris intended it, is probably best described as the strategy of co-opting the issues that attract voters to your opponents by substituting centrist solutions for the ideological ones they propose, thus depriving them of victory. (In other words, if your opponents are getting traction with their demands to dismantle a broken welfare system, you acknowledge the problem but propose a middle-ground way of restructuring it instead.) To a lot of avid Democrats, however, triangulation became shorthand for gutless compromise, for saying and doing whatever you think you must in order to win.
No doubt Clinton’s style of leadership contributed to this impression as much as the substance did. There were moments, little remembered or appreciated by his critics, when Clinton demonstrated icy resolve and an indifference to polls: the budget showdown with Newt Gingrich and Congressional Republicans in 1995; the bombing of Serbia in 1999 to stop its aggression in Kosovo. More often, though, Clinton seemed determined to confirm his reputation as an agonized, late-night decision maker, a leader heavily influenced by the last guy to leave the room. Classic half-a-loaf policies like the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule for gays in the military, along with frequent paralysis over crises like the genocide in Rwanda, created what would become an enduring impression that Clintonism was code for fecklessness.
Obsessed with winning re-election in 1996, Clinton squandered whatever political capital he’d won through the Lewinsky affair and hung on by his fingernails through his second term. Thus weakened, some theorize, the Democrats weren’t able to resist the theft of the 2000 election or the relentless attack of the Republicans during the first six years of the second Bush administration.
I have to admit that, before reading Bai’s piece, this had been my take on the ultimate Clinton legacy as well. And even after reading the article, I still think that this is what “Clintonism” represents today, particularly for its current standard-bearer. The relative silence of both Bill and Hillary Clinton as Bush committed his worst mistakes and outrages—and Hillary’s outright enabling of a president she surely understood could not be trusted with the power she helped furnish him with, for a political expediency that looked sadly familiar to the Clintons’ liberal critics—seemed to confirm the worst aspects of the legacy.
For that matter, the piece reaffirms another idea I’ve held about this campaign: the surprising irrelevance of Bill Clinton’s long and successful political life to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign. Yes, the vision Bill advanced 16 years ago when he was running was appropriate for the time and visionary in some respects: as Bai points out, even Hillary’s opponents—and virtually all of us out here in Blue America—now embrace the once-controversial notions Bill Clinton laid out in the early 1990s about the power of a sensibly regulated free market, the continuing relevance of the social contract, and the idea that results matter more than ideology. But that battle has been fought and won—and, without dismissing her importance as an intellectual partner and sounding board, ultimately it was his battle, not hers.
Were Bill Clinton running today, I’m certain he wouldn’t be making his case based on an outdated concept of where the country is and what it needs. But the outsiders of the early 1990s have become the Democratic establishment, and the results of the last ten or so years have convinced many of us that where they once offered solutions, they’re now essentially part of the problem.