The Clinton Trap

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."

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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."

Part of my motivation for this piece is also to start a conversation about Clinton's role in the party. The Democrats have to come to grips with the fact that he's a polarizing figure in this country. Because his wife is a potential candidate for president in 2008, it's an issue the party has to deal with, and they all seem afraid to talk about it.

So you see Clinton as a polarizing figure, in spite of his attempts to play the moderate?

Right, because the Republicans have done a successful job of mixing up Clinton's ideology with his personal problems. They've made it so that when people think of him they think only of Monica—they don't think of his social programs or welfare reform. They just think about moral values and the two-year-long mess of the impeachment proceedings. Sometimes I don't think Clinton himself appreciates how much of a problem he is for Democrats who try to run in those red states. The Clinton name is a negative there. The party has to understand that it's always going to have a values problem as long as it's associated with the Clinton name.

You suggest in your article that the aftermath of the election has been surprisingly "bloodless" so far. Have there really been no recriminations or realignments?

None yet. Maybe they're coming, but to me it's been pretty amazing. I mean, the Kerry people aren't throwing Kerry under the bus too much. Al Gore got worse treatment, and he won the popular vote last time I checked. Kerry underperformed Gore on every front. But there haven't been any personal recriminations, and in some sense there shouldn't be. You can't sit there and say, "John Kerry threw this election away." It wasn't just Kerry. There were other factors. Any number of people could have been the nominee, and the strategic problems would have been the same. One of those problems is the role of the Clintons. If Hillary is going to be the nominee in '08—if that's the plan—then the Democrats need to spend four years rehabilitating the Clinton name and legacy. Because right now it stands for negative things to the voters of North Carolina. It's one thing for the Clinton name not to work well in Oklahoma, but it's another thing if it can't work in North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Arizona ... places where the Democrats might have a shot if it weren't for this issue.

In spite of the fact that Clinton himself won a lot of those states?

Right, but he won those states before the Monica scandal. There are people out there who wish he'd shown more remorse for what happened to her. He apologized to the country, but he never really apologized to her. He was supposed to be the adult in the situation. But if you saw him on his book tour, he got a bit testy about it when it came up. I've got relatives who live in red America, and it bothers them. Clinton bothers them. They think he stands for moral ambiguity.

I've heard some Democrats say that what they need now is a candidate from a red state who can counteract the notion that they're the party of East Coast liberals. How good do you think Hillary's chances really are? After all, she's a senator from New York—not a governor from Arkansas.

Clearly, being a senator didn't work so well this time around. So how about another senator from the Northeast? Well, that's not so good. How about a senator from the Northeast with the last name of Clinton? And then throw in the fact of her gender. If national security is the issue, there's the question of whether the country is ready for a woman commander-in-chief. So she's got a ton of hurdles. The upside for her is that she's already defined as a liberal. That means she doesn't have to pander to the left, the way that John Kerry and John Edwards both had to do. They had to pander to the left and then figure out how to tack to the middle. She's already so defined as a liberal that she could do some dramatically non-liberal things and make people say, "Oh, my God, she's for what? She came out for what?" The other advantage would be that if she rises to rock-star status, she could become like the Arnold model, where labels and party ideology don't apply. Normally a Republican would have no chance in California, but his celebrity obliterated that obstacle. Her campaign could become this movement of, "Let's elect the first woman President." I think that that's where her opportunities are. If she can become more celebrity than politician, then she could overcome what would be significant problems for any other Democratic senator from New York named Clinton.

One of your criticisms of the Clinton approach is that, when you take away the charm and the charisma, there just don't seem to be many hard stances for people to rally around. Shouldn't the Howard Dean campaign, which was all about taking strong stances for liberal positions, have been a perfect antidote to that? Why did his candidacy end up not working?

I think that the lesson the Kerry folks and the other Democrats took away from Dean was the wrong one—that somehow he was too liberal, or took stances that were too strong. I think that what really got rejected was his personality, not what he was doing or saying. Suddenly people became uncomfortable with Howard Dean the person, not with what he was trying to accomplish. His message was in the mold of what McCain was trying to develop in 2000, which was the idea that, "Look, I might not be on the popular side of most issues, but I'm going to tell it to you straight." I think the hunger for that is still out there and that someone can tap into it.

What's the effect of his bid to become Democratic National Chairman on the makeup of the Democratic Party?

I think the problem is that because he's such a polarizing figure, his election would end up factionalizing the party even more. Groups like the Democratic Leadership Council and others would be reacting to his personality, rather than to what he was saying. There are fixes Dean is proposing to the party that seem perfectly sensible to a lot of people. But I think maybe he's the wrong person with the right message. If he got elected as the DNC chair, you would have people running for President saying, "I'm not a Howard Dean Democrat, I'm just a Democrat." That's probably not healthy for the party. It would end up setting the party back, instead of moving it forward.

So who should we be watching for the midterms? What are the big races?

I think people should watch this stuff on more of a demographic level. Will a Democrat succeed a Democrat in the Virginia governor's race in 2005? I think that's a huge signal as to where Virginia is as a state. Is it really a swing state? Ditto with the race for Colorado governor. Was it just a one-time deal that the Democrats did better in Colorado this time, or is there really a movement there? Will a Democratic governor get re-elected in Arizona? Can the Democrats elect a governor in Florida? Nevada's another state to keep an eye on. Have Republicans made inroads with the Hispanic community? Or was it just George Bush? I think we would see evidence of that in places like Florida, Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada. So I think those states will tell us a lot about the health of both parties.

Do you think the Democrats should scrap the Clinton model altogether? If you were an advisor to the 2008 Democratic candidate, what would you advise him or her to try, if not Clinton's old triangulation policy?

There are aspects of Clintonism that can be a good thing. Making it hard for people to put labels on you, for example, is a good thing that Clinton figured out.

But mainly, Clinton understood the importance of acting like you have convictions. Whether you're a liberal or a centrist or a whatever, you should act like there's a core sense of conviction behind what you do. It's what Clinton did so well. He had these centrist, mushy positions, but he sounded like he had core convictions. It's all about packaging.