Can't Live with Him, Can't Live without Him

By Boyer, Peter J. | Newsweek, September 10, 2012 | Go to article overview

Can't Live with Him, Can't Live without Him


Boyer, Peter J., Newsweek


Byline: Peter J. Boyer

Clinton will be there for Obama in Charlotte. But the big-tent, business-friendly wing of the party 42 built is long gone. How the death of Clintonism could be a major hurdle for the president this fall.

When Bill Clinton takes center stage at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this week, he will make a characteristically forceful case for the party's other big dog, Barack Obama, arguing thata second Obama term is a vital necessity, and sounding for all the world as if the current president has no greater admirer than the man from Hope.

Every Democrat in the arena, and many beyond, will know better.

The relationship between the 44th president and the 42nd has been an uneasy one since 2008, when Obama denied Clinton a third turn in the White House by defeating Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. That bitterly fought primary campaign inflicted real wounds--including the suggestion by Obama's side that Clinton slyly tried to help his wife's chances by inserting race into the contest. Public reconciliation, and the top job at State for Hillary, followed, but the rift never really closed. Clinton is said to occasionally brood over the fact that Obama has not eagerly availed himself of the counsel of the party's best political mind (Clinton's). For his part, Obama cannot have failed to notice that Clinton has hardly faded from the scene, operating, through his Clinton Global Initiative, what sometimes seems a sort of shadow presidency.

Nor could Obama have been cheered when Clinton complicated the incumbent's key campaign offensive this spring by declaring Mitt Romney's business career "sterling," or when Clinton said that the Bush-era tax rates should be extended, including for the very rich.

But Obama knows that he needs Clinton to lift a convention that many Democrats are pointedly avoiding, and to help rescue an imperiled reelection bid that will be nothing like the relatively easy ride that Clinton enjoyed in 1996.

So, Clinton will be in Charlotte, but Clintonism--that brand of centrist New Democrat politics that helped make him the first president of his party to win reelection since FDR--will be mostly missing. Conservative and centrist Democrats, so critical to Clinton's efforts to reform welfare, balance the budget, and erase the image of the party as being reflexively anti-business, have nearly vanished.

Their absence complicates Obama's bid for reelection, and his chances for an effective second term, if he gets one. Clinton's brand of liberalism was designed to win elections, and brought Democrats back after a generation in the wilderness; Obama's brand of liberalism produced the line that became the Republicans' favorite refrain last week in Tampa: "You didn't build that."

The New Democrat movement began to die on Dec. 12, 2000, when the Supreme Court decided Bush v. Gore, effectively giving the presidency to George W. Bush. With Al Gore out of the picture, the party took an ever-more-stridently leftward turn, and by 2004, what Howard Dean called "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" was in full ascent. The energy in the party resided in the antiwar left, reawakened by Iraq, and by 2008, candidates in the Democratic presidential primary were expected not only to oppose the war, but to apologize for ever having supported it--and all but Hillary Clinton did (no apology was required of Obama, who'd opposed the "dumb" war from the start).

The left's complaint about Clintonism was that it made the party less distinct from the GOP--which, in effect, it did. When Clinton, Gore, and other Democratic centrists joined the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s, their purpose was to find a way to sell a liberal program to a nation that consistently rejected it, by moderating the program. The DLC emphasized private-sector growth and government efficiency, personal responsibility, and an affirmation of mainstream values. …

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