A small incident on the campaign trail in Iowa yesterday, highlighted by the Washington Post’s Anne Kornblut, illustrated an important strategic choice for Democrats that is being dramatized in the competition between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Everyone agrees that Democrats must identify themselves as the “change” party in 2008. But is the “change” they stand for a revolution or a restoration? More specificially, what do Democrats say, if anything, about the Bill Clinton years, with its mix of toxic, scandal-ridden partisan politics and solid policy achievements? Here’s how the question is being raised by Obama and Clinton, according to Kornblut:
Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) took aim at his main Democratic presidential rival during his July 4 campaign swing through Iowa, saying that “change can’t just be a slogan” — days after Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) introduced her new slogan, “Ready for Change, Ready to Lead.”
Obama has long cast himself as part of the future of politics, in contrast with a Clinton era that he portrays as part of a divisive past.
But Obama had a ready target on Wednesday: Both Clintons were campaigning nearby in Iowa, their first swing together. Bill Clinton repeatedly introduced his wife with reminders of the 1990s. The former first lady embraced the role of virtual incumbent on their holiday-week tour, promising to restore conditions — in the economy and in the government — to the way they were during her husband’s administration.
Obama praised the former president, then quickly shifted his tone. “I think he did a lot of fine things, and I think he’s a terrific political strategist,” Obama told the Associated Press. “What we’re more interested in is looking forward, not in looking backward. I think the American people feel the same way. What they are looking for is a way to break out of the harsh partisanship and the old arguments — and to solve problems.”
Clinton, a two-term senator who also spent eight years in the White House as first lady, is trying a “change — but not too much change” approach. Her advisers believe that her candidacy, to become the first female president, inherently signals change. But they also think voters want something familiar, rather than an unknown quantity of the kind that Obama, a first-term senator and an African American, might represent.
Obama has obviously been pursuing a “total change” message, thought generally to reflect and reinforce his particular appeal to post-baby-boom voters. And Clinton has little choice but to rely on her experience in the White House as central to her own credentials, even as she tries to avoid falling under her husband’s large shadow (a balancing act that has been evident this week as she barnstormed through Iowa with the Big He, who was careful to keep his remarks short at every stop).
The “how much change” contrast between the two candidates hasn’t gotten into policy questions yet, but it’s probably just a matter of time until it does.
What to say about the Clinton legacy has been a perennial issue for Democrats. Al Gore famously eschewed clear-cut identification with the Clinton-Gore administration during his own presidential run (at least until the home stretch), though that decision reflected fresh memories of the Lewinsky scandal and the president’s low personal ratings rather than any repudiation of Clinton policies (it’s less clear whether voters understood the distinction).
In late 2003, however, Howard Dean, then the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, delivered what was billed as a major domestic policy speech, and began to articulate the never-completely-repressed unhappiness of some Democrats with Clinton’s policy agenda. Referring to the entire Clinton presidency as an exercise in “damage control,” Dean suggested that the Republican Congresses Clinton faced made it impossible for him to pursue a truly progressive course. In his post-election book, You Have the Power, Dean elaborated on this theme, arguing that only Clinton’s unique political skills kept him from a path towards complete capitulation to Republicans–the kind of capitulation he accused Clintonian Democrats of conducting once George W. Bush was in office. This take on the Clinton legacy is one that is often echoed, with varying degrees of emphasis on Clinton’s own culpability vis-a-vis his New Democrat allies, by many netroots and/or Left observers.
I’ve gone through this quick trip down memory lane to suggest that the Obama-HRC contrast on “change” reflects, though it does not at present express, an ideological fissure among Democrats about how to contextualize the 1990s. Complicating the picture, of course, is the empirical question of how voters will respond to a “restoration” message that clouds the degree of change Democrats represent, or to a “total change” message that leaves Democrats exposed to Republican efforts to exploit doubts about their intentions.
I’ve heard some talk in New Dem circles that one way to make the “restoration” theme–whether or not it’s connected to a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign–more forward-looking and “change”-oriented is with the slogan: “Restart the Twenty-First Century.” The idea, of course, is that Bush has so thoroughlyl screwed up the last seven years that the only way to place the country on track is to go back to square one. This approach might well appeal to some progressives who aren’t terribly enamored of the Clinton legacy, but who do like the idea of ripping up the Bush legacy root and branch.
It will be most interesting to see if, how and when this question of the nature of progressive “change” plays out in the 2008 nominating process, and in the general election beyond it. And keep in mind that the Democratic presidential nominee will have to make his or her “change” pitch in the context of a Democratic Congress that will be fighting for re-election.