Still Clinton's Show?
On the domestic front, Clinton warns Democrats not to go too far with this "corporate accountability" stuff, lest they injure those "entrepreneurial giants" of Silicon Valley who made the 1990s glow with New Economy promise. "We, especially the DLC, ought to be talking about not killing the goose that laid the golden egg." Clinton's prescription: "We've got to be pro-business and pro-accountability." He takes the same evenhanded approach to poverty. His great achievement (the draconian welfare reform) "worked superbly," Clinton allowed. But, hey, maybe not entirely. "We need to ask ourselves, do we need to provide more incentives than we are presently providing to help poor people who fall into the cracks?" Raising the minimum wage is not on his agenda, much less embracing the "living wage" standard. All in all, the Clinton trumpet summons the Democratic Party to stick with his Goldilocks politics--not too hot, not too cold, but just right for Soccer Moms and Office Park Dads.
In all this activity, the future of Senator Clinton is the most intriguing story line, though also still murky. "We're not involved in some venture in that context," Podesta protested. "We're people who've been involved in politics for thirty years and don't like the conservative drift of the country. You know, I love her. But this isn't about her presidential campaign." Another insider from the Clinton White House remarked of the former President: "I suspect he would love to help engineer his wife's election as President someday. But that may be more exciting to him at the moment than it is to her."
Senator Clinton certainly has the capabilities and star quality, but, the insider added, Hillary is about as polarizing as Bill. "One-third of the country would follow her anywhere, there's one-third that's very ambivalent and one-third that absolutely detests her," the former aide said. "The problem is, how does she get the middle third? The answer is, she does one damn effective job as senator, which she is doing [Clinton recently became steering committee chair for Senate Democrats]. And she very smartly goes about keeping a national profile, but not overdoing it."
Among her followers, there's a consensus that 2004 is not a propitious time for her ambitions--it's too soon in her independent political career and, besides, most unpromising for any Democrat at this point. But 2008 beckons with opportunity for her. One politician in Hillary's orbit recently wisecracked: "'04 is the year of clearing out the white guys." An unfriendly political operator put it this way: "The Clintons win if the Democrats lose this time around. It's better for Hillary in 2008 if they don't win [in '04]. If, by convention time, the Clintons think the Democrats are going to win, then she would want to be on the ticket as VP." That's a whole lot of ifs.
One more wrinkle confuses the expectations. Hillary Clinton is demonized by the right as a flaming lefty, while she is also fervently admired among many rank-and-file Democrats as the pre-eminent liberal. The reality is that her politics are actually no different from her husband's--liberal on some social questions, but center-right and business-friendly on most important matters. She voted for the war and for the harshly unfair bankruptcy bill, among other illiberal measures. As First Lady, she embraced NAFTA and welfare reform and all of her husband's major achievements. The Senator prefers the label of centrist, not liberal. And she works hard to make the distinction stick. One should begin to take her presidential ambitions more seriously if we observe her getting distance from her husband's politics.
The unresolved dilemma for Democrats is how they recover their voice as advocates for the ordinary concerns of people, when they have self-identified themselves as the defenders of fiscal order. "If we're a party of accountants, we're not likely to get many votes," Podesta conceded. But he insists the dilemma is exaggerated. President Clinton, he pointed out, proposed some major ideas, like national pensions, that would have been financed largely through the tax system rather than direct spending (though, as with so many of his ideas, Clinton's advocacy was no more than a limp gesture). "It has to be formulated in a somewhat different context," Podesta said.
Others are not so sanguine. One of Podesta's former colleagues explained: "We will not be in much of a position to say 'here's what we ought to be doing' because we're on the side of the deficit hawks. I think it's going to be very, very tough for us.... We have to live within that formulation that the era of big government is over, so it means using government to solve big problems becomes increasingly difficult."
The next presidential nominee could swiftly eclipse the Clinton legacy by starting out with a new script for the Democratic Party, one that discards the bond trader's economic analysis in favor of addressing lunch-bucket concerns directly and forcefully. The longing many Democrats feel for the Clinton "good times" might also be replaced by exasperation at his continuing presence. His campaigning for Democratic candidates in 2002 yielded mostly disappointment; most of the Clinton alumni who ran for public office with his blessing and support lost. Maybe the magic is already wearing out, and if so, Clinton's charm with the big-money contributors may dissipate too.
Bill Clinton was a winner, a brilliant tactician and candidate with rare personal skills. Still, it is worth remembering that in both of his presidential victories Clinton polled less than 50 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, during his reign the Democratic Party lost majority control of both House and Senate, governorships and state legislatures. Something is profoundly amiss with modern Democrats and their connection to the electorate. While it's unfair to blame Clinton for everything, it is even more mistaken to believe that he found the solutions. Rank-and-file Democrats will have some limited influence on the party's direction during the next twenty months, particularly by what kind of Democrat they favor during the narrow window of nominating primaries. There is, as yet, no obvious rebel offering to do a drastic overhaul. In the meantime, it is still Clinton's party.