In the late fall of 1995, the columnist Ben Wattenberg—on tour to promote a new book—received a phone call from an admiring reader. The reader was President Bill Clinton. Over the next hour, Clinton praised Wattenberg’s work as the most accurate criticism of his administration to date.
In his syndicated column to be published Thursday, Mr. Wattenberg quotes Mr. Clinton as saying that he was initially too interested in the "legislative scorecard, rather than in philosophy," focusing like a prime minister on shepherding his party's legislation, instead of using the bully pulpit like a chief executive. The column says Mr. Clinton said he was "so anxious to fix the economy" that he "changed philosophically and missed the boat."
With those mistakes, Clinton had “‘lost the language’ of the moderate new Democratic thinking that helped to elect him in 1992.”
(Those quotations and that summary come from a New York Times story about the call. I couldn’t find the Wattenberg column itself online.)
Clinton’s conversation with Wattenberg occurred during a long process of self-examination and redirection after the Democratic party’s bad defeats in the 1994 elections. That process would ultimately culminate in a 1996 State of the Union address that declared, “The era of big government is over.” Election year 1996 would see Clinton triangulate both against congressional Republicans perceived as too eager to cut taxes for the rich and congressional Democrats perceived as too narrowly attentive to the minorities and the poor. Clinton would uphold the values of the middle class—school uniforms for children in poor schools—and champion their concerns: Medicare, Medicaid, the economy, and the environment. (These concerns were summed up by the acronym “MMEE,” pronounced “Em Em Ee Ee” on television and “Meeee” at cynical staff meetings.)