Interviews January 2005

The Clinton Trap

Chuck Todd, the author of "Clintonism, R.I.P.," on how Clinton's mystique harms the prospects of those seeking to run in his footsteps
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On November 2, Democrats suffered one of the most devastating electoral losses experienced by a national party in decades. Not only did the Democratic nominee lose a heated presidential race, but the House and the Senate remained in Republican hands. The results forced Democratic leaders to deal with the harsh reality that Democrats are no longer competitive in much of the country.

In "Clintonism, R.I.P." (January/February 2005 Atlantic), Chuck Todd, the editor of National Journal's Hotline (a daily briefing on politics), argues that while the Democratic Party recognizes it has a problem, the cause may be exactly where many Democrats refuse to look—in the legacy of former President Bill Clinton. Clinton's political strategy, still considered to be dogma among many of the Democrats' leaders, was to try to formulate a middle-of-the-road set of positions that would appeal to a broad swathe of voters.

This approach allowed Clinton to dissociate himself (and, by extension, his party) from many of the unpopular liberal policies of the past, steering a course between traditional liberal and conservative positions with bold and often controversial plans for highly charged issues such as race, welfare reform, and free trade, and in the process managing to neutralize many of the old criticisms.

But the party's current woes may indicate that Clinton's success wasn't due to his use of that strategy, but to his unique charisma and his good fortune with the economy. Todd contends that absent Clinton's appealing persona and canny political talent, the "Clintonism" approach actually ends up working against Democrats by making them seem like crassly political operators with no core beliefs. The more Kerry tried Clinton's approach during the 2004 election, Todd points out, "the more the effect was magnified, until the long-lasting criticism of Clinton—that he didn't really stand for anything—became the definitive charge against Kerry."

With Hillary's name on the short list for possible candidates in 2008, Todd suggests that the party needs to seriously ponder the Clinton legacy and its effects. "The most remarkable statistic from the 2004 election," he notes, "is the record of those candidates for whom Clinton campaigned: all eight lost."

Chuck Todd and I spoke by phone on December 15.

Alex M. Parker


Are the Democratic Party's current problems more tactical or substantial? In other words, are its electoral failures a result of a flawed party apparatus and of difficulties in articulating a campaign message, or are the problems deeper, relating to ideology and platform?

I'd say it's more message, if I had to pick between the two. The party has problems with both factors—mechanics and message. But I think more voters agree with the positions of the Democrats than they do with the Republicans. Kerry was on the right side on the issues; it was more a problem with the way things were packaged. There's somewhat of a trust gap with voters. The Democrats need to do a better job convincing voters that they're really behind the issues they're picking.

After the '88 debacle, the party decided to run away from its labels—which made those labels, when applied to a candidate, negative. Being "liberal" is perceived as negative, for example, rather than positive. Whereas, although many people consider "conservative" to be a bad word, Bush turned it around by putting a new definition on it. He coined the expression "compassionate conservative." He knew he was going to be attacked for being conservative, so he decided to say "Yes, I'm a conservative, but I'm a compassionate conservative." What if a Democrat were to say, "Yeah, I'm a liberal, but I'm a pro-life liberal?" Or "I'm a pro-military liberal," or "a pro-death-penalty liberal." It might be the first step toward taking a weapon away from the Republican arsenal.

It does seem as though when Republicans see a problem, they figure out how to turn it into an opportunity, whereas when Democrats see a problem their instinct is almost to try to avoid it.

One interesting thing Josh Green noted in his Atlantic profile of Karl Rove is that Rove likes to go after his opponents' strengths and turn them into weaknesses. A classic case is the way he twisted Kerry's war record around into a weakness. With his own candidate, he took weaknesses and turned them into strengths. Maybe Bush isn't the most eloquent speaker, and he's not thought of as the smartest guy. But Rove turned that around into the message that at least you know where he stands.

If the Democrats consider, "What is Bush's strength?" Well, Bush's strength is that people trust him on national security, so go after him on national security. I think the Democrats ought to follow the Rove model on that front.

In your article you seem to be saying that a major problem with Clintonism is that it only really worked under Clinton. Do you think it's more important that the Democrats try to find someone who can equal Clinton's political skill and his charisma and his ability to build a wide coalition, or is it more important that they rethink his whole philosophy?

Political parties are only as successful as their number one spokesperson. The greatest growth movements in political parties have always taken place when there have been incredibly dynamic leaders in place—Ronald Reagan for the Republicans, or John Kennedy, FDR, or Bill Clinton for the Democrats. You can't underestimate the need to have a dynamic figure as the face of the party. But that aside, whether they happen to have a strong leader in place or not, the Republicans are perceived as standing for certain things. When somebody says they're a Republican, it usually means they're against taxes, in favor of less government, and that they care about "family values." There isn't an equivalent to that when you say the word Democrat. The Democrats can say, "We're the party of the working man," or "the party of saving Social Security." But those are slogans for niche constituencies. They need a big overarching message like, "The Democratic Party believes that government should work," or "believes in individual rights," or "in privacy..."

You suggest in your article that Kerry tried to model his campaign on Clinton's. But a crucial moment in Clinton's campaign was his "Sister Souljah moment," when he took a stand and defined himself in opposition to something unexpected. Yet Kerry never had his own "Sister Souljah moment." Why is that?

Sister Souljah was a rap musician. In criticizing some comments she made, Clinton was trying to prove that he wasn't this Hollywood-defending, culturally naïve Democrat—that he wasn't going to let Hollywood dictate what was good for the family. Some commentators have also said that it was about him keeping Jesse Jackson at bay. The "Sister Souljah moment" was important because it sent a message about who was really in charge of the Democratic Party, and because it gave people a certain idea about what kind of Democrat Clinton was. Gore came close to having a "Sister Souljah" moment when he rejected the values of Clinton and picked Lieberman. I think that served him well. But Kerry never had that moment where he clarified what kind of person he was. If I were Kerry I don't know what moment I would have picked. Maybe rather than trying to hug the President on national security, he should have challenged him on it—maybe he should have run to the right of him on national security. Or I guess culturally he could have done it on gay marriage. Clinton supposedly urged him to come out against gay marriage and help try to pass these "Defense of Marriage" acts that were being proposed in various states. I don't know if that would have had the same effect, but it might at least have gotten the media to say, "Wow, here's a Democrat who's against gay marriage."

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