In September, 2004, then Democratic presidential contender John Kerry desperately searched for a message and a way to re jumpstart a lagging campaign. He did the politically smart thing. He called on Bill Clinton for advice. Clinton laid out his blueprint for Kerry in a long winded brain storm session from his hospital bed where he was scheduled to undergo heart surgery. The first part of the blueprint was to play to Democratic Party strengths. Those strengths were well known; talk more jobs, more funding for health care and higher wages for more Americans.
And equally important, dispel the deep, pervasive, and self-defeating perception that the Democratic Party had swerved to far toward minorities, affirmative action, big government spending on education and social programs, and had ignored the needs of middle and working class whites. This non-racial, centrist pitch did not threaten or alienate the white middle-class, and was plainly designed to blunt the standard Republican rap that Democrats pander to special interests, i.e. minorities. Clinton had fine tuned and retooled these pet Republican themes during his stint as chair of the centrist-conservative Democratic Leadership Council.
Liberal and activist Democrats roundly denounced the Clinton blueprint as bending over too far to the right. Many black Democrats saw this approach as abandonment and a betrayal of the Democrat's historic emphasis on expanded, activist government, full spending on social programs, civil rights advocacy, sensitivity toward minorities, and women, and the poor and military restraint. But Clinton correctly recognized that the Democrats had been beaten to the punch so often by the Republicans that millions of Americans felt alienated, and frustrated at the Democrats failure to present an alternative program for middle-America. The Democrats had simply failed to see that times and the public mood had changed. The Republicans had capitalized on it and parlayed their frustration into victory after victory, up to an including tightening its lock on the White House.
The emphasis just had to be packaged differently, in a non confrontational, nor divisive way that stripped it of the emotionalism that played into the GOP's hands and permitted it to continue to pulverize them as irresponsible, tax and spend politicians. Clinton's blueprint could have it both ways. It presented a directional shift toward centrist politics that would not lose its key constituencies, blacks, Latinos, and women. Clinton's blueprint became the much sought after template in the Democrats approach to winning many state and local elections and to win over conservative middle-class whites, moderates and independents.
It became Obama's during the campaign. At first glance, that's a puzzle and an irony. Obama hammered Hillary Clinton during their bitter primary wars for representing the old thinking, and old ways of doing party and political business. He sold himself and his campaign as the change candidate who would shed the SOP political deal making, cronyism and insider manipulation and take the party and politics in a totally new direction.
Bill Clinton's occasional carp at Obama seemed to signal a directional shift, and Bill's displeasure with it. In January, for instance Clinton took a swipe at Obama saying his health care proposals didn't go far enough. The implication then being that he was Republican lite with some of his initiatives. To the extent that the attack was merited, Obama was only following in the Democratic master's footsteps. But he was not part of the Clinton machine, and that made him fair game for criticism. Team Obama quickly responded with furious broadsides at Clinton for his attack. This seemed to be further proof that a dramatic and decisive break with the Clinton past and grip was in the works.
This was strictly campaign stump stuff and wishful thinking by some who held out the naïve hope that Obama and the Democrats would finally kick the Clinton syndrome. That of course hasn't and won't happen. The tip off of that came months before campaign insiders began discreetly dropping the names of those who would likely fill top positions in an Obama White House. The names read like a who's who roll call of ex-Clinton staffers, officials, advisers, experts, handlers and bankrollers. This was not idle speculation, or musing out loud. The cast of Clinton usual suspects would not have been dropped without some nod from Obama. Indeed, Obama dropped his own hints that Clinton exs would play a big, if not dominant, role in his administration. The rationale for that made sense. They had run Clinton's ship of state, and have the savvy, experience, and political know how to get things done, and get them done quickly. They also are well versed in the Clinton blueprint for political rule.
The Clinton blueprint is if anything a bow to pragmatic, cautious, corporate interests and Beltway interest politics and decision making. It was the blueprint for Obama's push for the White House. Now it's the blueprint for his reign in the White House.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).