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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Edwards Boxes Bill Clinton’s Shadow

While it doesn’t represent as big a challenge as that facing Republicans in dealing with the undead legacy of George W. Bush, Democratic presidential candidates, past and present, have had to take some position on the very different legacy of Bill Clinton.
The subject was obviously central, and occasionally debilitating, to Al Gore in 2000. In 2003, Howard Dean, then the Democratic front-runner, did a speech characterizing the Clinton administration as a semi-successful exercise in “damage control” in a right-tilting Washington.
Today the Democratic candidates’ take on the Clinton legacy is complicated by the fact that the 42d president’s wife is the front-runner for the nomination.
Part of Barack Obama’s stump speech suggests that all the controversies of the Clinton Years are part of a baby boomer generational conflict that the country should simply get beyond. But he doesn’t criticize The Big He in any particular way.
Two marginal candidates have been willing to voice the semi-submerged hostility in some Left/netroots precincts to Bill Clinton’s political and policy views. Mike Gravel comes right out and says he thinks Clinton sold out the party to corporations. And Dennis Kucinich frequently suggests that Clintonism has made it hard for voters to tell the difference between Ds and Rs (an assertion, BTW, that got him booed at the YearlyKos conference a few weeks ago).
But until yesterday, no major presidential candidate Went There. In Hanover, New Hampshire, John Edwards delivered a speech that combined Obama’s anti-nostalgia rap with a Gravel/Kucinich-style assault–implicitly at least–on Clintonism, past and present, as representing a corporate-dominated Washington culture of corruption and impure compromise.
To be sure, Edwards doesn’t mention either Clinton by name. But the speech is loaded with all sorts of dog-whistle code phrases for Left-activist criticisms of the Clinton administration’s politics and policies, denouncing “triangulation,” “legislative compromises,” “corporate Democrats,” “Democratic insiders,” “Washington establishment,” and a “corrupt system” that was prevelant long before Bush took office. And these phrases were generally deployed in a way that suggests moral equivalence between Bush and both Clintons (“We cannot replace a group of corporate Republicans with a group of corporate Democrats, just swapping the Washington insiders of one party for the Washington insiders of the other.”).
Lest someone think he was talking about, say, Ben Nelson, Edwards broke code with one phrase: “The American people deserve to know that…the Lincoln Bedroom is not for rent.” And the MSM certainly hasn’t had any problem understanding what Edwards was talking about.
IMHO, this should be troubling to any Democrats concerned about party unity and winning in 2008. It’s one thing for Edwards to argue that his (often-impressive) policy platform is more thoroughly progressive than HRC’s, or even that HRC is captive to a timid, incremental approach appropriate to the 1990s but not to today’s circumstances. And had Edwards couched his remarks with one-sentence acknowledgements of the vast differences between Clinton and Bush administration policies, and the even vaster differences between HRC’s approach to every major domestic issue (the sole subject of the speech) and that of every GOP candidate, nothing he said would be objectionable to unity-minded Democrats.
But he didn’t do that. And speaking as someone with no personal stake in anybody’s campaign, I hope he backs off this tack and at least gets into the habit of defending all Democrats against the sure-to-emerge Republican claim (especially if they nominate a candidate with no prior congressional service) that Bush’s sins were attributable to a Washington culture he shared with his predecessor and his predecessor’s wife. Edwards can emulate Obama and simply argue it’s time for a new politics and new policies. But if Hillary Clinton winds up being the Democratic nominee, it will not be helpful if her GOP opponent can quote John Edwards to the effect that she can’t possibly offer change.

8 comments on “Edwards Boxes Bill Clinton’s Shadow

  1. Meelar on

    To clarify: what I meant about the estate tax is that it’s a sad commentary on just how far right our political system tilts that “abolish the estate tax” is not considered a loony position, like repealing the direct election of senators or advocating for a return of prohibition. In an ideal world, anyone who didn’t support the estate tax would not be taken seriously as a credible debater on taxation.

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  2. john patton on

    Daveh says:
    “Either American soldiers will be in Iraq in 2008, or they won’t be. Seems Senator Clinton is saying they will be. How is that vastly different from Bush?”
    If this is the criteria by which Democrats are differentiated from Republicans, none of the first tier Dems really pass the test. And if that makes all Dems and Republicans equivalent, then only a third party/Nader candidate can offer a meaningful alternative.
    In which case we’re not discussing the validity of Edwards particular set of intra-party digs at HRC or the importance of Democratic party unity at all any more.

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  3. Badger on

    The biggest problem with Edwards’ foolish reference to “renting the Lincoln Bedroom” is that didn’t it turn out that nearly everyone who stayed there during the Clinton years was a friend of long years standing as well as a campaign contributor? And that many of them weren’t even campaign contributors? Like Chelsea’s slumber party guests?
    Edwards is spouting rightwing propaganda to placate his leftist supporters. A foolish decision, IMHO.

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  4. daveh on

    Why is Bill Clinton such a sacred cow? He caved on gays in the military, he allowed himself to get derailed on health care reform, he caved on NAFTA, he showed no international leadership- when it could have mattered- in Bosnia or Rwanda. And yes the Lewinsky scandal was an unjustifiable witch hunt, but he made himself vulnerable by putting himself in that position. So why is he such a sacred cow?
    Why is pointed and justified criticism of his repeated sell outs fratricide?
    I don’t know if Senator Clinton should be tarnished by that history. After all, she had no official standing. But during the campaign they sold us the package. Two very smart people would be occupying the White House and that would be a great thing. And she did have an official job as head of the commission trying to reform health care. A job at which she failed. She was outmaneuvered by the Republicans. One might ask as well, why is Senator Clinton a sacred cow?
    Had not so many Democrats bought the DLC line in the nineties, it wouldn’t seem like a progressive critique is party fratricide.
    I think RonK is right. The damper on voting comes from people thinking, “if there’s no difference, why vote?”
    But whose fault is it that the public at large sees no difference, at least superficially. I remember the comical sight of watching Gore and Bush during one debate. They agreed on everything, at least at the sound bite level. Whose fault is that?
    And what, exactly, are the vast differences between Senator Clinton and George Bush regarding Iraq? Or Israel/Palestine? Or flag burning? I’m asking about concrete differences. Either American soldiers will be in Iraq in 2008, or they won’t be. Seems Senator Clinton is saying they will be. How is that vastly different from Bush?
    Maybe Edwards’ dig regarding the Lincoln bedroom was inelegant or clumsy. But it was justified.
    p.s. To Meelar: Discussing the estate tax is serious political debate, if done right. It is a discussion by extension of our society and culture. It is a discussion of whether we believe vast, inter-generational accumulations capital have a place in our society and whether such accumulations are good or bad for our body politic.

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  5. Albert Whited on

    RonK asks: “If there’s no difference, why vote?
    The reason to vote for Dems, even if ultimately for the ilk that will sell out the Middle Class for lobbyist silver, is that those Dems are always being challenged by the progressive wing of the party. This is the distinctive difference between Dems and the GOP: with the Dems there is always a progressive debate, a chance for some moderating measures to make it into policy. This is never the case in the GOP, whose only debate is whether the corporations it dutifully carries water conduct their business in manners askew with the moral views of the hard-right Christian wing of the GOP. Either way, the GOP has little value for our civil rights and social security.
    I also think such a disaffected perspective is a victory for the GOP. They can generally rely on their “flock” turning out in droves to advance its fantasy of theocracy. The voter who buys the “Tweedledee/Tweedledum” rhetoric and abstains from voting is almost always subtracting from the Dem tally. The GOP faithful are just that; they ultimately have faith that their program of repression is a moral imperative for the salvation of the (Christian) “soul” of America. For them, what could be a more pious purpose in politics?
    Edwards should delineate this distinction between the parties and their candidates at his next opportunity to clarify his statement.

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  6. john patton on

    Meelar says:
    “intra-party critiques are OK as long as you’re trying to outflank on the left, because that pushes the whole debate leftward.”
    This confuses taking more progressive stances then a competing Democratic primany candidate with posing a false equivalence between that candidate and the Republicans.
    Ed has it just right when he says:
    “Had Edwards couched his remarks with one-sentence acknowledgements of the vast differences between Clinton and Bush administration policies, and the even vaster differences between HRC’s approach to every major domestic issue (the sole subject of the speech) and that of every GOP candidate, nothing he said would be objectionable to unity-minded Democrats.
    But he didn’t”
    Challenging a Democratic moderate/establishment type candidate with a more progressive alternative does indeed “push the whole debate leftward”. Suggesting that such a candidate is no better then a Republican, on the other hand, pushes the debate only toward fratricide, not progressivism.

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  7. RonK Seattle on

    It’ll put a damper on motivation – and votes – for Democrats down-ballot as well. Relatively few candidates will be able to buy into it, but few will be able to get out from under it either.
    If there’s no difference, why vote?

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  8. Meelar on

    But what Edwards is doing here will actually have a good effect. Let’s say that the GOP does in fact take up your argument–well, then, you have the modern GOP arguing that corporate influence is too pervasive. If the two parties are duking it out over which one is less controlled by corporations, then isn’t that a good day for progressivism?
    In short: intra-party critiques are OK as long as you’re trying to outflank on the left, because that pushes the whole debate leftward. And even somebody whose views aren’t as liberal as mine should see that as valuable in a climate like we have today, where whether to eliminate the estate tax is considered a serious political debate.

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