Thursday, July 29, 2004

Party landscape - 2 -- Clinton's legacy to both parties

Conversation Snips Reflections on Clinton's speech -- Navy Davy at Tacitus, July 27, 2004

I have no opinion. The only speech I saw wuz Clinton's. I find him to be a great B.S. artist. I certainly don't hate him, but I juss don't see the allure. But, I acknowledge it could be me. Here is my question, though, with 1 assumption: Let us assume that politics is a zero-sum game (like a teeter-totter, Dems only gain at GOP expense, and vice-versa). Question: Wuz Clinton, on the whole, better for the Dems or better for the GOP? For the life of me, I still cain't get an answer: Obviously, he maxed out at 2 terms for the Presidency and ended the Carter-Mondale-Dukakis axis of evil, er, retract that, axis of incompetence. This HAS to be good for the Dems. But, when he came to office in 1992, the Dems controlled
    (a) White House, (b) Senate, (c) House, (d) majority of legislatures, and (e) majority of governorships.
Every single one of those indicators has flipped to GOP. So, my current working theory on Clinton is that: (a) both sides think he is good for them (one side is wrong), hence, (b) he remains reasonably popular makin' millions of $$, writin' unreadable books and gabbin' in prime time.

Clinton better for Dems than for GOP -- reply to Navy Davy by Nadezhda -- July 27, 2004

The glib answer, my dear friend Navy Davy, is "that's the wonders of triangulation" -- make everybody happier, and walk off a winner (or in this case a wealthy man). All politicians are B.S. artists, but Clinton is an artiste.

More seriously, Clinton was good for the Democrats and potentially bad -- in the long run -- for the Republicans.

For the Democrats, he got a bunch of monkeys off their backs. Would you have imagined in 1992 that 12 years later the country would agree that the Dems are the party of fiscal responsibility? Granted, Bush & co have helped that flip-flop in perception along, but Clinton gave his party credibility on the issue.

Second, he made headway on separating the Dems from the image of anti-war demonstrators. The military folks may have hated his guts as a "draft dodger" (though how they give W a pass at the same time I'm baffled -- I'm not bothered by either's history re Vietnam). But Clinton improved things on the pay and veterans front, and the vaunted forces we used to such effect in Afghanistan and Iraq weren't built by Rumsfeld in a year. He may not be seen as a great CIC, but the anti-war stigma of McGovern has faded significantly from the party.

This has allowed for the reemergence of influential "Truman Democrats" (see 1 below) on foreign policy matters: a strong military, engaged abroad, with the internationalist bent of more traditional Republicans with whom they shared the "bipartisan consensus" on foreign policy through much of the Cold War. Biden is the most visible example in the Senate, though there are many others who increasingly fall within this category (or at least don its mantle). This is the tradition that both Kerry and Hillary are claiming for their own. If Clinton hadn't taken pains to shift the overall positioning of the Dems on military budgets (yes, a Cold War peace dividend but much smaller than the "peace" wing wanted), weapons systems and overseas engagement (e.g. in Kosovo), the Dems would have been out-to-sea when 9/11 came along. Instead, they had a lot of people who were personally credible on mounting a vigorous military response in Afghanistan. (I'm not talking about the Liebermans of the world here, who are much more in the Scoop Jackson line, with Israel as a more important touchstone for their policy orientations.) (see 2 below)

With welfare reform, Clinton declared "the era of big government is over," and gave the centrists some principles about the limits on government to hold the far left of the party in check. At the same time, he made a good case for there being some important things government must do, and when they do them they should be done well. The most obvious case is FEMA, which was one of the most widely hated agencies in the entire government when Cliinton took over, and became the poster child for effective government.

I'd also suggest he changed a lot of the ways the federal gov't did things with the states and locals and reduced much of the tension in tone and relations. Clinton had been a governor, and he was very clued in to what governors need from the feds and what they don't need. He had a lot of Republican governors and mayors pretty happy with him by the time he left the WH. It may have helped those Republicans (the vast majority "moderates"), but it also helped the Dems. The mayors especially were no longer screaming to high heavens that the feds were creating more problems not helping them solve the ones they already had. The economy and the declining crime rate helped a lot, but politics also reduced tensions with the big cities, thereby removing a key polarizing theme for Republicans with surburban/exurban voters.

Clinton gave the Dem's a vocabulary that allows them to talk about social issues in something other than angry, outraged tones against an enemy. Connected to the welfare reform moves and redefining government's role, he talked about a basic social contract that the American dream is if you "work hard and play by the rules" you'll have opportunity to fulfill your (and your children's) potential and that there's a safety net (e.g. health care, child welfare, etc ) when life knocks you down for a while and help to get back on your feet (e.g. job training/placement for displaced workers from trade).

The other major theme Clinton bequeathed to the Democrats (which Teresa Heinz Kerry quoted explicitly tonight) was that he "called upon the better angels of our nature" with his mantra "we can do better." The Republicans have been having a hard time finding a post-Reagan political vocabulary that defines the American idea and inspires a new generation. They do fine in the foreign policy and war on terror arena, where they're quite comfortable with their vocabulary. But the rest of it is too trapped in Atwater-ian code words (like "values" and "strength") that are used as part of the culture war against Democrats, and that the Democrats are trying like crazy to steal over the next 100 days.

Clinton helped to dilute some of the interest-group-based definition of party politics. The party of Mondale and Dukakis was indeed a collection of separate fiefdoms. Running for the nomination meant collecting the support of key gatekeepers for very distinct segments of the party. The platform was produced by horse-trading among those separate groups, and no one was paying attention to how their pieces fit together with the party's position as a whole. On the race and ethnic front, again he shifted the tone away from a bunch of selfish groups, whining about victimization, squabbling among themselves for power and out of touch with mainstream American culture. Everyone points to his Sister Souljah moment, which was indeed important. But Clinton was also a gifted salesman of "diversity within unity" that was on display last night, with the watchwords inclusion, opportunity, and respect. BirdDog wrote a hat tip to Clinton on that very matter in a good post last week.

Finally, Clinton disappointed many in the Democratic party because he didn't treat the executive branch like a patronage spoils system to be handed out to various groups -- the enviros didn't "get" EPA and Interior, the blacks didn't "get" HUD, etc. Sure he was sensitive to making visible diversity appointments. But when it came to running things, the WH called the big-picture policy shots. The result for the party itself is that groupings within the party can't just focus on their little balliwick and insist on their maximalist position. The most effective groups now cover a range of ideas on policy matters within which their pet issues are framed. The Dems have a long way to go to catch up with the Reps in the think-tank department, but Clinton certainly pushed along the process of putting ideas back in the center of Dem politics.

The long of it (when was I ever short in anything but stature?) is that the best evidence of Clinton's success is that "super-progressive" bunch of Democrats who only agree with the right-wing types on one thing -- Clinton was a slippery devil. In their case, they think he betrayed the party's principles and they're going to get the party back on track with Kerry. They'd better get out of their dream world or go back to Nader. Dean declared the battle for the heart and soul of the party over tonight. Most of Carol Moseley Braun's speech tonignt could have been given at the Republican convention. And even Nancy Pelosi has gone Clintonite on them.

There's a civil war yet to play out within the Republican party that, in a number of ways, is a result of how Clinton played his second term, and how Republicans responded. Gingrich's revolution was as much about generational shifts in both parties as about the Contract with America. Clinton's poor handling of hot-button issues in his first two years made the size of the debacle larger for the Dems, but it was past time for a changing of the guard, especially in the House. Forty years in the secure womb of incumbency isn't healthy for any party. The changing of the guard hasn't finished for the Democrats -- the continued influence of the dinosaurs in the NAACP is a good example -- but a new generation is emerging that's reasonably attractive (and heavily influenced by Clinton's approach).

After the 1994 revolution's dust settled, the Republicans wound up with a far more right-wing leadership in Washington than would otherwise have been expected. They were the revolution's leaders, and they'd pulled along with themselves many of their followers on the right wing of their party. This gave them a power base that allowed them to ignore traditional Republicans (both moderates and classic conservatives) at all but the governor's mansions and city hall (e.g. Pataki and Guliani). They had reached where they were by being radicals of the right, and Clinton pushed them even further to the right. He took much of the Republicans' traditional middle ground, and the new conviction politicians couldn't bear to do business with Clinton on his terms.

The disconnect between the Republican party in the executive branch at the state and local level and the Washington-based party has grown increasingly. (see 3 below) The impeachment just further radicalized the right wing, distancing themselves from the great majority of the public. History is not going to look kindly on that little exercise from the standpoint of the nation as a whole. But it's also going to show that the impeachment leaders didn't do their party any favors either. The Republican convention line-up of speakers is a case in point. They're going to showcase the popular moderates who are viewed as accomplished "do-ers" not the power pols in the House or leaders of the more right-wing groups. But when it comes to setting the agenda in Washington, the folks on the podium aren't where the action is. Yet it's the speakers who are the way the Republicans can compete as a party (setting aside, of course, the rally-around-the-commander-in-chief angle of this particular election) with the party Clinton tried to leave in place.

    1. since I was born and raised in Independence, Mo, I know of what I speak.

    2. pace "Fox and Friends," Clinton Democrats can't be accused of being part of the "hate America first" crowd. The posture he adopted abroad in his second term made him the most popular US president since JFK even though it was premissed on the US having a special leadership role militarily and in situations like the Middle East -- on which many who liked Clinton disagreed with his support of Israel. Just as he critqued America at home by issuing the challenge that "we can do better," he didn't claim abroad that the US was always right. Rather, that the US is by its nature a force for security, freedoms and progress, but that "we can do better."

    3. I'm going to set aside the state legislatures. That gets awfully complicated and varies from state to state, but broadly, have to explain why the Republicans are increasingly electing far right legislators and centrist governors. Clinton probably had the same sort of radicalizing effect on the folks who are running for state legislators as he did on the Gingrich-Armey camp followers in Washington.


Reply to Nadezhda from alk -- July 28, 2004

Would you have imagined in 1992 that 12 years later the country would agree that the Dems are the party of fiscal responsibility? Granted, Bush & co have helped that flip-flop in perception along, but Clinton gave his party credibility on the issue.Big time with a lot of help from Robert Rubin.... he made headway on separating the Dems from the image of anti-war demonstrators. ... He may not be seen as a great CIC, but the anti-war stigma of McGovern has faded significantly from the party.Somewhat.

Any progress made by Clinton along the lines you suggest has been muted, at least in the public arena if not in the arena of political operatives, by the anti-Iraq war coalitions. Secondly, the Democratic Party has yet to make a clear and convincing case for the conditions governing the application of Nye's `soft power' as an ultimate political solution to modern conflict. This is of concern in a nuclear age subject to the violence that emerges from disenfranchised developing societies.

This has allowed for the reemergence of influential "Truman Democrats" ... on foreign policy matters: a strong military, engaged abroad ... they had a lot of people who were personally credible on mounting a vigorous military response in Afghanistan...Just as he critqued America at home by issuing the challenge that "we can do better," he didn't claim abroad that the US was always right. Rather, that the US is by its nature a force for security, freedoms and progress, but that "we can do better."

Clinton's astute `ear' should not be used to disguise the international recalcitrance in forming meaningful strategic alliances, the hypocrisy of the UN as the dominant institutional for resolution of international conflicts, and the outright antipathy towards the U.S. that is very real. My suggestion is that his studious and deeply intuitive approach would not have been sufficient in the long term, given the exposure of international complicity as one of the fundamental facilitators of ME instability. The status quo was masking the accelerated development of a number of hostile trends that had no good terminus.

With welfare reform, Clinton declared "the era of big government is over," and gave the centrists some principles about the limits on government to hold the far left of the party in check.

Tricky. The Right version is that Clinton stole their thunder on welfare reform.

The most obvious case is FEMA, which was one of the most widely hated agencies in the entire government when Cliinton took over, and became the poster child for effective government.

Interesting. Did not know that about FEMA.

I'd also suggest he changed a lot of the ways the federal gov't did things with the states and locals and reduced much of the tension in tone and relations. ...The economy and the declining crime rate helped a lot, but politics also reduced tensions with the big cities, thereby removing a key polarizing theme for Republicans with surburban/exurban voters.

Possibly a superficial easing of tensions since the problem seems to rest on the burgeoning number of unfunded mandates, many of which are environmental that still weigh heavily on State budgets, nearly all of which are running deficits.

Clinton gave the Dem's a vocabulary that allows them to talk about social issues in something other than angry, outraged tones against an enemy. The Republicans have been having a hard time finding a post-Reagan political vocabulary that defines the American idea and inspires a new generation. They do fine in the foreign policy and war on terror arena, where they're quite comfortable with their vocabulary. But the rest of it is too trapped in Atwater-ian code words (like "values" and "strength") that are used as part of the culture war against Democrats, and that the Democrats are trying like crazy to steal over the next 100 days.

Hit the nail on the head.Clinton helped to dilute some of the interest-group-based definition of party politics.The perception still lingers.

Finally, Clinton disappointed many in the Democratic party because he didn't treat the executive branch like a patronage spoils system to be handed out to various groups -- the enviros didn't "get" EPA and Interior, the blacks didn't "get" HUD, etc. ... The Dems have a long way to go to catch up with the Reps in the think-tank department, but Clinton certainly pushed along the process of putting ideas back in the center of Dem politics.

Agree absolutely about the think tank discrepancy. No comparison.

...the best evidence of Clinton's success is that "super-progressive" bunch of Democrats who only agree with the right-wing types on one thing -- Clinton was a slippery devil.

The Democratic Party should be grateful for that. I doubt I will live long enough to find out, but I would be interested in how history ultimately treats Bill Clinton.

The changing of the guard hasn't finished for the Democrats -- the continued influence of the dinosaurs in the NAACP is a good example -- but a new generation is emerging that's reasonably attractive (and heavily influenced by Clinton's approach).

Shame about Kweisi Mfume. I thought he had the potential to be a rising star, which makes me think that the qualifier of `very liberal' that dogs Barak Obama could be something to seriously consider.

After the 1994 revolution's dust settled, the Republicans wound up with a far more right-wing leadership in Washington ... They had reached where they were by being radicals of the right, and Clinton pushed them even further to the right. He took much of the Republicans' traditional middle ground....

Yep.

[The Republicans are] going to showcase the popular moderates who are viewed as accomplished "do-ers" not the power pols in the House or leaders of the more right-wing groups. But when it comes to setting the agenda in Washington, the folks on the podium aren't where the action is. Yet it's the speakers who are the way the Republicans can compete as a party (setting aside, of course, the rally-around-the-commander-in-chief angle of this particular election) with the party Clinton tried to leave in place.

Delusional strategy (although I don`t doubt the analysis.) Simply will not work.

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