Still Clinton's Show?
If the Democratic Party in exile is ever to find a new voice and sense of purpose, it will first have to get around a peculiar obstacle left behind by the Clinton era: The man did not really go away. Other former Presidents went home gracefully when their terms ended and essentially disappeared from national politics. Bill Clinton is keeping his hand in, also his handsome face and savvy intellect, plus his insider influence as strategist and money-raiser. Many Democrats still hunger for Clinton's magic touch. Others loathe him like the dinner guest who won't leave at a polite hour. But Clinton's active presence and, more important, his concept of how Democrats should govern remain at the party's vital center. This is bad news for those who think a progressive overhaul is necessary for the Dems to again become the majority party.
"At every single gathering of Democrats," a senior veteran of the Clinton White House observed, "there's this kind of wistful longing. Then it suddenly gives way to exasperation--why can't we get over him?" Others are less charitable. "He's like a shadow, a bit of an albatross for us, much more divisive than anyone else," said a former congressman still active in presidential politics. "The Clintons are doing their best to maintain control," said another Washington operative, associated with one of the newly announced candidates for 2004. "They are one or two steps ahead of everyone else, and that causes others to slip and slide. But it's going to become harder for them to control. The early primaries next year will determine whether the party is going their way or not."
So why didn't Bill Clinton fade away like other ex-Presidents? "Well, I think most ex-Presidents are a lot older than President Clinton is," John Podesta, his former Chief of Staff, explained. "But, fundamentally, he believes that politics matters and government matters, and who wins elections matters. They change the direction of the country and the world. That's who he is, that's what he's been about his whole life. The notion that he's going to completely change is highly unlikely. I don't think he feels he's the center of attention or needs to be, or should be. You know, he looks to others to play that role. But, in terms of adding his voice and support and ideas, and his ability to raise money, I think you can expect he will be out there doing that."
Indeed, he already is. In the vacuum before the party's nominee is chosen next year, Clinton's footprints are all around--coaching presidential wannabes, offering broad policy prescriptions and encouraging his former White House lieutenants to do the same. Some of them are trying to create new campaign vehicles that will help the minority party get out the anti-Bush message and, not coincidentally, defend the Clinton orthodoxy. "Bill is desperate to establish himself as the strategy guy for the Democratic Party, the guy who shapes the message," said one hostile Democrat. The message, as Clinton reassured loyal fans at the Democratic Leadership Council, is: "We don't have to be more liberal, but we do have to be more relevant in a progressive way."
A darker scenario was suggested by a Democratic lobbyist who described "Team Clinton" scurrying around Washington, setting up independent money pots and "issue" fronts to pre-empt other voices and to define the broad agenda for 2004 in Clinton's New Democrat terms. The ultimate objective, in this scenario, is to prepare the ground for Senator Hillary Clinton's eventual run for the presidency (when Mr. Bill might return to the White House as First Spouse). This insider chatter sounds melodramatic and way ahead of the story, but it's not exactly paranoid fantasy. The Clinton circle is busy building things.
Whatever the intention, one consequence could be to smother any internal debate about what the party really believes and how to enlarge its sense of purpose. Democrats and allied constituencies are deeply riven on that question--some wishing to revive an aggressive reform spirit and the big progressive ideas that Clintonism effectively dismantled with its small, symbolic answers to big problems. Congressional Democrats are beginning to understand that Clinton's "rope a dope" style no longer works in the Bush II era (when they make a smart gesture, Bush simply grabs it as his own). On the other hand, most Dems seem to have internalized Clinton's conservative economic doctrine as party gospel--fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets are the first principle of governing, and managing the economy for growth is ceded to the Federal Reserve. This doctrine conveniently has wide appeal among the major contributors from business and finance, but it doesn't promise much for the folks who vote.