Clintonism, R.I.P.

How triangulation became strangulation

William Philpott / Reuters

With the 2004 election past and the losing party's ritual period of self-appraisal about to yield to George W. Bush's second term, the Democrats appear to have learned two small lessons and to have missed a much larger one. Of the two small lessons, one follows naturally from the other: first, the election demonstrated that the Democrats are becoming less competitive in much of the country, and second, it suggested that they cannot hope to regain the presidency or control of Congress until that changes. The reason they've lost ground, we've been told ceaselessly, is that many Americans believe the party is deficient in "moral values" and cast their votes accordingly. There is some debate about whether values played the decisive role or just a minor one—but no debating that something is wrong.

What's been missing is a discussion of how the Democratic Party arrived at this point; that requires a broader view, encompassing both parties' most recent periods of triumph and focusing particularly on the major difference between the evolving political legacies of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. As a candidate each sought to distance himself from his party's reigning image—Bush through "compassionate conservatism" and Clinton through a "third way" approach between liberalism and conservatism. Each succeeded well enough to win two terms. And each is now viewed within his party as something close to the ideal.

The difference is that Bush measurably strengthened the Republican Party along the way, whereas Clinton worried mainly about his own political fortunes, to the detriment of his party. Every election under Bush has resulted in Republican gains in Congress; in sharp contrast, Clinton assumed office with his party in control of the House, the Senate, and a majority of governorships, and left it with none of those advantages. Since Clinton, Democratic losses have deepened and broadened to include both subsequent presidential races, in which the Democratic nominees dutifully adopted Clinton's strategy of centrist triangulation. The results so starkly apparent on November 2 should prompt a question that, though still heretical to Democrats, is worthy of being posed here: Is it time to retire Clintonism as a political philosophy?

The modern Democratic Party looks at Clinton's presidency as a period of unquestioned success, and its perceived lessons continue to hold tremendous sway. Foremost is the belief that the party's path to victory, blazed by Clinton, lies in packaging liberal or centrist ideas into easily digestible bites that together constitute a core set of values—in a word, Clintonism. At its best 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. At first, as with all that is new in politics, those accustomed to the old way of doing things treated these ideas as if they were radioactive. Clinton eventually proved them wrong. But political ideas have a half-life.

It is hard to overstate the reverence in which Clinton is held by professional Democratic operatives, many of whom served in his administration and today constitute the party's major powers. This group has hewed faithfully to the tenets of Clintonism, staunch in its belief that Democratic candidates can neutralize troublesome issues simply by triangulating, as Clinton did, and prevail with a list of issues nearly identical to the one Clinton touted. But as Al Gore, John Kerry, and countless lesser Democrats have tried this approach and failed, one thing has become clearer and clearer: the success of Clintonism was due primarily to the period in which Clinton governed and to his remarkable political skills—not to the electoral strategy he bequeathed to his party.

The latter has proved disastrous. And its cost cannot be measured merely in lost campaigns. Absent Clinton's high-profile foes—at the outset of his presidency, a paleo-liberal congressional leadership on one side and radical-conservative revolutionaries on the other—the habit of splitting the difference on difficult issues comes across as crassly political, more so when one lacks Clinton's unique personal charisma. The more John Kerry attempted to do this (on national security, gay marriage, Iraq), the more the effect was magnified, until the long-standing criticism of Clinton—that he didn't really stand for anything—became the definitive charge against Kerry. In the end Kerry, like his party, seemed to draw exactly the wrong lesson from Clinton's example, mimicking his tactics and politics with liturgical precision, but never managing to replicate the sense of a new direction that carried Clinton into office. The result was a candidate and a party with apparently no core set of values.

For those who don't share the faith—Republicans, for instance—Clintonism is in fact a code word for moral ambivalence. In this sense, too, Clintonism proved poisonous to Democrats in vast swaths of the country. To take just one example: Erskine Bowles, of North Carolina, lost another bid for the U.S. Senate primarily for the offense of having served as Clinton's White House chief of staff. And although it has been largely overlooked, perhaps the most remarkable statistic from the 2004 election is the record of those candidates for whom Clinton campaigned: all eight lost.

The Democrats' plight is not unprecedented. Following Ronald Reagan's presidency the Republicans spent a similar time in the wilderness, in similar fealty to a great leader. Although George H.W. Bush did win a term, the Republican Party was basically adrift for the decade after Reagan—robbed of Reagan's great adversary after the collapse of communism, yet still hampered by the impression that it was harsh and uncaring on social issues. That changed only when Karl Rove and George W. Bush arrived and at last pushed the party beyond the grip of Reagan and his strategists. In the bloodless aftermath of the 2004 election the Democratic Party has shown scant awareness of a crisis—and shedding its addiction to Clinton could take just as long.

In the old Soviet Union the politburo had the ability to destroy all traces of a previous Party leader if his specter suddenly became troublesome. There are two ways the Democrats' Clinton problem can be solved. One is if Hillary Clinton runs successfully for the presidency in 2008, redeeming Clintonism as both a tactic and a philosophy. The other is if the party severs ties to Bill Clinton and those most closely associated with him, relegating him to the mythic status Reagan achieved, as someone whose great symbolic power for the party faithful can be celebrated and invoked—but only from a safe distance.

In the coming weeks and months George W. Bush will start trying to make good on a series of campaign promises that are every bit as daunting as were Clinton's efforts to reform welfare, expand health care, and balance the budget: Bush will attempt to partially privatize Social Security, rewrite the tax code, and limit plaintiff awards in lawsuits. Whether history ultimately judges these to be momentous successes, like balancing the budget, or colossal failures, like Clinton's attempt to reform health care, remains to be seen. What is clear already is that they are new ideas of the sort long absent from the Democratic Party. One can also surmise that, as controversial as many of them may be, voters prefer them to the ideas of an opposing campaign that once again seemed as though it was run in the service of nostalgia.

Just after the Republican triumph in the midterm elections Bill Clinton himself arrived at a moment of clarity for the Democrats when he declared that it is better to be "wrong and strong" than "weak and right." The irony, of course, is that Clinton rarely practiced as president what he now preaches as statesman. But if the Democratic Party is to draw a real lesson from the election and halt its own decline, it will heed Clinton's advice rather than the example of his presidency.