Lessons from Bill Clinton for the Post-Trump GOP

For GOP moderates and would-be Republican Party reformers, the 2016 presidential election is now a disaster beyond repair. Despite growing talk of a “brokered” convention, the party’s two most likely nominees are still Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz – one a trainwreck of a reality TV star and the other a favorite son of the Tea Party.

But when the moment finally comes to sift through the wreckage, the best guidance for GOP reformers might come from Democrats: in particular, the 1992 campaign of former President Bill Clinton.

Crashing the Party, a new documentary chronicling Clinton’s ascent from unknown governor to President, is must-watch viewing for Republican reformers, were they to undertake the project of reform from within (and assuming anyone’s left to do so). But the film also shows just how far Republicans have to go – potentially decades – before the rebuilding of a post-Trump GOP can succeed.

As Crashing the Party points out, it wasn’t so long ago that the Democratic Party was itself in dire electoral straits.

In November 1988, Democrats had suffered their third straight humiliation at the presidential polls, with the defeat of Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis to George H.W. Bush. Before then, President Ronald Reagan had won crushing victories over both Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Walter Mondale in 1984. In fact, the only state Mondale managed to win was his home state of Minnesota, along with the District of Columbia. Reagan’s electoral victory over Mondale was absolute, 525 to 13, and Dukakis’ performance against Bush was little better, 426 to 111.

Yet just four years after Dukakis’ loss, Clinton managed to wrest the White House into Democratic hands.

The behind-the-scenes story of the how and why of Clinton’s victory in 1992 is the focus of Crashing the Party, which premiered last weekend at the Annapolis Film Festival. The bulk of the film documents the instrumental role of the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the organization founded by Al From that first plucked Clinton from obscurity, provided him with a national platform and groomed him for his run at the presidency.

Among other factors, the film argues, the success of Clinton’s 1992 campaign depended upon three crucial ingredients: ideas, infrastructure and clarity of political mission. These are the same three ingredients that the GOP establishment currently fails to possess – and a big part of why it’s so far been unable to offer a viable alternative to Trump on the one hand and the Tea Party on the other.

Clinton’s slate of ideas, developed by the DLC and its affiliated think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), were intended to set Clinton and his fellow “New Democrats” apart from standard-issue Democrats of the era. (Disclosure: I was a staffer for PPI from 2000 to 2003 and remain a PPI Senior Fellow.)

Among the ideas espoused by the New Democrats – some of which sound dated today but many of which are now part of the progressive bloodstream – were national service, community policing, welfare reform, and “making work pay” by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income families. Unlike other Democrats, the New Democrats focused on “reinventing” government, not just expanding it. And in contrast to Dukakis, assailed as both soft on crime and soft on defense – a perception bolstered by his ill-fated photo op in a tank – the New Democrats were relatively hawkish on crime and national security.

The New Democrat mantra of “opportunity, responsibility and community” – which again might sound cliché today – was a radical effort to reject the “tax and spend” branding that saddled Democrats at the time. It was enough for Clinton to win back the “Reagan Democrats” and the white working class – the same groups vulnerable to Trump’s appeal today.

The second major advantage that the DLC provided Clinton was infrastructure: a robust network of federal, state and local policymakers ready to amplify the New Democratic platform and to serve as a beachhead within the Democratic Party establishment. These figures included such heavyweights as Virginia Gov. Chuck Robb, Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, eventual Vice Presidential nominee Al Gore and Rep. Dick Gephardt. Over time, the DLC coalition in Congress included dozens of House members and senators, many of them from suburban swing districts and purple states and who had felt excluded from the shrinking Democratic tent of the 1980s.

Among the innovations of the DLC was to create an annual “national conversation,” which brought together elected officials at all levels of government to cross-pollinate ideas and helped incubate up-and-coming talent. A number of the state and local officials who took part of these early efforts are now on the national stage, including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell and even Vice President Joe Biden.

But while Crashing the Party is useful guidance for Republicans eager to rebuild their brand, it will be many years before there is an “RLC” capable of restoring the GOP’s credibility.

For one thing, today’s mainstream GOP is bereft of fresh ideas that can capture the broad middle of the electorate. By spending the last eight years either opposing President Obama’s policies or pandering to the far right, Republicans have forgotten how to offer proactive solutions of their own. Obstruction is not an agenda.
Moreover, the few ideas on social policy that have emerged from House Speaker Paul Ryan and cultural conservatives around welfare reform have done little more than to reinforce perceptions of a tightfisted, mean brand of conservatism out of step with the suffering of ordinary Americans.

Nor does the GOP reform “movement” – such as there is – have a coherent infrastructure and network that can draw together likeminded thinkers and policymakers into an organized force. While the so-called “reformicons” have won some attention, they are still little more than a loosely organized group of think tankers and writers. They have no discernible power base among elected officials, no network of powerful supporters and spokesmen, and certainly no standard-bearer equivalent to Bill Clinton.

But the most powerful missing ingredient might be the lack of political clarity. The DLC was founded in 1985 as the culmination of years of frustration with the Democratic Party’s increasingly narrow tilt. But it wasn’t until that third straight loss with Dukakis that the DLC was able to make its case that a presidency could not be won simply by mobilizing narrow constituencies and catering to special interests. Moderates and the middle class had to be part of the coalition.

In that sense, the best thing that could happen for the GOP this November is to lose – to let Trump or Cruz be the Republicans’ Dukakis and to suffer a crushing defeat. That alone could propel the GOP’s nascent efforts at reform from “lost cause” to a true “movement.” While the ultimate result could be more discomfort for Democrats, a new, reform-minded GOP would still be a benefit for democracy.