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Love Clinton, hate Clintonism?

Matt Bai had a timely and penetrating story in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, looking at how Democrats' dueling fondness for Bill Clinton and their dislike for "Clintonism" will impact the upcoming presidential race.

Many of those who support Obama, of course, do so because they prefer the contrast that he represents to the establishment personified by Hillary Clinton

So Bai wonders about Bill Clinton's legacy: 

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. ....

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.

Bai goes on 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.

Bringing it into the present, "triangulation" has become a euphemistic bad word on the campaign trail when used by other Dems:

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.

Yet Bai ultimately comes down with the view that Bill Clinton played a pivotal role not just in modernizing the Democratic Party, but in influencing virtually all of the party's current presidential candidates, with the possible exception of Dennis Kucinich:

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. ....

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.” ....

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.

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