Damage Control

On reading Paul Glastris’ Editor’s Note for the March/April issue of the Monthly, entitled “Clinton’s Third Term,” I figured some of the progressive readers who didn’t agree with his cover article, “The Incomplete Greatness of Barack Obama,” might well nod their heads, and think, “Yep, this is Clinton’s third term, and that’s the problem!”

Some may have forgotten by now, but Clinton’s presidency was surrounded by a lot of the same intra-progressive arguments as Obama’s, and for some of the same reasons. Just as Obama’s 2008 campaign was interpreted by some as a bold series of promises to strike out in a more distinctly progressive direction, and by others as advancing a notably centrist message and policy agenda, many of Clinton’s original backers (e.g., Robert Reich) thought he sold liberals a bill of goods in 1992 and then abandoned his platform at the first sign of trouble, while others thought if anything he was too conventionally liberal in his first year in office after campaigning as “a different kind of Democrat.” Just as many Democrats (probably all of us at one point or another) have found fault with Obama’s way of dealing with Republican obstruction, the same was true of Clinton, particularly his “the era of big government is over” statement as he began his re-election campaign.

Some of these disputes were and are over policy and some over politics. But as we look ahead to Obama’s re-election campaign and a prospective second term, it ultimately does come down to what sort of legacy progressives expect presidents to achieve in tough times (economic and political). One of the more striking assessments of Clinton’s legacy was by Howard Dean in a major campaign address in early 2004, when he described the former president’s accomplishment as little more than “damage control.” As part of his signature injunction to Democrats to exhibit more “fight,” Dean clearly thought consolidation of past progressive accomplishments and the defeat of conservative efforts to reverse them simply was not enough.

If Obama is re-elected, I suspect we’ll see a return and and even an intensification of the same kind of debate, once the euphoria of victory fades. Unless the victory is a lot more sweeping (not just defense of the White House and the Senate or even a takeover of the House, but a return to the kind of margins Democrats enjoyed after 2008) than much of anyone now expects, we will again be arguing over the value of “damage control.” I’m already on record suggesting we’d better get used to lower expectations, and even learn to express some pride over the ability to stop a truly desperate conservative movement and GOP that is determined to create as much wreckage in the public sector as possible before demographic realities force them to change their own strategy or become a semi-permanent minority party. Moreover, as Paul notes in his cover article, the very quality of Obama’s accomplishments depends on “damage control,” since many of them, including health reform, can be easily undone.

In many respects, both the Clinton and Obama administrations, with their overlapping staffs and agendas, exhibit the difficulty of simultaneously preserving, reforming and extending the New Deal and Great Society legacies in a period of globalization and rapid cultural change, against a well-financed and emotionally charged coalition of the Right. It’s been a tough twenty years, all right, and everyone involved probably does (and definitely should) have some regrets about lost progressive opportunities, compromises that gave up too much for too little in exchange, and excessively rationalized complicity with corrupt systems from the financing of campaigns to the Senate’s filibuster rules.

It’s probably healthy, though, to view the Clinton and Obama years–and their relationship to the long national slide into inequality, debt, constitutional erosion and unnecessary wars of the Bush era–as part of a continuing struggle, and a continuing debate.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.