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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Clinton Referendum?

If you are interested in the deeper dynamics of the Democratic presidential contest, I strongly recommend you set aside a half-hour and read Matt Bai’s thumb-sucker for next Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, entitled “The Clinton Referendum.”
Much of the material here will be familiar to those who read Bai’s recent book The Argument, which also made ambivalent feelings about Bill Clinton’s legacy the big unstated subtext of intra-Democratic tensions. The new piece updates Bai’s hypothesis by dealing with the specific impact of this issue on 2008 Democratic politics.
The most interesting passage is Bai’s take on how HRC’s rivals have appealed to the semi-submerged anti-Clintonism of Democratic activists, focusing on Edwards’ “culture of corruption” indictment of Clintonian Democrats, Obama’s anti-baby-boomerism, and both candidates’ condemnation of “triangulation.” He goes on to suggest that Edwards and Obama, and all Democrats, have incorporated Clintonian policies and rhetoric quite thoroughly, even if they won’t acknowledge it during a competition with the Big Dog’s wife.
For what it’s worth, I think Bai is oversimplifying the ways in which Edwards and Obama do and don’t reflect a “no vote” in a “Clinton referendum.” Edwards is channeling the purest form of anti-Clintonian Democratic analysis–the argument that Democratic “centrists” deliberately and consciously sold out progressivism for a mess of corporate pottage, treacherously serving as enablers of Bush-era conservatism. That’s why his campaign often comes perilously close to a Naderite plague-on-both-houses message. Obama, meanwhile, has out-Clintoned Hillary in the use of classically Clintonian “third way” themes, even, ironically, in his “turn the page” repudiation of boomerism, which sounds like an updated version of Bill Clinton’s 1992 modernization message (a point made most clearly by Armando at TalkLeft in his reaction to Bai’s piece). (For those really interested in the subject, I did a post back in September that went into considerable detail in comparing the takes on Clintonism–and the old and new anti-Clintonian strains in the party–by Edwards and Obama).
But quibbles aside, I think Bai’s article is important reading. A lot of bloggers seem perpetually irritated at Bai for his strong empathy with Bill Clinton’s self-evaluation as a misunderstood reformer, but they are actually proving his larger point about the very different ideas Democrats have about the pre-Clinton progressive tradition. Bill Clinton looks at a lot of progressive critics of his own legacy (and of his wife’s record and agenda) and sees 1970s-era mossbacks who think progressivism is purely defined by the New Deal-Great Society programs and an unapologetic ethic of entitlement. Those same critics look at Clinton-style politicians and see an embarassingly outmoded and corrupt accomodation of a once-ascendant conservatism. The mutual mistrust often really does resemble that of old hippies and their kids.

4 comments on “Clinton Referendum?

  1. Matthew Cowan on

    Clinton supporters endorse pragmatism. The Internet far left believes in idealism. Past events and present arguments are just symbols of the division in the basic world views of the factions.
    A challenge to a person’s world view is an attack on everything that person is and believes in. Anger results.
    There is great hostility between the factions now. The primaries aren’t going to settle it. If Democrats are to survive as a party the factions must be able to form temporary truces.

  2. Chris Bedford on

    In my organizing work, I think Democrats feel betrayed by Bill Clinton. He promised a “third way” and then had Mickey Cantor drag us into NAFTA and GATT and more globalization. When polled between 55-60% of Americans opposed NAFTA and increasing globalization of our economy.
    John Edward’s public criticism of corporate dominated Washington rings true for many. And a lot of us don’t want to have to relive the rancor and negativity of the Clinton 1990s. This election is about facing the future, not regurgitating the past.
    And what is HRC doing? She has appointed Joy Philippi, past President of the National Pork Producers, as co-Chair of Rural Americans for Hillary. The NPC represents global, industrial agri- businesses in a time when many, many Americans hunger for a local, healthy food system built on humane and ecologically smart principles. Joy Philippi is strong evidence that HRC does not have a clue about what is happening on the ground in America’s communities with regard to food.
    Food, its contribution to health and community, is a concrete reality, a topic that everyone has some feelings about.
    Our nation is in the middle of a local food revolution (fueled by lack of confidence in food from abroad). HRC, indeed, virtually all the candidates are silent about this strong grassroots movement. This is a very big mistake.
    Whatever the future of the Democratic Party and our nation, I don’t think another corporate centrist that talks “free markets” while increasing subsidies to dysfunctional corporate enterprises like hog production and ethanol is the answer.
    Bill McDonough says, “if you want to go to Canada, but are heading toward Mexico at 100mph an hour. It doesn’t really help to slow down to 30. You are still going the wrong direction.”
    HRC doesn’t evidence any understanding of where history and the living Earth’s environment is taking us. We need to turn around and go in the right direction.

  3. Keith Roberts on

    What Bai calls Clintonism is nothing more than smart liberalism, constrained by the art of the possible. Traditional liberalism came to embrace a lot of dumb, bad policies, the faults of which experience and a better understanding of psychology, sociology, and economics have clarified. Clinton rejected the most obvious of those bad policies. He could not implement major replacement programs, however, because of the political climate he faced, a climate partly engendered by the old-line lefties whose advocacy for those stupid policies helped poison it.

  4. C.B. on

    The Clinton Referendum merely points out that at bottom the primaries are about whether Democrats want to side step Constitutional term limits and re-elect Bill Clinton (with Hillary as the front man).
    The question is, is it even good and proper for Democrats (and the country) to be asked to revisit the Clinton Presidency in this way?
    I think legacy presidencies are a bad idea to begin with (a la Bush) for many reasons. But here Bill Clinton has completely withdrawn his role a past president in order to play cut throat partisan politics. Which says a lot about who he really is and was. And in the end, there will be a referendum, not just on his presidency, but on them personally. No more Clintons. Enough!


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