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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

May 28: Claiming Democrats Have Moved Far Left Since Bill Clinton Just Doesn’t Work

Going into every election cycle, Republicans worried about their party’s extremism and MSM types determined to maintain equivalency between the two parties on every front both engage in an attempted demonstration that Democrats are moving far to the left. Usually Bill Clinton is used as some sort of benchmark of what is not “left,” though Republicans attacked him for alleged extremism as well.
We had a particularly weak example of this meme in a New York Times op-ed by conservative policy writer and occasional intraparty critic Peter Wehner, as I noted at Washington Monthly:

Ignoring the fact that most actual lefty Democrats think Barack Obama is too much like Bill Clinton, Wehner’s case almost entirely depends on contrasting the noble centrist Big Dog (who, of course, conservatives denounced as a godless socialist when he was actually in office) with the left-bent Obama.
And it’s a really terrible argument. Exhibit one for Wehner involves Clinton’s support for three-strikes-and-you’re-out and 100,000 cops, as though they are the same thing, with Eric Holder’s de-incarceration commitment. Keep up, Pete: Clinton, along with two-thirds of the Republican presidential field, has called for a reversal of “mass incarceration” policies. It’s not an ideological move in either direction so much as a rare and belated bipartisan recognition of what does and doesn’t work.
Exhibit two is welfare reform, and aside from ignoring everything Clinton did on low-income economic policy other than signing the 1996 welfare law, Wehner blandly accepts the race-drenched lie–and he’s smart enough to know that it is indeed widely interpreted to be a lie–from the 2012 Romney campaign that Obama has “loosened welfare-to-work requirements.” Then he tries to pivot to a contrast of Clinton’s shutdown of the “welfare entitlement” with Obama’s creation of a health care entitlement–without noting that Clinton had a health care proposal that was distinctly more “liberal” than Obama’s. Pretty big omission, I’d say.
It gets worse. Wehner suggests that unlike Clinton Obama wants to boost taxes on the wealthy, which conveniently ignores Clinton’s first budget. Speaking of the budget, Obama’s fiscal record is contrasted with Clinton’s without noting that Obama inherited not only a huge deficit but the worst economy since the 1930s. Wehner makes a fact-free assertion that Obama isn’t as friendly towards U.S. allies as Clinton was. And in a telling maneuver, he suddenly shifts the contrast from Clinton-versus-Obama to Clinton-versus-Clinton in mentioning the dispute over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, where HRC has been “non-committal.” Well, the crazy lefty Barack Obama hasn’t been “non-committal,” has he? Yes, a majority of congressional Democrats oppose him on TPP. But a majority of congressional Democrats also opposed Clinton on NAFTA and GATT, and denied him “fast-track” trade negotiating authority. Plus ca change….
Nonetheless, Wehner stumbles on to his pre-fab conclusion:

The Democratic Party is now a pre-Bill Clinton party, the result of Mr. Obama’s own ideological predilections and the coalition he has built.

In the very next breath he acknowledges that on the one issue where the Democratic Party really has “moved to the left,” same-sex marriage, the country has moved with it (and the “pre-Bill Clinton” Democratic Party had to move as well). And then he leaps to the circular argument that Republicans must be better representing the “center” of public opinion, because they’re doing so well in midterms!

I suspect Wehner’s object in the op-ed was to sanitize any criticism he might have of his own party in the immediate future. Others use the meme to claim the “center” for the GOP strictly by way of comparative extremism. Either way, the facts just are no friendly to the case, and are not getting any friendlier with the passage of time.

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