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Nancy L. Cohen

Nancy L. Cohen

Posted: June 3, 2008 05:28 PM

Clintonism: A Post-Mortem


Hillary Clinton, we trust, will graciously assume her new role campaigning for the Democratic nominee, Barack Obama. We can look forward to her return to the Senate, where her intelligence, experience, tenacity, and newfound economic populism can be put to work leading the Democrats in the task of undoing the Bush years. Clintonism, however, is dead.

What was Clintonism? Depending on your perspective, its distinguishing characteristic was either astute centrism or craven triangulation. Yet, at the heart of Clintonism, was a fixed assumption about the nature of the American electorate. Clintonism looked at the trends of voter turnout, a steady decline of voting from the 1960s onward, and saw a citizenry that was tuned out and turned off by politics. The only way for Democrats to win was to narrowcast to the few people who were still listening and whose votes were still up for grabs. Bottom line? Ignore the rest, the millions of nonvoters. The essence of Clintonism was this cynical electoral strategy.

Then, as now, special deference was paid to so-called Reagan Democrats -- white, working-class men. (I'll have more to say about white working-class women on other occasions.) They still voted, and their votes swung between the parties. They had seemed to respond in 1980, 1984, and 1988 to conservative social and cultural appeals. (Often enough -- Reagan's "welfare queen" invention, Bush senior's Willie Horton ad -- these appeals were racially-coded.) The signature gestures of Clinton's 1992 campaign, the Sister Souljah smackdown, his attendance at the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, were played to this audience. To wit, Democrats must take the electorate as it was -- its size, its predilections -- not as it could be. Bill Clinton didn't invent the theory of the mythical swinging middle, but he honed it into the Golden Rule for Democratic victory.

It was hard to argue with Clinton's success in the 1990s. Democrats had lost four out of five presidential contests before Clinton triumphed over an incumbent president and then went on to reelection four years later. For anyone who cared to look -- and it should be noted, many progressive Democrats did -- Clinton's victories were more cause for alarm than occasion for celebration. Voter turnout in the presidential race plummeted from 55% in 1992 to 49% in 1996, its lowest level since 1924.

The practical consequences of Clintonism for the Democratic Party were submerged while the charismatic Southerner Bill Clinton was at the helm. Al Gore ran an essentially Clintonian campaign. Although implored to strike a more populist tone and to display the charm many who knew him well saw every day, Gore ran with caution and moderation. In November, 2000, the U.S. was in a condition of unparalleled peace and prosperity, and every historic indicator pointed to an easy victory for Gore. But only 50.4% of eligible voters showed up to vote, just slightly above the all-time record low hit in 1996. Steered by Clintonism, Gore came up short.

Signs of Clintonism's obsolescence and the possibility of a new politics emerged in the 2004 election. Howard Dean tapped into a hunger for political engagement among those written off by the centrist strategy. John Edwards revived old-school American populism with his 21st century message of two Americas. But after John Kerry's all-too-early primary victory, the Democratic-powers-that-be dismissed the evidence of an awakening electorate. "It's the primary, stupid," they instructed the supposed political naifs, and went back to business as usual. We all know how that worked out.

Perhaps it wasn't surprising that the guardians of Clintonism decided we needed another Clinton to rescue the Democratic Party. For almost a year, Hillary coasted to frontrunner status on the power of the Clinton machine, a message of restoration, and a strategy of electability. To the public, Clinton promised, 'let's bring back the good times.' To insiders, the Clintons warned, 'leave it to us, or welcome to a replay of 2000 and 2004.'

It didn't go as planned. In retrospect, we can thank the long primary campaign for exposing the moral bankruptcy of Clintonism. While John Edwards gambled that Americans had had enough of Clintonian economic centrism, Barack Obama aimed at the soft underbelly of Clintonian cynicism. In his now-famous Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech in November, 2007, Obama proposed an alternative ideal of an active, democratic citizenry, motivated by principle and undaunted by fear:

This party -= the party of Jefferson and Jackson; of Roosevelt and Kennedy -- has always made the biggest difference in the lives of the American people when we led, not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction; when we summoned the entire nation to a common purpose -- a higher purpose. And I run for the Presidency of the United States of America because that's the party America needs us to be right now.
...
That's why I'm asking you to stand with me, that's why I'm asking you to caucus for me, that's why I am asking you to stop settling for what the cynics say we have to accept. In this election -- in this moment -- let us reach for what we know is possible.

In the last months of this campaign, Hillary's best qualities have been least on display. She has frequently resorted to the old Clintonian zero-sum calculus to support her unconvincing claim that she was more electable than Obama. She may have won a few primaries by the tactic, but the voters, as a whole, were not pleased. Her wildly fluctuating popularity rating closely tracked her campaign swings. Her ratings fell in tandem with her backward-facing gestures -- the racially charged insinuations, the 3 AM ad, bittergate, Osama, and the kitchen sink.

Hillary was at her best in this campaign when she transcended Clintonism and learned from her able opponents. Edwards came at her from the left, so she issued stellar health care and climate change plans. Obama inspired Americans to believe and to vote, so she began to speak movingly of her historic candidacy and all the women activated by her campaign. Her popularity ratings rose nationally when she was most like Edwards and Obama: hopeful, progressive, and encouraging new voters to vote.

With the brutal campaign battle over, there is no reason that Hillary Rodham Clinton cannot finally rid herself of the old baggage of Clintonism. If Obama proves true to his expansive vision of democracy, and more importantly, all the new voters stay in the game, we just might get the change we've been hoping for.


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