The Clinton Magic

Jon Chait says the Clintons' political skills have been overrated:

The reality is less dramatic. Bill Clinton defeated a recession-weakened president with some help from a third-party spoiler, stopped the GOP from cutting highly popular social programs, won reelection during an economic boom and rallied his own party to thwart a wildly partisan impeachment crusade. None of these triumphs required unusual political skill. [...] Of course, if anybody beat the Republican attack machine, it was Bill. Hillary Clinton wasn't on any ballot in the 1990s. [...] In her November 2000 Senate race, she ran five points behind Democratic ticket-topper Al Gore in New York, and Gore himself was hardly a beloved figure at the time. [...] Clinton and her supporters gripe about Obama's charms -- the packed stadiums, the witty comebacks, the starry-eyed fans. Well, yes. It isn't cheating. This is what you get when you're an extremely good politician.



I do think discussion of the 1992 election has tended to get unreasonably polarized around implausible alternatives. You tend to either here that Bill Clinton's victory in that race marks him and his team the uniquely brilliant Only Democrats to Win In Decades or else maybe that he only won because Perot was in the race. Lost here is the excluded middle option that his victory wasn't fake or illegitimate, but simply not especially impressive. Given the circumstances -- foreign policy off the table, recession, a third-party candidate whose rhetoric mostly targeted Bush, 12 years of GOP rule -- the landscape was very favorable to the Democrats, just as the landscape was very favorable for Hillary Clinton in her 2000 Senate bid.

Neither of those elections were gimmes, and the Clintons certainly performed competently, but somehow Bill has acquired the reputation as a super-talented politician while John Kerry's considered a joke, even though Kerry clearly would have won if we'd had 1992-style economic conditions in 2004.