In 1972, Richard Nixon won reelection by dominating the Electoral College 520-17, destroying George McGovern by eighteen million votes. The Democrats bounced back in 1976, thanks to Watergate, but the victory papered over fatal weaknesses. Jimmy Carter lost every state west of the Missouri River except Texas and Hawai’i. Meanwhile, he won every state in the former Confederacy except Virginia. Whatever that election coalition was, it certainly wasn’t sustainable. He was defeated in 1980 by over eight million votes and carried only six states.
In 1984, Walter Mondale was crushed by a 525-13 Electoral College margin, and by seventeen million votes. He carried only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. In 1988, in what should have been a strong year for the out-party, Michael Dukakis was demolished 426-111 in the Electoral College, and by about seven million votes.
This is the context in which Bill Clinton rose as a political figure. He figured out a way to turn those numbers around, he won two presidential elections and held the White House for eight critical years in the midst of the high-water mark of the conservative-backlash Reagan Revolution. He put Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, thereby preserving constitutionally protected reproductive rights for women, among many other things.
The starting point for judging Clintonism is to put it in its historical context. The crime rate then was double what it is now. The welfare program, as it existed, was so vastly unpopular that it went a long way, by itself, toward explaining those lopsided presidential defeats the Democrats had suffered over the previous twenty years. The Rainbow Coalition that Jesse Jackson was promoting in those years has pretty much come into existence during the Obama Era, but it was a totally unrealistic recipe in 1984 or 1988 or 1992.
So, part of understanding the historical context is understanding why the Democrats were doing so poorly and why Clinton did so well.
Once Clinton was elected, he embarked on a pretty liberal agenda despite winning with only 43% of the vote. He had his successes (the stimulus package, gun regulations, the Family Leave Act) and his failures (settling for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, enacting universal health care), but he didn’t initially shrink from pushing a controversial and contentious left-wing agenda. His reward was low polling numbers and bruising defeats in the 1994 midterms that cost his party control of both houses of Congress.
We can debate the part NAFTA played in all this, and we can pick at the parts of the crime bill that we don’t like while ignoring the parts that were good enough to win the support of Rep. Bernie Sanders. But, the overall story of Clinton’s first two years was one of a mostly conventional Democrat pushing a broadly liberal agenda that had pent up after twelve years of Republicans in the White House.
Obviously, everything changed after the 1994 midterms and the emergence of Newt Gingrich as a political force. Clinton had to fight a defensive battle just to keep liberal priorities funded during multiple government shutdown battles. He was increasingly dogged by Kenneth Starr. Raising the money to match the millions flowing to the Republicans seemed like an all-consuming and potentially impossible task.
This is the context in which to fairly judge the last six years of the Clinton presidency.
When I compare the decisions Bill Clinton made to the decisions Barack Obama made in near-identical circumstances, it’s not a close call. Barack Obama did not bring in Dick Morris to advise him. Obama never signed anything as odious as the Welfare Reform Bill turned out to be. Obama did not give free rein to Wall Street to deregulate financial banking and the packaging of over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives.
Barack Obama also didn’t cheat on his wife with a White House intern, lie about it under oath, and force his political allies to rally to his defense. He didn’t fund the DNC with Chinese money or otherwise violate the spirit or the letter of campaign finance law.
Some of these decisions and failings were particular to Bill Clinton and don’t necessarily reflect on his wife. Others were defensive postures that made some sense at the time but don’t really apply to the current political climate. What’s clear in retrospect is that Bill Clinton acted one way when he had congressional majorities and another way when he did not. Liberals liked the Clinton with congressional majorities a lot better than they liked the Clinton who was fighting Gingrich and Dole and Starr. The important point for today is that context matters a lot, and so does character.
Clinton did not come into office looking to sell out the New Deal. He enacted Family Leave and tried to give everyone health care. Insofar as he punched some hippies to get elected, that coalition needed a bit of a reality check. They have the numbers to win a presidential election today, but they did not have the numbers in 1992 or 1996. By 2008, the same demographics that were so weak in 1988 were strong enough that Michael Dukakis might have won. Today, I’m pretty sure Dukakis’s coalition has grown big enough that he would win.
So, lesson one is that the Democrats don’t need to be running the same kind of defensive campaign that the party ran in 1992. Lesson two is that we can’t apply current standards to condemn the choices that were made twenty-four years ago.
Bill Clinton had (and has) many faults, but he didn’t cause the ascendancy of conservatism in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and he found a way to win twice in that hostile climate. In doing so, he left a legacy that in some ways weakened the left, but I can’t even imagine what this country would look like if the Republicans had held the White House from 1981 to 2001.
The Democratic Leadership Council is no more. It’s not needed anymore. It would be a mistake to think that Hillary Clinton is running to revive it. She’s running to win the nomination of a party that exists, not a party that existed a quarter century ago.
She’s on track to succeed, despite the shellacking she took this past weekend.
If you want to know why most Democrats are supporting her, you need to understand that most Democrats see a lot more of this side of the story than they see the side being promoted by the Sanders side of the battle.
That doesn’t mean young people are wrong to prefer Sanders. They have no reason to prefer the policies of the 1990’s. They have reason to resent a lot of the product of those years. But older people, who lived through those battles, know that it’s a complicated story.
I’ve always been a Rainbow Coalition kind of guy, and I’m happy to be in the ascendency now. That doesn’t mean I’m completely ungrateful that someone was willing and able to figure out how to win when my side was too weak to prevail.
The choice between Clinton and Sanders is not a choice between today and 1992; it’s a choice about who you think is best prepared to be president and who can win by the biggest margin. It’s also a bet, or a gamble on how much change you think the system can bear. And it’s a guess about which candidate can get more out of a reluctant Congress.
It’s no easy choice, and I don’t want to pretend that it is, but it’s not a choice between good and evil, and it’s not obvious who is right.