Counterpoint February 2005

Clintonism, Alive and Well

The founder of the Democratic Leadership Council disputes the notion that progress for the Democrats means jettisoning Clinton

In the January/February issue of The Atlantic, Chuck Todd offers a novel answer to the woes of a Democratic Party that has lost five of the last seven presidential elections: blame the guy who won the other two. In both his article and subsequent online interview, Todd argued that Democrats should discard Clintonism, the party's most successful formula in presidential elections in six decades. That's like telling Republicans to disown Ronald Reagan because he brought their party back from the political wilderness.

To win back the White House in 2008 and become a majority party again, the Democratic Party must overcome trust gaps on security, values, and culture. It also must reform and reestablish itself as the engine of opportunity and upward mobility. Clintonism offers a model for doing just that. Democrats should embrace it and build on it.

Clintonism is a future-oriented ideology and approach to governing. It asks Democrats to constantly challenge old party orthodoxies and to seek new ways of furthering the party's first principles and grandest traditions—which include Jackson's credo of equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none; Kennedy's ethic of mutual responsibility; Roosevelt's thirst for innovation and reform; Truman's muscular internationalism; and Johnson's quest for social justice.

Clintonism is not, as some critics charge, a politically expedient move to the center or a mushy compromise between liberalism and conservatism. It is a tough-minded modernization of liberalism: shared benefits, shared responsibilities, and shared values of opportunity, responsibility, and community.

As such, the Clinton formula offers Democrats a foundation for future success. Todd blames Clintonism for the Democrats' loss of Congress in 1994 and for the failings of the party's last two presidential nominees. Why not blame Reagan for the Republicans' losses in 1992 and 1996?

The Democrats were in rough shape when Clinton came along. In the 1980s, they had lost forty or more states in three consecutive presidential elections, and most experts talked about a long-term Republican lock on the Electoral College. Had that trend continued for another decade, it is likely the Democrats would have gone the way of the Whigs.

But Clinton's success changed that. He was the first Democrat since Roosevelt to get re-elected as President, and the first since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to win a majority of the states. (He did it twice.) In three out of the four most recent presidential elections, Democrats have won a plurality of the popular vote. And they came within three percent in 2004.

Clintonism offers Democrats their best hope. Had the Democrats' last two nominees truly followed Clinton's model, we might now be talking about an emerging Democratic majority. Instead they pursued his approach tepidly at best and lacked the zest for bold reform and the willingness to challenge party orthodoxy that were at the core of Clinton's success.

Clinton's "New Democrat" approach was extraordinarily successful for our country—growing the economy, creating 22.5 million jobs, increasing incomes, moving millions from welfare to work, and reducing crime and teen pregnancy. Liberals should cheer an Administration that brought unprecedented gains to minorities and women, had the best environmental record since Theodore Roosevelt, and moved a hundred times more people out of poverty than Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush did.

Now Democrats should write the next chapter of that success and offer America a new plan for putting the country first—one that increases security, expands opportunity, demands responsibility, and fosters reform. That's the Clinton model, and it's the party's best route back to national power.

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Al From is the founder and former CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council.

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