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.
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