Still Clinton’s Show?

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


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.

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.

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.

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.

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