A Clinton pre-mortem

May 20, 2008

The strategy for Hillary Clinton's almost-defeated presidential campaign came from an out-of-date playbook.

ONE REASON why Sen. Hillary Clinton will more likely be found next year in Congress than the White House is that her presidential campaign was set to rerun the battles of the 1990s rather than to face today's political reality.

Her initial pose as president-in-waiting seemed to assume that the Democratic electorate was simply interested in returning to a time before George W. Bush. Being a good sport, Clinton would play along in the primaries just long enough to eliminate other pretenders to the throne, before a grateful party would hand her the keys to the White House.

But Democratic voters had other ideas. And Clinton's sinking ship is testament to her mistake. Perhaps her biggest miscalculation was Clinton's idea that what worked to elect her husband in the 1990s would work today.

Clinton's political approach--call it "Clintonism"--was forged in the 1980s and 1990s, a period of three straight landslide Democratic defeats in presidential elections at the hands of the Reagan-Bush Republicans.

At the time, pundits talked of a Republican "lock" on the White House and wondered whether the Democrats could ever win the presidency again. The business coalition that had underpinned support for the New Deal Democratic Party had shattered, with whole industrial sectors decamping to the neoliberal Republicans.

For a section of conservative Democrats, the top strategic priority was "reorienting" the Democrats to make them competitive for big-business support. This "New Democrat" agenda emerged in the 1980s as the program of a faction of conservative Democrats determined to break the Democratic Party's identification with organized labor, civil rights and other traditionally liberal causes.

Embodied in the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the faction succeeded in capturing the party machinery by 1992. It placed two of its chief leaders–Bill Clinton and Al Gore–at the top of the Democratic ticket.

At the mass level, this strategy was presented as a way to win back "Reagan Democrats" or "swing voters" to the party. So Clinton's political appeals always seemed to be calculated to sit just to the left of the Republicans.

Hillary Clinton
Clinton's political approach was forged in the 1980s and 1990s, during a period of Republican political dominance

While promoting a free-trade and "competitiveness" agenda for business that had the effect of undermining the economic security of blue-collar workers--supposed "Reagan Democrats"--Clinton would compensate by appealing to their assumed conservatism with "law and order" policies and "ending welfare as we know it."

In office, Clintonism became synonymous with free trade globalism, the lowest level of government spending since the Eisenhower administration, and what were known as micro-initiatives--from tuition tax credits to unpaid medical leave--to address social problems. A large number of the administration's "reforms" stressed the private sector, as when the administration marketed tax breaks for business as an anti-poverty program during its 1999 "poverty tour" of depressed areas.

After Republicans captured Congress in 1994, these Republican Lite politics became enshrined in a politics of "triangulation"--where Bill Clinton took positions that aimed to position himself in the "center," between the "extremes" of a right-wing Congress and liberals exasperated with Clinton sellouts.

Conservative David Frum, writing in 1999, captured the essence of Clintonism better than many liberals:

Since 1994, Clinton has offered the Democratic Party a devilish bargain: Accept and defend policies you hate (welfare reform, the Defense of Marriage Act), condone and excuse crimes (perjury, campaign finance abuses), and I'll deliver you the executive branch of government...

He has assuaged the left by continually proposing bold new programs--the expansion of Medicare to 55 year olds, a national day-care program, the reversal of welfare reform, the hooking up of the Internet to every classroom, and now the socialization of the means of production via Social Security. And he has placated the right by dropping every one of these programs as soon as he proposed it. Clinton makes speeches, Rubin and Greenspan make policy, the left gets words, the right gets deeds.

ALL THIS seemed to work in an environment predicated on the notion that conservatism would be the leading political force--to which liberalism would have to trim its sails.

Yet even by 2000, it was clear that the political landscape was shifting and Americans were tiring of this kind of politics. That year, a clear majority of almost 52 percent of the electorate voted for either Gore, running as a faux populist, or Ralph Nader and the Green Party. The undemocratic Electoral College and U.S. Supreme Court prevailed to put Bush in the White House over a dispirited Democratic Party, whose leaders acted as if they were content to accept their role as American capital's B-team.

In the nearly eight years since, the Bush administration has left such a disaster in its wake that even significant sectors of big business are promoting a Democratic resurgence. And ordinary voters fed up with the war in Iraq and economic crisis at home are clearly looking for something new.

That means the 2008 election campaign unfolded in an environment in which the dominant conservatism of the last generation was discredited--and voters poised to elect Democrats from the White House to city hall.

Clinton didn't grasp this. Large parts of her campaign remained tailored to the notion that she could only win by playing on the Republican's side of the field. Determined not to fall to the standard GOP attack that she was "weak on defense," she refused to renounce her vote in favor of the Iraq war. Her proposals on health care, education and other social concerns were standard-issue Clinton administration-era proposals (the "words" part, in Frum's critique).

When Clinton fell behind Sen. Barack Obama and decided to retool herself as a gun-totin', whiskey-drinkin' populist, she not only reached back to the Clinton-era 1990s--but to the 1960s of Richard Nixon and George Wallace. Her recent comment about exit polls showing "how Sen. Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me" affirmed this.

Here was Clinton not only reacting defensively to the dominant conservatism of the previous generation, but actually embracing it herself. Clinton was casting her lot with politics designed to appeal to the "white backlash" of the 1970s, rather than to voters seriously considering electing the country's first Black president.

None of the above suggests that Obama's policy proposals are fundamentally different from Clinton's. In fact, they are virtually identical to hers. Nor does it suggest that Obama, if elected, would actually deliver the "change" his supporters want. But he and his campaign team grasped that, after eight years of Bush, the majority of Democratic voters wanted something more than a Clinton restoration.

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