(A Democratic) Party Like It’s Not 1999

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, June 2, 2008)


It might not have seemed evident at the time, but the roots of this year’s Democratic primary divide were already showing in the party’s 2000 nominating contest.

That race featured Vice President Al Gore arguing for a cautious continuation of the Clinton years, while former Senator Bill Bradley urged a return to the progressive values the party sometimes lost under the ├╝berpragmatism of Clintonism. “The time to fix your roof is when the sun is shining,” was a Bradley maxim throughout the campaign, as he advocated using the expected government surplus to fund health care, college scholarships for rural and inner-city students, infrastructure improvements, and Head Start and similar programs.

Of course, Gore prevailed, and the resulting race against George W. Bush featured debates focusing on the minutiae of which candidate’s targeted tax cuts would benefit which middle-class citizens, including the famous October debate in which the candidates agreed 32 times.

The argument that there was no difference between the parties was never true, but the limited ground on which that general-election campaign was fought made that idea seem more plausible than it should have. Bush has obviously been a far different president than the one he professed to be in the campaign, and the 2000 Gore campaign (though, as he has admirably and repeatedly proved in recent years, not Al Gore in general) declined to propose many big ideas or fight from a position of strength.

For better or worse, the legacy of the Clinton years was a shift in priorities for the Democratic Party away from the robust progressivism that was its hallmark for most of the 20th century and toward a more calculating, incremental, right-of-center approach to governing. There’s a tendency now to don the rose-colored glasses when looking at those years because of the debacle they preceded, but it’s worth remembering that there was a significant downside to those tactics.

While probably an above-average presidency overall, the Clinton Administration also represented a tremendous lost opportunity for Democrats, as many of the president’s most dramatic domestic-policy decisions were conservative ones pushed by the Republican Congress. Some of them — such as NAFTA, welfare “reform” and the Telecommunications Act — helped lay the groundwork for some of today’s growing economic disparities. For all the impressive growth of the overall economy in the 1990s, few middle- and working-class Americans saw their wages improve relative to inflation. To quote an oft-repeated joke from the ’90s, “Clinton has created half a million new jobs. I know; I’m working three of them.” And when a progressive idea met with too much opposition, Clinton tended to either drop it or swing the other direction. Gay rights are a prime example, where the president went from pushing for gays to work openly in the military, to creating “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule, to eventually signing the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act.

A list of Clinton’s progressive achievements on the homefront would be a surprisingly short one, consisting mostly of modest measures such as the Family Leave Act and the (since-expired) assault weapons ban. Die-hard Clintonites would argue that this was a necessity of the time. But after the disaster of the Bush presidency, that time is now clearly past; progressive Democrats haven’t been in position to claim a mandate for change this solidly since 1932.

That, as much as any other reason, is why Barack Obama should avoid the temptation of naming Hillary Clinton as his running mate and why the party leaders should be pleased he is their nominee. If “change” is to be the order of the day, the party must move beyond Clintonism almost as much as it must move the country past the Bush years.

To use a business term that flourished in the 1990s, the Democratic Party has undergone a major rebranding in the past decade. The progressivism that’s seemed relatively dormant (at least in the political mainstream), has begun to reassert itself in recent years. What’s old is new again. The invasion of Iraq helped prompt that, but Americans are also shifting leftward on crucial issues such as climate change, Social Security, and national health care. The party now does a better job of reflecting that.

Consider that in just a few years, the face of the party has changed from the Clintons, Terry McAuliffe, and the Democratic Leadership Council to three people the average American knew little about as recently as 2002. People from, to quote the late Paul Wellstone, the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.

Howard Dean, who as a candidate harnessed the Internet for fundraising and organizing in a way no one had before, and as DNC chairman has worked to build a party that can compete nationwide. Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking woman in American political history, a more experienced legislator than Senator Clinton, and a speaker whose role will only increase if Democrats expand their House majority as expected. And, of course, Obama, who has brought record numbers of first-time voters into the party while describing traditional Democratic goals as benefits for all Americans. Obama sometimes draws criticism for a platform heavy on standard Democratic policy, but such policies haven’t been seriously pursued at the presidential level in decades.

Plenty of smart Democrats, including the likes of Chuck Schumer and Ed Rendell, have suggested a joint ticket, and the notion gained loud applause at a debate in California just before Super Tuesday. Hillary Clinton’s incomprehensible invocation of Robert Kennedy’s assassination — and her utter refusal to apologize to Obama — probably closed the book on any chance she had of becoming vice president. (Not to mention the list of other questionable acts by the Clinton campaign during the primary season, which need not all be cited here). But it would’ve been a bad move anyway.

Historically, vice-presidential choices have balanced the ticket for electoral reasons. Al Gore was the Washington insider to Clinton’s outsider, Dick Cheney the experience to Bush’s lack thereof. But both were also active players in the running of the administrations, redefining the position and complementing the nominee’s philosophy of government. That’s where Obama’s and Clinton’s differences are too big to fit on the same ticket.

Already in his young career, there are numerous examples of Obama breaking with the political expediency of Clintonism in his approach to decision making.

Iraq is a perfect case, as Obama (like Dean) was against the Iraq invasion long before it was cool. In October 2002, he gave an impassioned speech at a downtown Chicago rally (the real-life one Bill Clinton called a “fairy tale”). These were Obama’s words: “What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income — to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression. That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.” Would that more Democrats had found a similar voice that year.

Contrast that with Senator Clinton, who has still never apologized for her support of the Iraq invasion — a vote that underscored either gullibility on the issue or a willingness to value political expediency over the severe consequences of an unprovoked attack. Even those who forgive her that vote should remember that just last September, she voted for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which — until the National Intelligence Estimate undercut it a few months later — provided President Bush a legislative basis for a tragic rerun with Iran.

In this year’s campaign, Obama has been willing to risk an audience’s discomfort on principle but not on politics. During a speech to a mostly African-American crowd in Texas, Obama drew silence when he listed gays and lesbians among those who deserve equality. Rather than move on and avoid the topic, he chastised the response, “Now I’m a Christian, and I praise Jesus every Sunday. I hear people saying things that I don’t think are very Christian with respect to people who are gay and lesbian.” Just recently, he told the virulently anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation that he would lessen restrictions on some travel and repatriation. As he said that day, it would’ve been easier to just repeat the same hard-line promises presidents have been making the group since Kennedy. Obama chose smart policy above smart politics.

How that courage translates to governing, of course, remains to be seen. But conditions are ideal for the Democratic base and the leaders who reflect it to put their ideas to the test. Bush has dug the country into a deep hole on several fronts, and voters are more likely to listen to different approaches. If they don’t enact their agenda now, progressive Democrats might not get an opportunity to lead for some time.

Voters have demonstrated that this is the time for new Democrats, not New Democrats. To borrow a phrase from 1992, it’s time for them to go. And for the new breed of leaders to get to work fixing the growing number of holes in America’s collective roof.

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