The problem that Democratic presidential candidates not named Hillary are having in dealing with her husband’s legacy, and presence, on the campaign trail is a perennially interesting topic. I’ve written about the varying approaches of Edwards and Obama to their “Clinton problem,” with Edwards recently essaying a full-frontal assault on Clintonism (by clear inference rather than by name), and Obama choosing a “that was then, this is now” generational-change argument. This is also the topic of a large new Ryan Lizza piece in The New Yorker.
Lizza adds quite a bit of insider reporting about the quandry these candidates (and HRC herself) are in concerning Bill Clinton’s outsized political persona. He attributes Edwards’ anti-Clintonism gambit to adviser Joe Trippi, one of the few major Democratic strategists with no ties to the Clintons, and presumably a man who had something to do with Howard Dean’s effort in 2003-4 to diss Clintonism without unduly offending Bill Clinton.
Reading Lizza, I kept getting a nagging deja vu sensation about the Edwards and Obama strategies towards Clinton. And it finally hit me: back in December of 1997, Dick Gephardt and Ted Kennedy delivered back-to-back, dueling speeches representing alternative liberal takes on Clintonism that in many respects anticipated the Edwards and Obama approaches.
Gephardt’s speech, delivered at the Kennedy School, was much trumpeted at the time as a testing-the-waters effort to see if the Gepster could launch a 2000 presidential challenge to Al Gore based on a repudiation of Clinton’s “Republican Lite”, “triangulating” heresies against traditional liberalism by a champion of the Democratic Base. It came after a 1996 campaign in which Clinton’s signing of welfare reform legislation, and his pointed differences of opinion with House Democrats on policy and political strategy, were often blamed by the latter for causing their failure to retake the House. And it also came immediately after House Democrats had inflicted a rare defeat on Clinton, who lost his bid for “fast-track” trade negotiating authority. But the speech bombed, and Gephardt got barbecued for being unnecessarily divisive.
Kennedy’s speech, at the National Press Club, was widely considered a response to Gephardt (and indeed, one story has it that Clinton specifically asked Kennedy to do it). He began with a ringing defense of Clinton’s accomplishments up to that point, and then, without missing a beat, he went into a recitation of a liberal agenda for the future that was basically the same as Gephardt’s. Reading it at the time, I imagined I could see Teddy winking and saying, “See, Dick? That’s how you do it.” And indeed, Kennedy’s basic approach to Clintonism was to say: “That was then; this is now.”
Franklin Foer, in the article I linked to above (the only thing I’ve been able to find on the internet that discussed both speeches), reported the juiciest tidbit of all about Gephardt and Kennedy’s “warring” approaches to a liberal critique of Clintonism: the principal wordsmith in both was apparently Bob Shrum, who has far exceeded Joe Trippi in having a successful Democratic consulting career without involvement with the Clintons.
There’s one living link between the Gephardt and Edwards assaults on Clintonism: David Bonior, who in 1997 was Gephardt’s deputy in the House Democratic leadership, and who today is chairman of John Edwards’ campaign. Actually, Trippi may be a second, since he worked for Gephardt’s 1988 campaign, and also for Jerry Brown’s left-bent late primary challenge to Clinton in 1992,
But the differences between yesterday’s and today’s Democratic critics of Clintonism are as instructive as the similarities.
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Edwards’ rap on the Clintons is that they represent a corrupt D.C. Democratic establishment far too comfortable with the status quo. Gehpardt didn’t take that approach, because he was the D.C. Democratic establishment; indeed, he represented people who viewed Clinton as exceptionally threatening to the party status quo as it had existed since the Great Society.
And even more obviously, while Obama explicitly seeks to dismiss Clintonism as a baby-boomer style of politics inappropriate to current circumstances, Ted Kennedy stood for a pre-baby-boomer style of politics in which Clintonism was a temporary, faddish interruption.
The point to all this analysis is that there’s an old-school and new-school critique of Clintonism in the Democratic Party that has to a remarkable extent merged, even if some new-school critics don’t know about it and even more don’t acknowledge it. The old-school critique preceded the domination of Democratic politics by Clintonistas. It preceded Monica Lewinsky, the 2000 elections, and the Iraq War, And it lives on, in many forms, including the re-emergence of Old Democratic Left institutions like The Nation, Campaign for America’s Future and the Progressive Caucus in the House. It lives on in many individual figures in politics, such as Bonior and Trippi.
And most of all, it lives on in the Clintons themselves, whose approach to intra-party politics was largely forged during the days when they were being hammered as upstarts challenging the Democratic establishment even as they fought a vicious Republican assault. HRC’s long march from embodying the Left Opposition within the Clinton White House (usually opposed, ironically, by Al Gore) to her current intraparty status was by most accounts accelerated by the bitter response of many old friends to her husband’s welfare reform decision, and by the House Democratic revolt on trade authority. And Bill Clinton himself, as illustrated abundantly in Matt Bai’s new book, The Argument, clearly views his and HRC’s netroots (and liberal funders’) detractors as people who are the heirs of his old Democratic enemies, and who don’t appreciate either the Clinitons’ reformist credentials or the necessity of the whole New Democratic strategy in preventing the kind of total Republican takeover in the 1990s that occurred after he left office.
So today’s Democratic debates are full of ghosts of the recent past. Maybe they should be irrelevant. But understanding them is the first step towards exorcising them when Hillary Clinton succeeds or fails in her bid to go back to the White House.