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Clinton Can't Save Them -- but Clintonism Might

September 28, 2003|Matthew Dallek | Matthew Dallek is a speechwriter. His "The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics," is due out in paperback in March.

WASHINGTON — When Bill Clinton appeared with Gov. Gray Davis at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, Davis declared that Clinton "will always be the president for us." When the former president showed up at Sen. Tom Harkin's steak fry earlier this month, the seven Democratic presidential candidates on stage seemed more than eager to bask in his reflected glory.

At events across the country in recent years, the party faithful have marveled at Clinton's ability to articulate the issues of the times. He has offered savvy advice, fired up his acolytes and stirred the hope that he would help Democrats defeat President Bush in November 2004.

Despite all this, however, Clinton hasn't helped many Democrats in the place where it counts most -- at the polls. In 2002, he never managed to transfer his political appeal to Democratic congressional candidates across the country. And his appearance with Davis didn't make Davis' recall any less probable, according to the most recent polls.

Then there's Gen. Wesley Clark. Clinton reportedly called Clark one of two stars in the Democratic Party, which touched off a burst of enthusiasm for a Clark presidential candidacy. Some of Clinton's former aides joined Clark's campaign.

But the Clinton connection may politically harm Clark as well. Some conservative commentators have bashed the general for cozying up to the former president. The media, with its bottomless appetite for all things Clinton, have wondered whether "Gen. Clark was a stalking horse to hold a spot for Mrs. Clinton to enter the race herself," as one paper put it.

The real problem for Democrats is not, as some argue, that Clinton's political judgment is flawed. It's that his political magic isn't transferable.

Too many Democrats believe Clinton is a political Buddha: Rub him and watch your poll numbers climb. As the 2004 presidential election approaches, they need to get over this notion and follow the example he set in the 1990s -- striking out in new directions to win the debates of the day.

Democrats need to understand that one key to Clinton's success was his willingness to buck party orthodoxy in order to meet the challenge of changed circumstances. Instead of worrying about his support among the party base, Clinton stood up to Democrats who wouldn't give up hope of a new New Deal. When he took office in 1993, he faced the largest deficits in the nation's history. He decided that he had to cut spending to relieve pressure on interest rates. Declining interest rates would spur business investment and homeownership, he believed.

James Carville, who helped get Clinton elected, wondered about his old boss' identity and beliefs. "Where is the hallowed ground? Where does he stand? What does he stand for?" the political consultant asked early in Clinton's first term.

Such questioning from his inner ranks didn't deter Clinton. He understood the importance of tackling the big issues. The deficits came down, and soon the nation's longest economic expansion began.

Despite the popular notion that he was wholly driven by polls, Clinton also owed much to his ability to fight for what he believed in. In 1996, he signed a Republican-passed welfare reform bill. Two of his Cabinet secretaries, Henry Cisneros and Donna Shalala, warned that his action would damage the lives of millions of people. But Clinton earnestly desired to fix a system that offered little hope to those entrapped in its snares. Yes, his support for reform removed welfare as an issue in the 1996 presidential race. It also helped thousands of people find a job.

Finally, Clinton developed a vision for a domestic agenda that allowed him to lead in the 1990s. He correctly sensed that U.S. politics were undergoing a profound shift. The almost single-minded focus on foreign affairs -- on anticommunism in particular -- was giving way to domestic and economic concerns. Globalization and emerging digital technologies were new forces to contend with.

In a speech to the Democratic Leadership Council in Cleveland in 1991, then-Gov. Clinton articulated the ideas and the words -- opportunity, responsibility, community -- that not only helped him to win the presidency but also defined his future administration. "Our burden," he told the audience, "is to give the people a new choice rooted in old values, a new choice that is simple, that offers opportunity, demands responsibility, gives citizens more say, provides them with responsive government -- all because we recognize that we are a community."

The speech reflected Clinton's belief that circumstances had changed, and that Democrats needed to adapt to the new reality. His ability to combine old values with new ideas sent a signal that his approach would be bold and relevant to the lives of the people he served.

Democrats have not heeded these lessons. Rather than learn from Clinton's experience, Democrats seeking office spend too much time jockeying to pose next to him in front of a camera.

If they want to become the rightful heirs to his legacy, they must overcome their obsession with Clinton's image and embrace the ideas and strategies that allowed him to score political points in the 1990s.

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