The Other Big Three
One way to consider the news that Barack Obama will name Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State is as something like the bow tying up the last two decades of the Democratic Party’s evolution. Though it might not yet be widely recognized, I think the eventual verdict of political historians will be that Obama substantially completed the work that Bill and Hillary Clinton started, transforming the aimless and often clueless agglomeration of mismatched interest groups that comprised the Democrats of 1988 into the vastly more unified, focused and politically formidable winning coalition of 2008.
Bill Clinton started the work, of course, with his election victory in 1992. His self-branding as a “New Democrat” never sold with the culture warriors on the right, who always viewed him (with some justification) as a self-indulgent and somewhat silly child of the ‘60s. What communicated to the voters who twice gave him pluralities, though, was his grasp of their economic challenges and his sympathy, if not agreement, with their less liberal inclinations. (To liberals, this was often disgusting: the execution of Ricky Ray Rector during the ’92 campaign remains a barbaric low point. But it’s likely that some Clintonian moves to outrage the Upper West Side and Berkeley helped inoculate him elsewhere.) Clinton showed Democrats how to cultivate a political coalition that was more than the sum of their interest-group parts. Certainly his political talent was key here—but the message was as important as the messenger.
He also inadvertently helped the party’s eventual growth through mistakes that caused a great deal of short-term pain: first the early-term missteps that led to the destruction of the Democratic Party in the South and Southwest, by defeat or party-switching, in 1994, and later the personal misadventures that opened the door for George W. Bush to campaign on “restoring honor and dignity” in 2000. Somehow—and the Republicans’ superior political chops as well as Al Gore’s shortcomings and Ralph Nader’s obstinacy had a lot to do with this—Clinton left office with the Republicans in unified control of the federal government… despite retaining tremendous personal popularity.
So when Clinton gave way to Bush, the work was half-done. The Democrats weren’t reflexively dismissed anymore as soft on crime, weak on defense, and out of step with mainstream cultural and economic values. But nor were they identifiable as representing a coherent ideology or set of priorities. Over the next eight years, they suffered in the political wilderness—with their former leaders, Clinton and Gore and Joe Lieberman and Richard Gephardt and Tom Daschle, all disqualifying themselves by retirement, betrayal, or defeat. They mounted what was in some ways an impressive effort in 2004, coming within a couple hundred thousand well-placed votes of defeating an incumbent president in wartime despite a nominee of limited political skill and appeal in John Kerry. And they began to build an intellectual and organizing infrastructure that operated on a national level—assets their opponents had enjoyed for decades.
The one constant Democratic leader during this period was Senator Hillary Clinton. Criticized as an ambitious carpetbagger after winning office in New York, a state she’d never previously called home, she was not the great champion of any issue—and, as I’ve written here many times, she was not exactly a profile in political courage. But her efforts to position for a 2008 presidential run brought her to mastery of foreign affairs, defense policy and other issues she had not much engaged with as First Lady. Hillary Clinton might have served another function in the Democrats’ evolution as well: she was, at least until 2006, the highest-profile and arguably most powerful elected female politician in American history, and her obvious intelligence and dedication helped make the country more comfortable with leaders who weren’t the old white dudes the public was used to. I’m not sure Nancy Pelosi wouldn’t have been able to assume the Speaker’s gavel after the 2006 elections were it not for Sen. Clinton, but a case probably could be made.
Obama’s relationships with both Clintons were famously cold, if not outright hostile. He masterfully pushed Bill’s buttons during the primaries, as the volatile ex-president undermined his wife and angered former supporters. But he also ran Bill’s playbook—pounding on the economy and promising action that matched voters’ priorities--with ever-greater success as 2008 unfolded. As for Hillary, she made Obama a vastly better candidate in ways obvious (the debates) and subtle (the sheer grind of the contest).
The party Obama took leadership of last summer was ready for him. His colleagues in Congress now understood, as their predecessors had not when Bill Clinton took office, that their success or failure in both campaigning and governing would be inextricable from his, and that they would have to be his junior partners rather than the other way around. The apparatus of activism, masterfully built by the former community organizer and his team, will remain available to some extent in helping to govern--as will the larger coalition he built up through the course of the campaign, if he can sustain it. Other assets that his predecessor lacked include a network of think tanks and advocacy groups that are subordinate to his mission and partaking of a national Democratic or liberal identity.
It can’t be overlooked that the Democrats are filling a vacuum left by the intellectual exhaustion and comprehensive failure of the Republicans, led by George W. Bush, over the last eight years. (Worth noting here is this one excellent article—which saw the collapse coming in mid-2004, just before what seemed to be the right’s moment of maximum triumph. I could devote a whole post to how prescient this article, which I remember reading at the time and thinking, “Yeah, I wish,” turned out to be.) It got to the point where one could only defend a vote for the Republicans, even a relatively sensible one like John McCain, by effectively admitting that ideology or enmity trumped rational, objective evaluation of the party’s performance with the power they’d been given. They weren’t serious about governing, which is harmful when you’re actually governing.
My initial trigger for writing this was an article published about a week ago that characterized John Kerry’s 2004 loss as “the luckiest thing to happen to Democrats in 40 years.” This is certainly arguable, though I personally don’t think it was worth what we paid for the last four years of Democrats more or less getting their act together. (Obviously, I hope events prove me wrong.) But the Democrats face the daunting challenges of the current day in a position of strength unimaginable five, ten, fifteen or twenty years ago—thanks largely to the efforts of their last president, their next president, and the woman who married the former and nearly defeated the latter.