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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Democrats, “Change,” and the 1990s

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.

6 comments on “Democrats, “Change,” and the 1990s

  1. centristdem on

    To LongTom:
    Thanks for your reponse. Hillary’s “experience” advantage over Obama isn’t real of course, it’s just an empty slogan. What, she’s been in the Senate two years longer, or four? Obama has held public office longer, waged more winning campaigns, and spent years dealing with Chicago politicians as a community organizer, which I would suggest is a far better qualification than 8 years pruning the Rose Garden as First Lady.
    I have to disagree because it really comes down to how one defines experience. Obama’s few years in a state legislature hardly equates to legislative experience on a national level and he has yet to weather a head-on Republican attack. Clinton, on the other hand, has been involved in a number of winning campaigns. I don’t know if you’ve ever run for public office, but an involved candidate’s spouse is always about two steps behind the candidate him or herself. Just ask my wife! Clinton was intimately involved in two winning governor’s races statewide, two winning presidential races, and two winning US Senate races. In my book, this trumps state campaigns in small districts.
    Eight years in the white house also cannot be discounted. Though her first shot at policy making wasn’t a success, it simply isn’t true she spend the next seven years “under the radar.” When asked about his wife’s role in his administration in August of 2000, President Bill Clinton said “She basically had an unprecedented level of activity in her present position over the last eight years.”
    She worked on a major Clinton administration child-care initiative, a huge federal-state children’s health insurance program, adoption and foster care bills and foreign aid appropriations for small loans overseas. The Clinton administration program to guarantee free immunizations for poor and uninsured children, passed in 1993, was crafted in Hillary Clinton’s office.
    And there’s more if you choose to look for it.
    But let’s not kid ourselves. Obama’s self-made, rags-to-Harvard Law Review bio, his charisma and experience in both on-the-street issues and electioneering easily equal or surpass Hillary.
    As above, you’re showing you lack of knowledge of Sen. Clinton pre-1992. She was the first student to speak at commencement exercises for Wellesley College in 1969, the first female partner at Rose Law Firm in 1979, and she was named one of the hundred most influential lawyers in America in 1988 and 1991.
    Typical of Obama supporters, you name “charisma” as something that will push Obama over the top, but charisma isn’t measurable and “excitement” isn’t measurable.
    This morning, news came that Sen. Clinton would flip yet another red state (W. VA) against the GOP frontrunner while Obama would not. Just goes to show that with the only reliable measure of support – national and state polls – Democrats and the electorate at large are more comfortable with Clinton than Obama.

  2. LongTom on

    To CentristDem:
    Thanks for your reponse. Hillary’s “experience” advantage over Obama isn’t real of course, it’s just an empty slogan. What, she’s been in the Senate two years longer, or four? Obama has held public office longer, waged more winning campaigns, and spent years dealing with Chicago politicians as a community organizer, which I would suggest is a far better qualification than 8 years pruning the Rose Garden as First Lady.
    That said, if Hillary can make this phony claim stick, or, conversely, if Obama can’t negate it, then more power to her. We’ll have learned a lot about them as candidates.
    But let’s not kid ourselves. Obama’s self-made, rags-to-Harvard Law Review bio, his charisma and experience in both on-the-street issues and electioneering easily equal or surpass Hillary.
    And Hillary’s First Lady experience isn’t exactly a big plus. She blew her first shot at policy making in 1993, and had to spend the next 7 years under the radar. She’s an 8 year senator who gained her seat because her husband was president. The only reason she’s the front-runner now is nepotism. Among all the declared Dem candidates, Hillary has the least experience. And if it’s important for some reason to have a female candidate, Feinstein or Pelosi deserve it more (more experience and no nepotistic baggage).
    You’re right that the issues are pretty much irrelevant in a presidential campaign. This hinges on image, branding, and marketing. Obama has a huge up side. If he clicks on all cylinders, he could get 60% of the vote in the fall. Hillary’s best possible outcome is to win a squeaker.

  3. edkilgore on

    You’d have to look pretty hard to find anyone in the blogosphere who defends the Clinton legacy more regularly than I do. And moreover, I’ve always agreed that most of the ethics/partisan atmosphere of the 1990s was manufactured by the GOP.
    But public opinion is a “fact” just as much as the forces that influence it. And whatever infinitesimal impact that talking about such facts has on reinforcing “the Republican weltanschaung” it’s a lot less significant, IMHO, than the risk Democrats run when they dismiss public opinion as manufactured.
    More to the point, I brought up this depiction of the 1990s because it’s being deployed explicitly and implicitly by Barack Obama to make the case for an entirely fresh start for Democrats. So I’d have to say your beef is with him rather than with me.
    As for “restarting the 21st century,” I wasn’t endorsing that slogan, just reporting it. I find it interesting that you, a strong supporter of where Bill Clinton took the country, hate it, while Ezra Klein, whom no one would likely call Clintonian, loves it.
    Thanks for the comment, and please keep coming back.
    Ed Kilgore

  4. centristdem on

    Issue by issue, Obama and Clinton are almost identical. Even on policies that enrage the left, it is difficult to distinguish the two. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama expressed approval of the Clinton welfare reform measures in the 90s, an admiration of capitalism and the free market system, and a belief that any number of entitlement programs aren’t working as advertised.
    The Illinois Senator also answered “no” on a questionnaire in late 2003 when asked if he supported repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. Like Clinton, he has since changed his position on it.
    It appears, politically speaking, that what separates Clinton and Obama is not issues and ideology but experience. Clinton has it, Obama does not.

  5. LongTom on

    Ed’s article is striking for two comments he makes, both of which exemplify real failings of current Democratic thinking.
    “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?”
    The implication that CLINTON engaged in “toxic, scandal ridden politics” is an inescapable implication of the statement. Clinton did nothing of the sort. The Republicans hated him and screamed scandal at everything he or his White House did, from the non-events of the White House travel office “scandal” to Whitewater. When a real scandal hit, they shifted into overdrive and impeached him for a love affair, which an acute public saw for what it was, and drove Clinton’s job approval to new heights.
    The lesson to be learned from this is that scandal-mongering works, especially if the party doesn’t attack the attackers and stand by their man. While Hillary may indeed face the problem Ed presents, the party seems to make its usual mistake of accepting Republican criticism when there is no basis for it. Hillary and Chelsea were the victim of the Lewinsky scandal. As for everything else, the toxicity, the scandal-mongering, and the partisanship, these all came from one side, and it wasn’t Clinton’s.
    As for the slogan of “restarting the 21st century”, why that’s about as weak as any I’ve heard. Urging a “do-over” of the last 8 years is the last thing on anybody’s wish list.
    Obama’s message of hope and change is fine, and there’s no reason Hillary couldn’t adapt it for her campaign should she be the nominee. There will be an enormous expectations and relief at the end of the Bush presidency. The Dems have to run against Bush and the neocons, of course. Naturally, the Republican message will be that, hey, Bush is gone, and see, THIS guy is okay, and you’re not seriously going to vote for the DEMOCRATS, are you? And if the Dems don’t have a response, this will work. Most importantly they have to run against the thoroughly corrupt and criminal enterprise–the Republican Party–that spewed Bush forth as their best man in 2000.
    The flip side of the message of hope and change that will be the Dems major theme is the question: how in the world could you, and why in the world SHOULD you, trust the NEXT guy the Republicans promote to the top of their ballot? After “the CEO/MBA president” (who can’t manage his way to the end of a sentence, let alone manage the executive branch) and the “reformer with results” (whose idea of reform–as with Social Security and prescription drug benefits–is to hand taxpayer billions to financial institutions, and whose entire tenure is defined by criminal activity)–after this character, it should be DECADES before voters can trust this party to set forth a decent, competent candidate. By pressing this argument, the default vote in the next election should be Democratic, instead of Republican, as it is now.
    THAT’s the message for the party. Hope and change, and the hopelessness and pointlessness of trusting the party that brought you the last 8 years to change at all.
    One handy definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The American voter has twice voted Republican for president. To do so again while expecting the next 8 years to be different or better than the last 8 would be insane.
    2008 should be a year in which the Republican party stands a risk of being imploded. But, the fact is if the Dems can’t win the White House next year, it’s difficult to imagine ANY circumstances under which they would win it. So it’s really going to be a make-or-break year for our party, not for theirs.
    And approaches like Ed’s do not help the cause by tacitly accepting the Republican weltanschauung of the ’90s. The Clinton presidency was the most successful peacetime presidency in our history. Period. It was marred by incessant partisan hysteria by the Republicans and Clinton’s egocentric dalliance with an intern, an act that in and of itself affected no one but his wife and daughter.

  6. Ben Bartlett on

    That’s an interesting way to look at the difference in the Obama and Clinton messages. I, for one, have no problems with the Clinton legacy. I think he did a fine job governing through the 90s (and he looks better every day). That said, to be honest, I don’t see a reason to return those policies. It’s a different time, and I’m looking for a set of policies that fit those times. So, for me, Obama’s message has more of an appeal. It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out.


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