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January 03, 2014 1:40 PM Clintonism and Populism

By Ed Kilgore

Since it appears the punditocracy has decreed that a “struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party” between “populists” and “centrists” will be one of the Big Stories of 2014, it is important that the intensity of this “struggle” reflect the actual battle of ideas, substantive and political, and not some artificial construct of Irrepressible Conflict based on questionable history. So this passage from a Atlantic column by Peter Beinart positing John Edwards as the forgotten tribune of “populism” caught my attention:

Edwards, of course, was not the first national politician to decry the gap between rich and poor. As Garance Franke-Ruta noted last September, de Blasio’s “two cities” theme echoes Mario Cuomo’s 1984 Democratic convention keynote and, almost a century before that, William Jennings Bryan’s legendary “Cross of Gold” speech. But after Cuomo, the balance of power inside the Democratic Party shifted toward New Democratic politicians like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Evan Bayh, and Chuck Robb and centrist strategists like Mark Penn and Bruce Reed, who generally avoided the language of class and instead focused on proving that Democrats could foster economic growth.
It was Edwards, during his 2004 presidential run, who returned the focus to inequality by flipping Clintonism on its head. In his 1992 campaign, Clinton had talked a lot about “rewarding work.” Democrats, he insisted, would help people who “played by the rules”—for instance, via an expanded earned income tax credit for the working poor—but they would stop coddling welfare recipients. In 2004, Edwards took that judgmental tone but redirected it. In his narrative, the people disrespecting work were not welfare mothers but trust funders, people who lived off their investments rather than the sweat of their brow.

As it happens, I was working at the Democratic Leadership Council (where Bruce Reed was president) during the 2004 campaign, and I am reasonably sure that Bruce was writing every other word that came out of John Edwards’ mouth. If Edwards was “flipping Clintonism on its head,” one of Clintonism’s chief rhetoricians was doing (or at least cooperating in) all that flipping. And beyond his work for Edwards (and later for the Kerry/Edwards ticket), Bruce was famous in those days for his relentless “populist” attacks on Washington and lobbyists and Washington lobbyists, to the despair of the DLC’s fundraisers.

I raise this not to emphasize Bruce Reed’s importance to Edwards (or for that matter, to “Clintonism”) but to challenge the sort of lazy revisionist history whereby the Clintons and their allies opposed everything progressive and “populist” as part of an effort to triangulate their way to an essentially bipartisan “pro-corporate” agenda. You know, just like Obama, who embraced the Clinton legacy in a betrayal of his 2008 nomination campaign supporters.

There was always a populist undertone to Clinton’s rhetoric about opportunity, based on a relentless recitation of middle-class grievances against a government that honored privilege and influence rather than honest work. True, it was a distinctively southern populism, which meant it went with a recognition of the basic legitimacy of business interests as part of a system of regulated capitalism, and yes, Clinton and most of his advisers avoided the kind of corporation-bashing many liberals craved (even as, in a much more significant action, they abetted a degree of financial deregulation that wrought terrible damage later on). But let’s not exaggerate: Bill Clinton could and often did savage the GOP’s reverse-Robin Hood-agenda, in and out of office. And Clintonians (with the exception of some Blue Doggy types) opposed George W. Bush’s economic proposals—particularly the 2001 tax cuts and such atavistic features as the abolition of inheritance taxes—as lustily as other Democrats. Hell, I was writing a lot of the DLC’s material during that period, and was bashing the malefactors of great wealth pretty regularly (as my Clintonian colleague Will Marshall put it at the time: “George W. Bush has made us all populists.”). I can say with great assurance that Mark Penn didn’t much like it, but he never defined “Clintonism” even when he was its mouthpiece.

So Edwards didn’t so much “flip Clintonism on its head” as change its emphasis, but at a time when all Democrats were voicing alarm at growing inequality, the attempted shredding of the safety net, the evisceration of progressive taxation, and a White House devoted to the economic policies (and performance) of the 1980s or worse.

It’s true that in his 2008 campaign Edwards became (or tried to become) the factional candidate of the Democratic Left, but his actual policies weren’t all that distinctive, and his candidacy quickly fizzled after the five years he devoted to Iowa failed to pay off in a Caucus victory.

In any event, it should be clear in retrospect that “populism” wasn’t rediscovered by John Edwards; it was there all along, more or less prominent in Democratic rhetoric across the party. If “Clintonians” sometimes warned against “populist” excesses, it was mainly because (a) they thought lefty populists advocated a level of government activism that didn’t take into account the very real—and “populist”—tradition of American hostility to government, and (b) they didn’t think “populist” policies would work in the real world.

What does this history mean now? I’d say “populists” and “centrists” need to more clearly examine their common ground before establishing battlegrounds, and in particularly separate arguments over political strategy from arguments over substantive policy. “Clintonians” have a special responsibility to ponder the consequences of some of Bill’s relatively pro-corporate policies (not universally shared by “Clintonians,” I might add, as noted by Paul Glatris in his Editor’s Note for WaMo’s January-February issue). In terms of the immediate future leadership of the Democratic Party, which is likely to be in the hands of another Clinton, I think Paul has probably got it right:

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.
Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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