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Still Clinton's Show? | The Nation

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Still Clinton's Show?

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What Democrats don't yet grasp is that the "lockbox" mentality of fiscal rectitude is a formula for losing politics, since it forecloses any commitments to major economic and social initiatives that could actually improve people's lives. Check the history of the past century: No party ever won the White House (or Congress) by balancing the federal budget, nor did anyone ever lose a national election by producing huge deficits. If there's no real debate about this within the party, Clintonomics will likely remain in charge. And the road back may prove to be longer and steeper than imagined.

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William Greider
William Greider
William Greider, a prominent political journalist and author, has been a reporter for more than 35 years for newspapers...

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Doug Hughes is not a dangerous fruitcake. In fact, he is a small-d democratic idealist who went out of his way to alert the authorities in advance of his so-called “Freedom Flight.”

The thought leaders of the Next System Project want to move past the narrow debate about policy and toward a conversation about the deeper structural change required of the political system itself.

John Podesta, like other Clinton loyalists, naturally disagrees, and he wants the party to avoid a family brawl. "The one thing that unites us is, to some extent, negative--we're united in thinking that the Republicans are wrong," he said. "I have less patience and time for fighting over the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. We ought to be spending our time talking about what Bush is doing to America." In the name of unity, Podesta is shopping for big contributors to create a kind of "message central" for party issues--a new, nonprofit think tank that draws material from various progressive policy groups but generates much more aggressive political messages, much as right-wing organizations do. "If we can't market both the critical analysis and some ideas for what to do about it and get them out in more popular forms of media, they're going to continue to beat our ass," he said. Marketing matters, of course, but others are wary about whose content will get into the message. This approach, they fear, will push out competing ideas, like the liberal-labor critique of globalization, that collide with Clinton dogma or offend the Clinton money patrons.

Meanwhile, Podesta's former White House colleague, political adviser Harold Ickes, who helped manage Hillary's Senate campaign in 2000, is planning to construct a message-oriented "527" for 2004--one of those independent campaign organizations authorized by the McCain-Feingold reforms that can still raise "soft money" contributions for TV issue ads, so long as they remain separate from candidates and parties (lots of these are forming now). The logic motivating Ickes's project is that someone in the party should have a big pile of unrestricted "soft money" ready to spend next year on promoting Democratic issues and pounding Bush, particularly during the slow months after the new nominee has won the primaries but before the party convention, when the federal funding kicks in. The Clinton White House used a torrent of soft-money advertising this way back in 1996 to rough up Bob Dole (but this time Bush will own the bully pulpit). Clinton may have a legal barrier in raising funds for a 527 effort because he is the spouse of a federal officeholder. Friends say he can still do warm-ups for the fundraisers, so long as he doesn't personally ask for contributions.

Money, in any case, may not be a major problem for Team Clinton. Senator Clinton, a brilliant fundraiser herself, is putting together her own "political issues" group, more along the lines of Podesta's. She already has a national PAC to aid other politicians. Her husband's favorite fundraiser, Terry McAuliffe, remains in place as the party's national chairman (Clinton picked him). And the Democratic Leadership Council, with its corporate-friendly policies, provides access to corporate money, from Silicon Valley to Wall Street. A central figure in financing the Clinton-friendly political ventures will be former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, now a top executive at Citigroup and the former bond trader who invented Clintonomics (which the Wall Street Journal calls Rubinomics). Rubin acts as a kind of gatekeeper, advising friends and colleagues from the financial sector on where to direct their political money, and which politicians and issues sound like apostasy. Both Clintons stay close to him.

The Clinton message is also well represented in the legislative chambers and the media, thanks to an informal rapid-response team a bit like the one in Clinton's White House. Gene Sperling, his former economic adviser, has joined the DLC as its chief economic-policy guru and is playing the role of strategy coach to House and Senate Dems. Sperling is a prolific author of op-ed pieces and a relentless spokesman for Clinton-Rubin economics. Former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and his NSC deputy James Steinberg do much the same on foreign policy, swiftly rebutting Republican attacks on the Clinton record.

And Clinton lends personal counsel to the candidates. A former aide felt sure he has spoken with all of them, but Clinton seems to have thrown an avuncular arm around young Senator John Edwards in particular. The former President has praised Edwards extravagantly, makes late-night phone calls to kibitz the senator's speeches and coaches him on how to frame economic issues. In December Edwards got a sit-down briefing on foreign affairs from British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Bill Clinton made a call to arrange it. To date, Edwards is the only Southerner in the race, and he has just-folks charm like Clinton's. But Edwards seems quite thin on substance and will need a lot more tutoring from the former policy wonk in chief.

The ex-President speaks out frequently on grand policy, though his speech to the DLC conference in December 2002 was heavy with whining about slights he has endured from the right's "destruction machine" and the "docile establishment press." Clinton's agenda for the party sounds, not surprisingly, like warmed-over Clintonism--a familiar mix of facile evasions of blame and tactical suppression of principled positions that would draw a stark contrast with the Republicans. Democrats, for instance, must be pro-war, even tougher than Bush on national security. "The last point I want to make is we've got to be strong," he declared. "When we look weak in a time where people feel insecure, we lose. When people feel uncertain, they'd rather have somebody who's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right." Actually, this was also the first point he made in his hourlong speech, and he repeated it many times throughout. Supporting the war is insufficient, Clinton warned. "I approve of what's being done in Iraq now and the way it's being done, but it's not enough," he said.

On the other hand, Bill is Mr. Peacemaker too. He articulates internationalism with an ardor that was notably wobbly when he was in the White House. The United States must rally round the United Nations and other institutions of "global community," he wrote in an op-ed commentary. "We Americans have not always done our part in [the UN], but it is all we have." Clinton has even decided that the new International Criminal Court is OK after all ("I'm even satisfied that the criminal court presents no threat to our soldiers"), though he took the opposite view as President, at the behest of the Pentagon. He's also become a cheerleader for action on global warming, although after Kyoto he took a dive and assured his opponents he would attempt no legislation. On the pivotal issue of globalization, Clinton wants Dems to embrace Bush's push for another NAFTA with the proposed free-trade agreement with Latin America; he makes no mention of the soaring trade deficits at home. When Clinton describes the peso collapse in Mexico and subsequent financial bailout on his watch, it sounds like an all-around good deal.

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