THE BLOG
03/13/2008 06:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Helping to Elect Other Democrats Has Never Been a Clinton Strong Suit

In the end, the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination is about whether Democrats want to go back to the nineties, or forward into the future.

For Democrats interested in building a strong, progressive party throughout America, it's useful to remember what the 1990's were like.

When Bill Clinton entered office in 1992, Democrats held a one-hundred-vote majority in the House of Representatives, 267 to 167. After his first two years, Democrats lost control of the House for the first time since 1954, and did not regain a majority until 2006 -- long after he'd left office.

In 1992, Democrats also had control of the Senate, but lost control in 1994 and did not regain it throughout the Clinton term.

When the Clintons entered the White House, Democrats controlled both legislative bodies in 29 states. The parties had split control in 14 states, and Republicans controlled both chambers in only six states. Democratic control gradually eroded throughout the 1990's. By 1998, Democrats controlled both chambers in only 21 states. Republicans had gained control of both houses in 17 states, and 11 had one chamber controlled by each party.

Just as telling, at the beginning of Clinton's term only 40% of state legislative seats were held by Republicans. By the time he left office over 50% were held by Republicans. The GOP picked up a whopping 472 legislative seats across the country in 1994 alone.

Let's recall that while the Democratic Party across the country atrophied, Clinton himself won re-election in 1996 by an Electoral College vote of 379 to 159. In the popular vote, he beat Bob Dole by almost nine percentage points.

What accounted for the precipitous decline in the fortunes of other Democratic office holders during the Clinton years?

Four factors are particularly relevant as Democrats evaluate whether they should send the Clintons back to the White House.

1) The failure of Hillary Clinton's 1993 healthcare initiative was a disaster for down-ballot Democrats. Of course the Clintons should be commended for having tried to create a universal health care system. But the way they went about it doomed it from the start. Their proposal was a Rube Goldberg contraption meant to allow the insurance industry to "buy-in" to the deal. But the insurance types didn't really want government-sponsored universal health care in the first place. So after they had gotten all they could in the way of concessions, they savaged the proposal with their famous "Harry and Louise" nationwide media campaign. To win on an issue as big as universal health care, the President needed to mobilize average Americans to demand that their Member of Congress deliver on health care reform or face the prospect of not being sent back to Washington. There was no nationwide mobilization, and the Clinton universal healthcare proposal collapsed.

2) After the failure of universal health care and the Democratic loss of both houses of Congress in 1994, the Clintons decided on a new strategy of triangulation. Instead of creating one, unified Democratic team, the Clintons positioned themselves as a third force in dealing with Capitol Hill. They calculated that this was their best bet to get something (although generally small things) out of a Republican Congress. But that hurt other Democrats in three big ways:

• First, it set many Congressional Democrats politically adrift.

• Second, it led to the tacit acceptance that the dominant conservative value frame defined the political center. Instead of taking on the Republicans with respect to big issues, and drawing sharp distinctions between progressive and conservative values, conservative values simply went unchallenged. Conservative assumptions about the economy and the role of government were allowed to become the de facto benchmarks against which political positions were measured. The result was that Democrats spent years in a defensive crouch. When you're on the defensive, you're losing.

• Third, triangulation required that the Administration restrict itself to making small, tinkering proposals to Congress (the State Children's Health Care Plan was the only notable exception). The only big ideas for fundamentally changing the country came from the conservatives.

3) The Lewinsky scandal cost down-ballot Democrats big time, particularly in swing rural areas. It sapped the party's political energy and put the Administration on the defensive for a good portion of its second term. Once again, when you're on the defensive, you're losing.

4) Finally, there was indeed a massive right-wing conspiracy to attack and vilify the Clintons. The Conservative Movement and its various organs did an effective job at raising the negatives of both Bill and Hillary. In fact, in many ways Hillary got the worst of it. Bill's personable, "I may be a rascal, but I'm likable" persona defused some of the right's withering assault. Hillary's cooler personality did not. As a result, down-ballot Democrats were forced to run with the heavy burden of big Clinton negatives.

There are a lot of Members of Congress from swing districts and other super delegates who don't want to go "back to the future." They saw what happened to down-ballot Democrats with the Clintons in the White House once. They don't want to try it again.

One such Member of Congress told me the other night that whether it was fair or not, Hillary Clinton was like "acid rain" in his district. He said he'd have a hard time getting his own mother to support her -- that Hillary would weigh on his chances for re-election like an albatross around the neck.

If we want to build strong, progressive, Democratic majorities in Congress and in state legislatures -- if we want to pass legislation that fundamentally improves people's lives -- then we need to heed the words of another swing district Democrat. He told me that while Bill and Hillary Clinton may have been the bridge to the 21st Century, Barack Obama is the 21st Century. He says we can't risk going back to the 1990's, we have to go forward, to the future.

Robert Creamer is a long time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight. How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.