During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama famously compared his potential presidency to that of Ronald Reagan, saying that the Gipper had “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” Reporters at the time saw this as a none-too-subtle jab at his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton. His supporters saw it as a legitimate description of what they anticipated would be his game-changing administration.
Looking back on his first five years as president, Obama can brag about several extraordinary accomplishments, like saving us from another Great Depression and passing health care reform, troubled as that program still is. But it’s hard to make the case that he “changed the trajectory of America” the way Reagan did. He didn’t usher in a glorious new age of liberalism, as his supporters on the left hoped. Nor did he overcome partisan divisions in Washington, as he vowed to do. Rather, what’s more and more clear to everyone (and was obvious to anyone who was paying attention to Obama’s actual policy positions back in 2008) is that Obama is a political pragmatist more or less in the Clinton mold. As the Washington Monthly’s chief blogger Ed Kilgore put it last fall,
It’s really not that easy to find major differences between the governing philosophy of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Both have had to deal with uncooperative Republicans who controlled parts of the federal government. Both have juggled uses of limited force with multilateral diplomacy in foreign policy. Both chose (partly by necessity, but partly by predilection) to treat the private sector as a partner and sometimes vehicle for achieving large public policy objectives. Both on more than one occasion angered their party’s progressive activist “base,” and have had to deal with accusations of betrayal by Democratic members of Congress.
One might add that Obama also filled his administration with veterans of the Clinton administration, one of whom, Hillary Clinton, is almost certainly running for president in 2016. If she wins, historians will look back on the period from 1992 to 2020—and maybe beyond—as an era during which, for all but eight years (the “W. Interregnum”), someone named Clinton or a Clinton fellow traveler controlled the White House. If that era is given a name, it will probably not be Obama’s.
So it’s worth revisiting how Bill Clinton came to power in 1992 and what “Clintonism” really means. A good place to begin is The New Democrats and the Return to Power, a new memoir by Al From, founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, the organization Bill Clinton chaired in 1990 and 1991 and used as a stepping stone for his run for the presidency.
The DLC’s reputation among liberals was (and is) of a group set on repositioning the Democratic Party to the center and even the center right. There’s some truth in that. The elected officials who helped From found the organization—Charles Robb, Lawton Chiles, Sam Nunn, Al Gore, and the largely forgotten Representative Gillis Long of Louisiana, for whom From worked in the early 1980s and credits with being “the godfather of the New Democratic movement”—were mostly southerners eager to remain viable as their constituents moved steadily toward the Republican Party. But most of the DLCers also had strong progressive roots—From’s first job out of college in 1966 was evaluating War on Poverty programs in the Deep South for Sargent Shriver—and ideological positioning was less the point than the by-product of the DLC’s bluntly political aim. “From day one,” From writes, “the clear mission of the DLC was to forge a forward-looking national agenda that would make the Democrats competitive again in national elections.”
That a new agenda was needed cannot be denied. Going into 1992, From reminds us, the Democrats had lost five of six presidential elections. In the previous three (’80, ’84, and ’88), they’d garnered a smaller percentage of the Electoral College vote than any party had done in a three-election stretch since 1828. Electorally, the Democrats had become the party of educated liberal elites and minorities and were losing the support of middle- and working-class whites and young voters, who felt the party was not delivering opportunity or reflecting their values.
To win those voters back, the DLC and its partner think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, chose to challenge Republicans at the level of ideas. Sometimes that meant stealing conservative policies for progressive ends—for instance, agreeing that traditional welfare (AFDC) needed to be reformed, but also calling for a vast increase in the GOP-originated Earned Income Tax Credit, which sends government checks to low-income workers, thus making work a better deal than welfare. Sometimes it meant contesting political real estate the right thought it owned, like patriotism. Hence the DLC became an early champion of universal national service (civilian as well as military) with a GI Bill-style college stipend, combined with new student loans repayable as a percentage of a student’s future income (the latter would allow a person to choose a lower-paying public service career without fear of bankruptcy).
These ideas promised not only to solve discrete problems (college affordability, welfare dependency) but also to exemplify a larger New Democratic philosophy of reciprocal citizenship. Clinton would later describe this philosophy as a “new covenant” between the citizen and the government. The government’s responsibility is to provide opportunity for all citizens, but citizens have the responsibility to use those opportunities and give something back to the larger American community. Those three words—opportunity, responsibility, community—would define Clinton’s presidency. When I joined the Clinton White House in 1998 I was instructed to invoke that trinity in virtually every speech I wrote.
While From and the DLC deserve credit for pulling together and packaging these ideas in ways that allowed Bill Clinton and other Democrats to gain power and govern, the ideas didn’t come from nowhere. Before there were the New Democrats, there were the “neoliberals,” a loose group of politicians, policy intellectuals, and journalists who, in the 1970s and early ’80s, in publications like the New Republic and especially the Washington Monthly, challenged both ascendant conservatism and what they saw as the failings of liberalism. Many if not most of the DLC’s ideas were first hashed out in the pages of the Washington Monthly: national service and income-contingent loans; the need for better performance from government bureaucracies and for liberals to take violent crime seriously; improving American competitiveness by tying worker and executive compensation to performance; pushing the Pentagon to buy more “off the shelf” weaponry while getting Europe and Japan to assume a greater share of allied defense burdens; and the need to cut government spending that wasted taxpayer dollars without serving progressive ends. These ideas had already developed significant currency among politicos and policy wonks before the DLC opened its doors in 1985. Indeed, in the mid-’80s Bill Clinton, himself an early subscriber to the magazine, sent the Monthly’s founding editor, Charles Peters, a letter complaining that a story on school reform had failed to mention the efforts that he and Hillary had made in Arkansas.
The Monthly in those days didn’t give much thought to the political salability of its ideas. When I was a young editor here in 1986 through 1988, Charlie used to tell us that our job was to “plant the flag”—that is, to stake out the policy position that was best for the country, regardless of what conventional Washington thought. We should not be like “those Brookings people,” he would say, trimming our sails in order to be seen as respectable. Indeed, Charlie pushed a few ideas that were so (how to put this?) idiosyncratic—like turning half of all federal civil service jobs into patronage positions, the better to make the bureaucracy more responsive to the will of the voters—that the typical congressman desperate to get through the next election could be forgiven for looking elsewhere for his policy ideas. In ushering in the new political era, Charlie was the prophet, writing fiery sermons on how the country had gone astray and how it could return to the path of righteousness. Al From was the strategist, crafting practical memos for politicians on how to gain power.
Still, I wish From and Clinton had followed some of the Monthly’s lonelier crusades. All during the 1990s the magazine remained an unfashionable defender of strong government regulations. When the DLC and the Clinton administration were supporting deregulation of the financial markets, the Monthly was publishing pieces like Senator Byron Dorgan’s 1994 cover story warning that complex derivatives could wreak havoc on the economy and that federally insured banks should be banned from taking part in that market.
On balance, Clinton was well served by his association with the DLC. But the New Democratic identity was never a perfect fit. From reveals that Sam Nunn resisted offering Clinton the DLC chairmanship because he thought the Arkansas governor was too liberal. And in 1992 Clinton ran a much more populist campaign than many people remember. “The rich get the gold mine and the middle class gets the shaft,” he would say on the campaign trail. “It’s wrong and it’s going to ruin the country.” That populist message faded away after the election, in part because he chose an economic plan in 1993 that relied more on centrist deficit reduction than on stimulus, and in part because, ultimately, his policies—including higher taxes on the wealthy—actually worked. The economy boomed, incomes for the poor and the middle class grew, and the trend toward income inequality abated, at least for a while.
The big question these days is whether Hillary, in a second presidential run, would be seen as a Wall Street-friendly centrist out of step with the populist energy that is clearly on the rise among Democrats. The answer, I think, is that she is not an idiot. In the 1980s she was challenging the Arkansas teachers’ unions even as she chaired the left-liberal Children’s Defense Fund. And in 2000 she won over voters in economically hard-hit upstate New York in a Senate campaign run by Bill de Blasio, the new progressive mayor of New York.
If Hillary runs in 2016, I don’t expect her to do so strictly as a New Democrat. Times have changed. The white southern conservatives that Bill Clinton won over in 1992 and 1996 are for the most part no longer getable for any Democrat and are less needed now that demographic groups like Hispanics, Millennials, and college-educated white women are in the Democratic camp. (The GOP’s now the party with a shrinking electoral base.)
Yet while a growing number of Democrats self-identify today as liberals, they are still a minority within their own party. Most Democratic voters are moderate or conservative, and those voters generally love Hillary. What she needs is not so much to “move left” but to champion a set of new ideas—ones that pull together that liberal-moderate coalition and have a good shot at solving the unique set of problems the country now faces.
The best way to boost the incomes of average Americans, for example, is to reverse the health care cost increases that have been robbing them of the wage increases they should have been getting for years. The way to do that, as Phillip Longman and Paul Hewitt explain in the current issue, is to bring stronger antitrust actions against hospital monopolies that use their market power to jack up prices, and to implement policies that make those prices uniform and transparent, thereby creating for the first time a functioning competitive health care marketplace. And the best way to fight the power of corporate interests in Washington, as Haley Sweetland Edwards shows, is to appoint judges who will overturn absurd and dangerous decisions by conservative jurists that give corporations the same standing as people when it comes to constitutional protections like the First Amendment.
The essence of “Clintonism” is not the particular policies Bill Clinton championed in 1992. It is the wisdom of seeing that as times change, new ideas are needed to achieve progressive ends, and the skill of finding policies that hit the sweet spot of working both politically and in practice.