The New York Times
December 23, 2007
The Clinton Referendum
By MATT BAI
Winter’s first storm punished the White Mountains of New Hampshire on the Friday before Thanksgiving, rendering the terrain all but impassable. And yet in Gorham, a small town 50 miles from the Canadian border, hundreds of people shuddered patiently in the snow, in a line that snaked halfway around Gorham Middle-High School, while Secret Service dogs sniffed the gymnasium for bombs. “I’ve got a lot of people freezing out here,” a campaign aide barked into a phone, as if this might make the agents go any faster. When they finally allowed everyone in, a few of the 500 or so folding chairs remained unfilled, but the place was humming with excitement; a teacher near me was saying that this was the biggest thing to happen here since Dwight Eisenhower visited in the 1950s.
For the first time since that infamous year of 1992 — the year when Gennifer Flowers, “Stand by Your Man” and “the Comeback Kid” entered the political canon — Bill Clinton was coming back to New Hampshire’s North Country, the place where his legend was born. Clinton loves the Granite State. As it happened, I was standing with him earlier that week in South Carolina when an aide told him that he was going to be campaigning for Hillary in New Hampshire, and his eyes lighted up behind his reading glasses. “I am? Where’m I goin’?” Now he strode into the gymnasium through a side door, his face flushed with emotion, accompanied by the nostalgic bars of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop.” (They were nostalgic back then, for crying out loud.) Clinton is now lean and regal, his hair an almost metallic white, and he was dressed in a taupe suit with a light green tie, trailing a small entourage and waving warmly. The room erupted in cheers and whistles. Over his head a banner proclaimed: “The Change We Need! HillaryClinton.com.”
“When Hillary first announced she was running for president, she came right to the North Country, and I was so jealous,” Clinton said. “I want to thank you for arranging the snow today. It made me feel right at home. I took a nap in the car, and when I woke up I thought it was 1992.” The crowd laughed appreciatively. Many in the audience probably recalled that he had all but lived in these parts for a year before that campaign; after his election, he even gave some of the families he met along the way his special ZIP code at the White House, so they could keep in touch.
Clinton began his speech, as he always does now, with a disclaimer, saying that if he wanted to, he could certainly give a big “whoop-dee-do” speech that would get everybody riled up, but that this was a serious time in America, and it deserved a serious speech. Clinton doesn’t like to play an overtly political role anymore; he enjoys the statesmanlike aura that surrounds any ex-president, and he is not about to undermine it, even for his wife’s campaign. Instead, he spoke to the Gorham audience in somber tones, telling them that a lot of the crises now confronting the North Country brought to mind 1992 as well. The paper mill in nearby Groveton had just announced it would close a few days after Christmas, kicking 300 workers to the street.
“You’re hurtin’ up here because of this mill closing,” he said. “But you should know just how close millions upon millions of your fellow Americans are to your experience.” He went on to quietly castigate the Bush administration for running up foreign debt and straining the military to its limits in Iraq, and he talked about Hillary’s plans to bring health-care coverage to all Americans, build a new jobs program around alternative energy and revamp the education system, beginning with early-childhood programs. “A lot of you already know this,” he said of his wife’s work on education issues in Arkansas, “because I talked about it when I was running.”
Even without the allusions to the old days, his speech seemed strangely reminiscent of that first campaign, and not necessarily in a good way. Listening to him talk, I found it hard not to wonder why so many of the challenges facing the next president were almost identical to those he vowed to address in 1992. Why, after Clinton’s two terms in office, were we still thinking about tomorrow? In some areas, most notably health care, Clinton tried gamely to leave behind lasting change, and he failed. In many more areas, though, the progress that was made under Clinton — almost 23 million new jobs, reductions in poverty, lower crime and higher wages — had been reversed or wiped away entirely in a remarkably short time. Clinton’s presidency seems now to have been oddly ephemeral, his record etched in chalk and left out in the rain.
Supporters of the Clintons see an obvious reason for this, of course — that George W. Bush and his Republican Party have, for the past seven years, undertaken a ferocious and unbending assault on Clinton’s progressive legacy. As Clinton points out in his speeches, Bush and the Republicans abandoned balanced budgets to fight the war in Iraq, widened income inequality by cutting taxes on the wealthy and scaled back social programs. “We’ve had now seven years of a radical experiment in extremism in domestic policy,” Clinton said in New Hampshire.
Some Democrats, though, and especially those who are apt to call themselves “progressives,” offer a more complicated and less charitable explanation. In their view, Clinton failed to seize his moment and create a more enduring, more progressive legacy — not just because of the personal travails and Republican attacks that hobbled his presidency, but because his centrist, “third way” political strategy, his strategy of “triangulating” to find some middle point in every argument, sapped the party of its core principles. By this thinking, Clinton and his friends at the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist think tank that served as a platform for his bid for national office, were so desperate to woo back moderate Southern voters that they accepted conservative assertions about government (that it was too big and unwieldy, that what was good for business was good for workers) and thus opened the door wide for Bush to come along and enact his extremist agenda with only token opposition. In other words, they say, he was less a victim of Bush’s radicalism than he was its enabler.
“His budget policies were pretty much an extension of Bush I, and his economic policies were largely an extension of Wall Street,” says Robert Borosage, co-director of the left-wing Campaign for America’s Future. Ideologically, Borosage told me, Clinton’s presidency fit snugly into the era of Reagan and Bush. Faced with ascendant conservatism, he says, “Clinton saw his job, in a sense, as getting the Democratic Party to adjust to it, rather than to resist it.”
Aside from a few partisans on each end of the spectrum, there aren’t neatly delineated camps on this question, with Clinton lovers on one side and critics on the other. Rather, a lot of Democrats seem genuinely conflicted, on practically an existential level, when it comes to Clinton. They almost uniformly admire the former president; 82 percent of Democrats polled by Fox News in November had a favorable opinion of Clinton, and, in a New York Times poll released earlier this month, 44 percent of Democratic voters said they were more inclined to support Hillary’s candidacy because of him. And yet, they regard with suspicion, if not outright resentment, the centrist forces he helped unleash on the party. They might love Bill Clinton, but they loathe Clintonism. And it is this conflict that has, in recent weeks, become a subtle but important theme of the 2008 campaign, as Hillary Clinton’s rivals try to portray her as the Return of the Great Triangulator. Whatever else these Democratic primaries may be about — health-care plans, global warming, timetables for withdrawal from Iraq — they are, on some more philosophical and even emotional level, a judgment on the ’90s and all that those tumultuous years represent.
Hillary Clinton’s combative advisers say they welcome that dynamic. “If our opponents want to make this a referendum on Bill Clinton’s presidency, they are making a mistake,” Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s communications director, said in an e-mail message, “both because it’s a referendum they would lose on the merits and because Democrats are focused on the future and the change that needs to be made going forward.” And yet Clinton’s team often seems perplexed by a political quandary unlike any that has come before: how to exploit all the good will that Democrats have for Bill Clinton without allowing Hillary Clinton to become a constant reminder of the things they didn’t like about his presidency. Generally, the campaign’s preferred solution is simply not to talk about it. When I asked Bill Clinton about this issue, during an informal meeting in South Carolina, he readily agreed to sit down for a longer interview on his legacy’s role in the campaign. A few weeks later, however, and at the last minute, Hillary’s aides canceled the interview. Famously controlling, they would not even allow the former president to talk about his record.
Listening to Bill Clinton that day in New Hampshire, however, it was clear that whether or not he talks about it, his wife’s fortunes are bound up with his, and vice versa. Near the end of his speech in Gorham, he went off on an engaging tangent, as he sometimes does, about the trees he saw from his car window that morning, and how at one time New Hampshire was almost devoid of trees, and how Teddy Roosevelt led a national effort to replenish the forests. “But Theodore Roosevelt proposed a lot of ideas that fell flat on their face until Franklin Roosevelt passed them,” Clinton went on. “The important thing for us to do is to fight for the right thing and keep fighting for it until we finally get it done.” I had heard Clinton compare himself with T.R. before, but this was the first time I heard him do so publicly, and it struck me as an aside that would have made his wife’s advisers wince, if they noticed it. He seemed to be suggesting that Hillary’s job as president would be to cement his own unfinished legacy — provided, of course, that his legacy, or at least a widely held perception of it, didn’t end up derailing her first.
A little over a year ago, while working on a book about the Democratic Party’s divisions, I discussed that legacy with Bill Clinton in his Harlem office. Hillary Clinton had just begun running for the White House, and her husband was already trying to help neutralize her critics on the left; when I arrived at the office, Clinton was meeting with about 20 influential bloggers, who were gnawing on barbecued chicken and enjoying their first-ever audience with a former president. When I entered his office a while later, Clinton had his back to me and was busy rearranging the photos on his shelves, as if trying to get the visual narrative of his presidency exactly right. He recited a litany of his accomplishments — the first sustained rise in real wages since 1973, the biggest land-protection measure in the lower 48 since Teddy Roosevelt, victories against the tobacco and gun lobbies — and told me he couldn’t understand the allegation that his administration wasn’t really progressive.
“I think that if ‘progressive’ is defined by results, whether it’s in health care, education, incomes, the environment or the advancement of peace, then we had a very progressive administration,” Clinton said. “I think we changed the methods — that we tried also to reflect basic American values, that we tried to do it in a way that appealed to the broad middle class in America. We sure did, and I don’t apologize for that. The question is: Were the policies right or not? And I think in terms of the political success I enjoyed, people have given more credit to my political skills than they deserve and less credit to the weight, the body of the ideas.”
At the end of that interview, as he walked me to the lobby, Clinton mentioned a favorite quote from Machiavelli’s book “The Prince” and told me to look it up. When I got back to Washington, I thumbed through the book until I found the rambling passage, and this is what it said:
It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor
more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a
new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by
the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by
the new order, this lukewarmness arriving partly from fear of their adversaries,
who have the laws in their favor; and partly from the incredulity of
mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had an
actual experience of it. Thus it arises that on every opportunity for attacking
the reformer, the opponents do so with the zeal of partisans, the others only
defend him halfheartedly, so that between them he runs great danger.
It’s not hard to see why the postpresidential Bill Clinton sees himself in this quotation, and it says a lot about how he views his own place in American politics. In Clinton’s mind, the New Democrats of the late ’80s and early ’90s and their “third way” approach represented a call for fundamental reform, not just of the Democratic Party but also of the country’s industrial-age government. For that, he has been pilloried by Republican business interests, who were doing just fine under the old system, and “lukewarmly” defended by Democrats who resist any real break with the past.
There are, among Democrats, dueling interpretations of what Clintonism means and how it came into being. The most popular version now, by far, is that Clintonism was chiefly an electoral strategy, a way of making Democrats sound more acceptable to conservative voters by softening the party’s stances on “values” issues like guns, welfare and abortion and introducing pallid, focus-grouped phrases like “work hard and play by the rules” and making abortion “safe, legal and rare.” In other words, Clinton was basically as liberal at heart as any other Democrat who marched for civil rights and protested the Vietnam War, but he was a brilliant political strategist who instinctively understood the need to rebrand the party.
Even some of Clinton’s friends from the old days — those lukewarm defenders of the faith — accept this basic version of history. “Clintonism was about winning,” says Susan Estrich, the longtime Democratic strategist and pundit. “It was about grabbing victory from the jaws of defeat. If you were a Democrat of a certain age, it was like being a Red Sox fan — you never won. And even when you won, you lost, because you got Jimmy Carter. Clinton led us out of the desert when no one else could.”
On the other hand, Clinton’s more ardent supporters, those few who were there at the beginning, argue that Democrats have badly miscast him as an expedient strategist, when in fact he was a visionary and a modernizer. “He used to tell me all the time, ‘One of these days, people are going to figure out that I actually believe in this stuff,’ ” Al From told me recently. From and the Democratic Leadership Council that he founded in the 1980s have in recent years become a kind of convenient stand-in for Clinton, the main object of acid derision from liberal bloggers who prefer to savage someone other than the former president himself for the evils of Clintonism. Clinton was the chairman of the D.L.C. when he ran for president, and much of his campaign rhetoric came from its work.
“I don’t want to see what I think is his greatest achievement diminished,” From told me. “Just as Franklin Roosevelt saved capitalism by dealing with its excesses, Clinton saved progressive governance, and he saved progressive governance all over the world.”
Clinton’s critics on the left may scoff at this idea, but it’s fair to say that the discussion of Clintonism among party activists and especially online often displays a stunning lack of historical perspective. For a lot of younger Democrats, in particular, whose political consciousness dates back only as far as 1994 or even to the more recent days of Clinton’s impeachment, the origins of Clintonism have become not only murky but also irrelevant. “Clintonism” is, in much of the Democratic activist universe, a synonym for spinelessly appeasing Republicans in order to win, an establishment philosophy assumed to comprise no inherent principles of its own.
Lost in all this is the fact that, back in the day, Clinton and his New Democrats were themselves the outsiders taking on the ruling interest groups of the Democratic establishment the analog to bloggers and MoveOn.org activists, albeit from a different ideological direction. And it took no small amount of courage, at the end of the Reagan era, to argue inside the Democratic Party that the liberal orthodoxies of the New Deal and the Great Society, as well as the culture of the antiwar and civil rights movements, had become excessive and inflexible. Not only were Democratic attitudes toward government electorally problematic, Clinton argued; they were just plain wrong for the time.
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.”
In the same speech, Clinton outlined a new Democratic ethos based on the idea of consumer choice. “In the information age, monopoly decisions handed down on high by government bureaucracies are not always the best way to go,” he said. “With appropriate protections against discrimination based on race or income, we can provide our people more choices: child-care vouchers, public-school choice options, job training programs, choices for the elderly. ...
“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. There is little doubt that as governor of Arkansas, Clinton believed passionately in the need to modernize liberalism and overhaul industrial-age programs, including popular entitlements and “welfare as we know it.” He grew up in hard circumstances and was raising his own child in a household with two working parents; his concern for the middle class was real, and it reflected a changed reality for a lot of baby-boomer families that older Democrats simply didn’t comprehend. But Clinton also believed his centrist message was the only way for a Democrat to win in the era after McGovern and Mondale, when running as a liberal candidate seemed only slightly more practical than running as a Marxist. And in order to get his party’s nomination, Clinton had to convince beleaguered liberals not so much that he was right about the party’s philosophical irrelevance — this probably wasn’t possible, in any event — but that his was the only way to regain the White House. He sold Clintonism as a matter of conviction and a promising electoral strategy, and both were sincere propositions.
Once in the White House, however, for some reasons within his control and many that were not, Clinton seemed to list inexorably toward the tactical side. He can claim some genuine advances in keeping with the spirit of his fundamental argument about government: the crime bill; welfare reform; the Family and Medical Leave Act; expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, which pulled millions of working Americans out of poverty. These weren’t small achievements, and Clinton has received less credit for them than he deserves. And whether you attribute to him any part of the technology boom that created a vast amount of American wealth or believe instead that he simply had the good fortune to happen upon it it’s only fair to acknowledge, as historians almost certainly will, that Clinton presided more than ably over a historic economic expansion, leaving the nation in far better fiscal shape than he found it.
Still, a combination of events — first the collapse of Hillary Clinton’s health-care plan, then the Republican Congressional takeover of 1994 and later, of course, the debilitating sex scandal that led to his impeachment — seemed to drain the administration of its capital and ambition. Clinton’s presidency seemed, at least from the outside, to devolve into an exercise in deflection and survival, a string of near-death experiences that left little space or energy for whatever sweeping agenda Clinton (and his wife) envisioned back in 1992. As the transformational governing vision of earlier years receded, bland, poll-tested rhetoric and endless scandals rushed in to fill the void — and became, in the minds of many Democrats, the hallmarks of Clintonism.
For a lot of liberals (those who now call themselves progressives), the ’90s were a conflicted time. They never really bought the ideological premise of Clintonism, and they quietly seethed as the president moved his party to the center — enacting free-trade agreements over the objections of union leaders; embracing balanced budgets and telling Americans that “the era of big government is over”; striking a deal to give Republicans a long-sought overhaul of the welfare system. (In fact, Clinton had been talking about welfare reform for at least a decade before his presidency, but few Democrats believed his eventual support for the bill was anything other than a craven attempt to bolster his re-election prospects.) They felt embarrassed by the Lewinsky affair and the sordid controversy that devoured Clinton’s second term like flesh-eating bacteria.
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.
Even so, such resentments were tempered by the fact that Clinton managed to deliver the White House not once but twice; among Democrats in the 20th century, only Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt had done the same. He almost single-handedly pulled the Democratic Party back from its slide into irrelevance. Liberals swallowed hard and endured Clinton’s pragmatic brand of politics because they assumed that Clinton’s success would beget more success and, ultimately, a more progressive government.
Of course, it didn’t work out that way. First came the election of 2000, which Democrats believed was swiped from their grasp with little protest from the party’s Washington leaders. Next came compromises with George W. Bush on tax cuts and education reform. Then came the back-breaker: in the vote on the Iraq war resolution in 2002, many Democrats in Washington — including, most conspicuously, Hillary Clinton, then an unannounced presidential candidate — sided with President Bush in a move that antiwar liberals could only interpret as a Clintonian calculation to look tough on terror. If so, a lot of good it did; Congressional Democrats were demolished at the polls a few weeks later.
After that defeat, many longtime liberals, often coming together in the new online political space, began to voice a different thought: What if they had gone along with Clintonism for nothing? What if the path to victory lay not in compromising with Republicans but in having the fortitude to fight ruthlessly and to defend your own convictions, no matter how unpopular they might be? This was the moment in which Howard Dean’s explosive presidential campaign — and the grass-roots progressive movement it spawned — began to flourish. It was grounded in the idea that Clintonism, far from representing the postindustrial evolution of Democratic thought, had corrupted the party of the New Deal and the Great Society — and, taken to its logical end, had led Democrats and the country into a catastrophic war.
Even before they knew for sure that she was running for the presidency, Hillary Clinton’s top aides had to figure out how best to handle the growing tumult inside their own party. As a senator, Clinton had been, if anything, more centrist than her husband; she worked across the aisle with the likes of Bill Frist and Lindsey Graham, and her voting record on foreign policy placed her among the most conservative Democrats, only a few paces to the left of Joe Lieberman. There is no reason to think such stances on the issues didn’t accurately reflect Hillary’s convictions, but they had the added bonus of positioning her as eminently moderate and “electable” — both in New York State, where she won 67 percent of the vote in her 2006 re-election, and in the rest of the country.
The party, however, seemed to be moving in a different direction. Liberal activists online and in the states, in the wake of Dean’s losing campaign, were noisily demanding more confrontation and less Clintonian compromise from their Washington leaders. By the time Hillary Clinton formally announced her candidacy for president, a group of these activists — money guys, bloggers, MoveOn.org — had just combined forces to knock off Lieberman in a stunning primary upset (although Lieberman did manage to retain his seat in the general election), and these same grass-roots Democrats were lashing out at Clinton for her vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq. Some Clinton supporters in Washington thought they could see an ominous train coming down the track, and they wondered if the candidate didn’t need to get some distance between herself and her husband’s legacy, to position herself as a more partisan Democrat before it was too late.
Mark Penn steadfastly disagreed. Penn, who was Bill Clinton’s chief pollster during the ’90s, also emerged as Hillary’s most influential strategist. Penn had argued for years, going back to the Clinton White House, that Democrats won when they occupied the bipartisan, common-sense center of the political spectrum. And even in a primary campaign, Penn said he believed that Democrats had such personal loyalty toward the Clintons that they would forgive a few ideological differences they might have with the senator, especially if they thought those differences made her palatable to a wide swath of independent voters. When I suggested to Penn, back in 2005, that there might be a strong backlash emerging against the notion of Clintonism, he waved me away. “Strong backlash?” Penn scoffed, reminding me that the former president had a 70 percent approval rating in the country as a whole. “In this environment, that is a notion I would have to laugh at.”
In the end, Hillary Clinton tried to straddle the line. She broke with her husband in small but significant ways. She criticized the free-trade policies that he had long championed but that were now anathema to much of the Democratic base. She promised to abandon “don’t ask, don’t tell” and to amend the Defense of Marriage Act, which Bill Clinton signed. At the same time, Hillary Clinton has, from the start, reminded voters that she was a crucial member of her husband’s White House. (“I was deeply involved in being part of the Clinton team,” she said at a recent debate, in response to a question about foreign policy.) Vowing to be a pragmatic, bipartisan president, she signed on to lead an initiative with the D.L.C. and welcomed the endorsement of such figures as Robert Rubin, the Clinton Treasury secretary whose push for deficit reduction in the early ’90s has made him a lasting figure of revulsion for anti-corporate liberals. Despite intense pressure from John Edwards and Barack Obama, she publicly refused to swear off donations from industry lobbyists, and she spoke out in favor of a House vote to approve a new free-trade agreement with Peru. At the YouTube/CNN debate in July, she pointedly refused to describe herself as a liberal.
When Clinton, alone among the party’s presidential hopefuls, voted in September for a Senate resolution labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group, a resolution the other Democrats charged would empower Bush to pursue yet another military strike, it looked to a lot of Democrats like an all-too-familiar Clintonian dash toward the center. Clinton seemed to be feeling secure as the front-runner and already looking ahead to the general election, where she planned to occupy the same moderate space her husband had. By then, though, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire had begun to pay closer attention to the race, and the attacks on Clintonism were beginning to resonate.
There are at least three different angles from which Edwards and Obama have tried, often subtly, to trash Clintonism without criticizing the former president himself. The first might be called the triangulation story line. Edwards unsheathed the word like a poison-tipped arrow at the same
YouTube debate where Hillary Clinton declined to be called a liberal. “Do you believe that compromise, triangulation, will bring about big change?” he asked the audience. “I don’t.” Thwang. Since then, Edwards has at every opportunity tried to encourage liberal voters in their view that the Clinton era was a time of craven calculation and surrender to the conservative movement. In October, after Clinton was asked in a debate if she supported a New York State plan to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants — and after she tried to twist her way out of answering with such tenacity that she nearly invented a new yoga position — the Edwards campaign released a video titled “The Politics of Parsing,” which showed Clinton contradicting herself on other issues too. The subtext was clear: Do you really want to go through all that again?
Obama, who once vowed to adhere to the “new politics” of genial campaigning, has picked up on this same triangulation theme with evident enthusiasm in recent months. In Spartanburg, S.C., last month, he said that Clinton had been running a “textbook” campaign — whose textbook wasn’t hard to discern — that “encourages vague, calculated answers to suit the politics of the moment, instead of clear, consistent principles about how you would lead America.” Later in the month, at a dinner for leading Iowa Democrats, Obama used the dreaded epithet itself. “Triangulating and poll-driven positions because we’re worried about what Mitt or Rudy might say about us just won’t do,” he said, as Hillary Clinton sat a few feet away.
The second narrative aimed at the Clinton years, pursued mostly by Edwards, is the one about corporate corruption. This one argues that Bill Clinton turned the Democratic Party into a holding company for Wall Street financiers, pursuing a series of economic policies that were bad for workers but kept the party flush with cash. By this theory, balanced budgets and free trade were more about winning elections at any cost than they were about creating an expansive economy, and they led directly to the Bush epoch and its alarming inequality. This is why Edwards spent weeks hammering at Clinton over her continued acceptance of lobbyists’ money (despite his own reliance on donations from trial lawyers, who do plenty of lobbying themselves). The point was to remind voters that when Bill Clinton rented out the Lincoln Bedroom, Hillary was sleeping down the hall.
Obama, meanwhile, has been going after the Clinton legacy with a third story line: Boomer fatigue. Never mind whether Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich was to blame, Obama says — the point is that the two parties had each other in a death grip throughout the ’90s, and vital business went unfinished as a result. If you really want things to stay that way, he says, then vote for another Clinton and watch these self-obsessed baby boomers go at it all over again. When Obama leaned on Hillary Clinton for not pushing to declassify all of her papers from the Clinton White House, he was offering voters a reminder of all the lawyers and investigations, the missing billing records, the constant subpoenas for cabinet members that never seemed to go away.
“You have to be careful to be honest, and being honest means giving President Clinton his full due,” David Axelrod, Obama’s main strategist, told me not long ago. “I don’t think Obama is arguing that Bill Clinton is a bad person or a bad president, or that Hillary Clinton is a bad person or a bad senator. That’s not what we’re saying. We’re saying that we have to move forward and get beyond these old battles.”
By taking on the Clinton legacy through imagery and innuendo, Hillary’s rivals seem to have brought to the surface feelings of profound ambivalence, among many voters, about what that era really meant. She still holds a substantial lead in national polling, but in Iowa a flurry of recent polls have shown Clinton tied with Obama, and her lead among women there — a critical piece of her formula for victory — has eroded precipitously. According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll earlier this month, only half the voters thought Clinton was “willing enough” to say what she “really thinks about the issues,” compared with three-quarters for her two main rivals. Perhaps more troubling for the Clinton camp, the race in New Hampshire, where the Clintons are essentially family, appeared to have tightened considerably. While polls from New Hampshire have varied widely, making their reliability something of a guessing game, a poll jointly conducted a few weeks ago by WMUR in Manchester and CNN found that Clinton’s 20-point lead there had completely evaporated.
Clinton’s aides described all this as the inevitable dynamic of a race in its later stages, when voters really focus on their choices for the first time. But as Iowa edges closer, their campaign has seemed on the edge of panic. Earlier this month, Clinton, who had always tried to appear vaguely amused at her opponents’ antics, started flailing away at Obama. First she assailed him for saying he hadn’t always wanted to be president when, in fact, he wrote an essay in kindergarten saying that he did intend to one day occupy the Oval Office. (She shrewdly left out the fact that every other 5-year-old in America says the exact same thing.) On that same day, Wolfson, her communications director, appearing on “Face the Nation,” charged that Obama had been operating a “slush fund” through his political action committee. Then one of Clinton’s national campaign co-chairmen in New Hampshire pointedly suggested that Obama, who has admitted to using drugs when he was younger, would be vulnerable, as the nominee, to questions about whether he gave drugs to others or even sold them. That was too much for the candidate herself, who felt compelled to apologize personally.
For his part, Bill Clinton has tried to restrain himself. In his later years, the Big Dog, as bloggers sometimes refer to him, has transcended politics and even ordinary celebrity; like Paul McCartney or Muhammad Ali, Clinton is now a historical figure who remains a breathing, walking presence, and when he enters a room of strangers, even those who didn’t vote for him react as if witnessing a small miracle. On Veterans Day, as I trailed Clinton through South Carolina, he dropped in on Jack’s Cosmic Dogs, where he ordered up a chili dog with fries — now that his foundation was on a crusade against childhood obesity, Clinton told me with mock gravity, it was vital that he sample the offending food every so often — and made his way to all the tables so the customers could swoon and take pictures.
“Oh, these iPhones take good pictures!” he exclaimed to one young mother as she looked around for a volunteer photographer to snap her portrait with the former president. A few minutes later, I heard him talking into another woman’s cellphone while she looked on nervously. “Hi, there, this is Bill Clinton! No, seriously! It is!”
As he doused his fries in ketchup, Clinton told me that he was generally more inclined to want to “pop back” at Edwards or Obama than his wife was, but he had to remind himself that Hillary was plenty capable of defending herself. There have been reports in the last few weeks about Clinton’s lashing out at strategists and meddling in his wife’s campaign; insiders say this has been exaggerated, but some of Clinton’s friends and former advisers told me that the attacks from rivals irritate Clinton a lot more now, when they are directed at his wife, than they did when he was running. (“As a candidate, he was absolutely bulletproof — it never bothered him,” says Paul Begala, one of Clinton’s 1992 advisers.) What he takes even more personally — and should, really — is the unmistakable premise that underlies the sniping, that somehow his own presidency was bad for the country and the party.
On those rare occasions when the former president hasn’t been able to resist defending his wife or burnishing his own record, the results haven’t been especially helpful. Unlike Hillary Clinton and her team of advisers, who are relentlessly on message and disciplined, Bill Clinton is a more instinctual politician, given to improvisational moments that must torment his wife’s obsessive-compulsive aides. In November, Clinton suddenly asserted during a campaign appearance in Iowa that he opposed the invasion of Iraq from the beginning — an aside that he needn’t have offered and that clearly contradicted not only his wife’s Congressional vote but his own statements in the build-up to the war. Aides told me that he had simply misspoken, and that seemed plausible enough, but the minor incident only served to reinforce the image that Edwards and Obama were doing their best to conjure. In trying, perhaps unconsciously, to exonerate himself among his persistent liberal critics, Clinton reminded even sympathetic voters of the qualities that had made him seem maddeningly incapable of standing on principle or admitting fault. Here was the statesman Bill Clinton, wizened and mature, telling us once again that he didn’t inhale.
There is, however, a rich paradox in the strategy that Obama and Edwards are employing in their quest to dislodge Clinton from her perch atop the field. The plain fact is that, for all their condemnation of Bill Clinton’s governing philosophy, both Obama and Edwards — and just about every other Democratic candidate in the field, with the possible exception of Dennis Kucinich, who seems to have been teleported straight from 1972 — spend a fair amount of time imitating him. So thorough was Clinton’s influence on Democratic politics, so transformative were his rhetoric and his theory of the electorate, that Democrats don’t even seem to realize anymore the extent to which they owe him their political identities.
Obama can rail about poll-tested positions and partisanship if he wants, but some of his most memorable speeches since being elected to the Senate have baldly echoed Clintonian themes and language. He has repeatedly called on poor African-Americans to take more responsibility for their parenting and their children’s education, and he has been skeptical of centralized federal programs for the poor, advocating a partnership between government and new kinds of community-based nonprofits. He has railed against “a mass-media culture that saturates our airwaves with a steady stream of sex, violence and materialism.” Such “values” stances were far outside the mainstream of the party before Bill Clinton expressed them.
In an impressive 2005 commencement speech at Knox College, Obama talked about economic transformation. “Instead of doing nothing or simply defending 20th-century solutions, let’s imagine together what we could do to give every American a fighting chance in the 21st century,” he said. “What if we prepared every child in America with the education and skills they need to compete in the new economy? If we made sure that college was affordable for everyone who wanted to go? If we walked up to those Maytag workers and said, Your old job is not coming back, but a new job will be there because we’re going to seriously retrain you and there’s a lifelong education waiting for you?
“Republicans will have to recognize our collective responsibilities,” he went on, “even as Democrats recognize that we have to do more than just defend old programs.” Bill Clinton could have spoken those exact words in 1991. In fact, it would be hard to find a better summation of the substance behind Clintonism.
Similarly, Edwards, doing his best William Jennings Bryan impression, lashes out at the policy priorities of the ’90s and at poverty deepened by corporate venality, but his arsenal of specific proposals includes expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and accelerating the process of moving people out of public housing and into mixed-income neighborhoods. These new ideas are actually extensions of Clinton-era programs; they may be notable for their boldness but not for their originality. And even Edwards, in criticizing the lack of aid for poor Americans, has constructed his ambitious agenda on the central premise that people should get assistance only if they’re willing to work for it. In today’s environment, this hardly qualifies as noteworthy — there’s no serious Democratic candidate who would propose anything else — but it represents a marked shift from the party’s stance on welfare programs before Clinton started talking about those who “work hard and play by the rules.”
“Despite all the protestations, Clinton’s third-way politics and governing philosophy have as much of a hold on these Democratic candidates as the New Deal mind-set did on generations before,” says Jonathan Cowan, whose think tank, Third Way, has emerged as the next iteration of the D.L.C. “Clinton’s politics have basically become the DNA of Democrats seeking the White House, and it’s almost certain that they would all govern from that Clintonian center if they actually became president.” Even the party’s leaders in Congress, newly empowered by an uprising against Republican hegemony, continue to speak in the measured tones of Clintonian centrism.
Clinton’s rhetorical influence, in fact, spans not just the Democratic Party but really the entire spectrum of American politics. Today politicians throw around phrases like “the new economy” or “the information age” as if they have always been part of the political lexicon, and yet most ordinary voters didn’t really grasp that America was undergoing a profound upheaval — moving from an industrial economy to one centered on intellectual and service industries — until Clinton showed up to masterfully explain it. Few American politicians talked about “globalization” before Clinton, as a candidate, stood on factory floors and argued that the next era’s economy would be nothing like the last, and that for workers, the transition would be painful but also full of promise. Clinton wasn’t the first candidate to grasp this change and to put it into words, but he was by far the most persuasive. He also articulated a philosophy of how to deal with these challenges that transcended the binary ideological struggle between outright entitlement and Darwinian self-reliance. When you go into a hospital now and see a placard on the wall that lists a patient’s “rights” directly opposite his “responsibilities” as a citizen, that’s Clinton’s influence. At its best, Clintonism represented a more modern relationship between government and individuals, one that demanded responsibilities of both.
Words aren’t the same thing as achievements, of course, but at critical points in history, they can move a country forward by modernizing the debate, and in this way, Clinton’s comparing himself with Theodore Roosevelt, the president who dragged politics into the industrial age, is apt. Perhaps it’s true that Clinton’s presidency will be remembered as a series of lost opportunities — “the Great Squandering,” as the historian David Kennedy recently described it to me. But it’s also possible that history will record Bill Clinton as the first president of the 21st century, the man who synthesized the economic and international challenges of the next American moment, even if he didn’t make a world of progress in solving them.
This may be the defining difference between the candidacies of Bill Clinton and his wife, between Clintonism and Hillaryism, if such a thing can be said to exist. Like most successful outsiders, Bill Clinton directly challenged the status quo of both his party and the country, arguing that such a tumultuous moment demanded more than two stark ideologies better suited to the past. By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s campaign to this point has been mostly about restoring an old status quo; she holds herself up as the best chance Democrats have to end eight years of Bush’s “radical experiment” and to return to the point where her husband left off. It has been a strong but safe campaign, full of nondescript slogans (“I’m In to Win!” “The Change We Need!”) and familiar, if worthy, policy prescriptions. That might be a shrewd primary strategy, but winning a general election could well require a more inspiring rationale. Nonincumbents who go on to win the White House almost always take some greater risk along the way, promising changes more profound — if potentially more divisive — than a return to normalcy. The reformer runs great danger. The more cautious candidate merely runs.
Matt Bai, who covers national politics for the magazine, is the author of “The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics.” www.mattbai.com.