The Clinton Paradox

Duncan Currie | The Weekly Standard | Monday, March 21, 2005

The Clinton Paradox

BILL CLINTON has always bedeviled simple ideological classification. His presidency bore this out in spades. Clinton began in 1993 by tacking left--gays in the military, a big tax hike, national health care, the assault-weapons ban (NAFTA was a key exception). Then, post-1994, he lurched rightward to accommodate a GOP-led Congress--welfare reform, the Defense of Marriage Act, a capital gains tax cut, a balanced budget. And he capped it off with a center-left flurry--Medicare coverage for the "near-elderly," the Kyoto Protocol, outreach to Iran, outreach to North Korea, the International Criminal Court. Conservatives often paint Clinton as a left-wing ideologue. That misses the mark. Better to call him a liberal-leaning pragmatist.

But if you judged Clinton solely on his 1992 presidential campaign, you might well deem him a born-again conservative: a watered-down Joe Lieberman with panache. Which is why, when Democrats and liberal pundits yearn for "another Bill Clinton" to lead their party out of its doldrums, they're only being half-serious.

What they want, one assumes, is a charming, charismatic, good-looking, and eloquent partisan who appeals at once to both blue-state Deaniacs and red-state moderates. That sure sounds like Clinton, the Democrat who twice carried Ohio, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Arkansas (his home state), Tennessee (Al Gore's home state), Kentucky, Missouri, Louisiana, Nevada, and New Mexico. (Admittedly, Clinton benefited greatly from Ross Perot's independent insurgency.)

But it's necessary to separate Clinton's political personality from his political message. That is, take away Clinton's charm, charisma, looks, and dazzling rhetorical skills. (And, for that matter, take away his philandering, perjuring, and general moral opprobrium.) Then appraise his 1992 White House bid. Could any Democrat today run such a conservative-friendly campaign and still win his party's nomination?

The answer, in all likelihood, is no. Between Clinton's election and Howard Dean's ascension to Democratic National Committee chairman, the party's base shifted. These days, the most robust Democratic activism occurs on the grassroots left, not the intellectual center. In retrospect, then, Clinton's '92 candidacy looks remarkably conservative.

Let's review how Clinton cast himself. He was a "New Democrat," the poster boy of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). He favored middle-class tax relief and free trade. He boldly took on Sister Souljah and the party's race-baiting elements. He supported capital punishment--indeed, he left the campaign trail to approve the Arkansas execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a brain-damaged black man. Clinton backed welfare reform, vowing to end the federal program "as we know it." He even threw a bone to pro-lifers (albeit a meaningless one), pledging to make abortion "safe, legal, and rare."

In foreign policy, Clinton got to President George H.W. Bush's right on a bevy of issues--including Iraq, Russia, China, and the Balkans. (His running mate, then-senator Al Gore of Tennessee, was one of only 10 Senate Democrats to vote for Operation Desert Storm in January 1991.) Clinton struck such a center-right pose, in fact, that he won some surprising friends. In August 1992, 33 neoconservative and centrist foreign policy mavens took out a half-page ad in the New York Times and the Washington Post endorsing Clinton. Among other things, the ad praised Clinton for "stating his opposition to the brutal and archaic communist dictatorship in Beijing" and for embracing "authentic democrats in the society of the former Soviet Union." Two of the ad's signatories, Joshua Muravchik and Penn Kemble, also helped Clinton craft the chief foreign policy speech of his campaign.

Could so relatively hawkish a Democrat capture the party's nomination in 2008? It's not out of the question. As Ramesh Ponnuru has noted in National Review: "During the last nine presidential elections, Democrats have run hawkish candidates three times--in 1992, 1996, and 2000. It cannot be a coincidence that these were the three elections of those nine in which foreign-policy issues were least important, and in which people felt least threatened by foreigners." A hawkish Democrat's "best chance of winning" his party's presidential nomination, Ponnuru speculates, may be when "foreign-policy issues recede in importance." Given the near certainty that foreign policy and the war on terror will still be dominant concerns in 2008, hawkish Dems face an uphill battle.

On the other hand, primaries often turn into follow-the-leader games. Thus, in 2003, Dean pulled the entire Democratic field to the left, both on the Iraq war and much else. And if Hillary Clinton supports a robust policy of fighting terrorists and emerges as the early frontrunner, her rivals may race to play catch up. We could wind up with the Democratic '08ers trying to out-hawk each other.

(But it's more likely that Hillary is the exception rather than the rule. Just as only Richard Nixon could "go to China," only Hillary can sound so hawkish in wartime and still keep the Democratic base in tow. Her longstanding liberal bona fides allow her to test the water in a way other candidates can't. The same holds for her recent hedging on abortion.)

Bill Clinton's foreign-policy posture in 1992 compares strikingly to those of Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt in 2004. All three ran as hawks. And we know how Lieberman and Gephardt fared in last year's Democratic primaries. Neither won a single delegate. Meanwhile, Al Sharpton won 27 delegates and Dennis Kucinich won 68. Gephardt bowed out after Iowa (where he wound up a measly fourth). Lieberman stayed in the race a bit longer, only to finish behind Sharpton in South Carolina.

Now, the differences between Clinton and Lieberman/Gephardt are obvious and numerous. Clinton radiates warmth and pizzazz. The latter two, to put it mildly, don't. Clinton is a compelling public speaker. The latter two are soporific and decidedly void of charisma. Clinton attracted a bevy of Democratic constituencies. Lieberman appealed narrowly to centrists and latent conservatives, while Gephardt stood for the now-defunct New Deal/Fair Deal coalition of Big Labor and liberal hawks.

In short, Lieberman and Gephardt were skilled legislators but wildly mediocre candidates. The DLC-bred Clinton was a political maestro: a once-in-a-generation natural who melded a wonkish command of the issues with a magnetic allure that drove Republicans batty. Which explains liberals' enduring fascination with Clinton: They want a nominee with Clinton's charisma and electoral viability, but minus his me-too-ish centrism on the issues. The centrist DLC--the intellectual hatching ground of Clinton's '92 campaign--lacks street cred with the Democratic party's base.

And that base wields real power (witness Dean's rise to party chairman). Thanks to the work of organizers, activists, and bloggers, the Democrats are in the throes of a bottom-up revolt. Their public face is now a man who claims to "hate the Republicans and everything they stand for." As the Economist recently put it, "The Dean chairmanship shows how little Mr. Clinton actually managed to change his party."


Duncan Currie is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.


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