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Did Clinton Destroy the Democratic Party?

In the new issue of Atlantic Monthly, National Journal political columnist Chuck Todd adds his not-insignificant voice to a bit of emerging Conventional Wisdom about recent political history: the idea that Bill Clinton was responsible for the decline of the Democratic Party over the last decade or so, especically at the non-presidential level. He concludes by suggesting that Democrats begin their recovery by avoiding close association with anybody or any organization contaminated by excessive identification with "Clintonism." You can read the thing yourself, but I found Todd's take sadly typical in that he constructs his argument on the foundation of two highly questionable planted axioms and one big straw man. First, the planted axioms: (1) Clintonism was about "triangulation" and "splitting the differences" with conservatives; and (2) Democrats controlled the House and Senate before Clinton was elected and controlled neither when he left office; thus, he, and his strategy of "triangulation" and "splitting the differences" must have caused this decline. Now I realize that many Republicans and some lefty Democrats believe that Clinton stood for nothing other than playing off traditional liberalism and "splitting the difference" with conservatives, but that's sure as hell not what Clinton himself claimed he was doing. The term "triangulation" was invented by the ephemeral 1996 Clinton advisor Dick Morris, and even he never claimed it just meant moving to some position half-way between liberalism and conservatism, but instead devising progressive answers to issues previously dominated by the opposition: "using your tools to solve their problems," as Morris put it in the last book he wrote before becoming a full-time Rupert Murdoch flack. And even if you think Todd's characterization of Morris' term is accurate, there's the little problem that the big, unmistakable Year of Decline for down-ballot Democrats was not 1996, but 1994. And it is very hard to make the case that Clinton had done much of any "triangulation" in the two years prior to 1994, while it's very easy to make the case that Clinton's own contribution to the '94 debacle was a pattern (outside the trade arena) of insisting on pursuing the priorities of conventional liberalism, in harness with the conventional politicians of the House Democratic Caucus (There is a revisionist argument that the '94 results can be explained by disappointment of the "Democratic base" with Clinton's failure to embrace something like a single-payer health care proposal, but that's pretty much a joke when you look at the southern districts where Democrats lost the most ground). And lest we forget, the White House political guru going into the '94 elections was not Dick Morris, but the hyper-conventional Tony Coelho, who consistently told Democrats that early signs of a conservative surge were not worth worrying about, and that Congressional Democrats in particular shouldn't panic and do anything dangerous like, say, supporting campaign finance reform. This is the same guy, BTW, whose post-1994-election White House political strategy was simply to scream about proposed cuts to the school lunch program. Beyond that little problem with Todd's hypothesis, it represents a good example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) logical fallacy, really no different than the assumption that George Bush's foreign policy has thwarted Jihadist Terrorism because there have been no strikes on the U.S. since 9/11. That becomes more obvious when you look at the alternative explanations for 1994, which include (a) many years of pent-up popular frustration with a Democratic-dominated Congress, skllfully exploited by the GOP's dishonest but resolute alliance with the term-limits and balanced-budget movements; (b) a huge number of Democratic retirements; (c) the racial gerrymandering that guaranteed big southern losses in the House; and (d) the first big mobilization of the Christian Right. And then there's the Big Bertha of factors, which I'm sure Todd is familiar with: 1994 as the culmination of a gradual but steady trend towards realignment of the two parties on roughly ideological lines, which gave the GOP its big opportunity (in conjunction with the four factors mentioned above) to make huge gains in areas of the country previously represented and governed by relatively conservative (certainly far more conservative than Clinton-style) Democrats. In this context, "Clintonism" can at worst be described as a less-than-successful, last-minute holding action against a Republican Majority, but not as its cause. The gains that Democrats made during the last six years of the Clinton administration--most notably after the Lewinsky scandal--certainly don't fit into the hypothesis that Clinton himself was the problem. Now you can make the case that Clinton, like most presidents, was more interested in his own political fate than that of his party, and that he did too little, not too much, to try to change its structure and default-drive ideology--with a big assist from Republicans who relentlessly promoted partisan and ideological polarization almost every day of his presidency. And there is no question the Lewinsky scandal reinforced claims from both the Right and the Left that "Clintonism" was nothing more than poll-driven "triangulation" or "splitting the difference." But the idea that the Democratic Party was weaker when Clinton left office--with extremely high job approval ratings and after a record of accomplishment that showed Democrats could be trusted to produce remarkable results--than it would have been under any other plausible approach to strategy or ideology, is questionable in the extreme. And that leads me to the Big Fat Straw Man in Todd's argument: the idea that "Clintonism" is responsible for the post-Clinton problems of the party because of the iron grip of his failed political strategy (and strategists) over the last two presidential candidates, Al Gore and John Kerry. Aside from the fact that Al Gore sorta kinda won, Todd seems to have forgotten that Gore (a) managed to put together a campaign team largely bereft of Clinton '96 alumni, and (b) made a decisive if counter-intuitive choice not to run on the record of the Clinton-Gore administration. Kerry's campaign, meanwhile, was guided by a Democratic strategist involved in every presidential run since 1972 other than Clinton's two campaigns. And for all the candidate's virtues, his effort was notably devoid of most of the distinctive hallmarks of "Clintonism," including a clear overarching message, a determination to look like "a different kind of Democrat," a willingness to say things uncomfortable to Democratic interest groups, or an ability to connect with culturally traditionalist voters. Finally, you really have to look at where Democrats lost ground in 2002 and 2004 to see how truly laughable it is to suggest that "centrism" was some kind of fatal curse for our congressional and presidential candidates. Does anybody really think that, say, Max Cleland would have won re-election in 2002 had he been more of a loud-and-proud old-fashioned pre-Clinton Democrat? Or that Brad Carson could have won Oklahoma last year if he had come out for a single-payer health care system? Give me a break. Todd does say one thing that I agree with, though probably for different reasons than his: that Democrats need to do more on the policy and message front than simply recycle Clinton's ideas and phrases. But it's an indictment of Clinton's Democratic successors--all of us--that the current options or Democrats seem to be limited to asking WWBD? or defining ourselves simply and mindlessly through 100% opposition to whatever it is Bush says he's for. But see, I would argue that actual "Clintonism" involved a constant effort to come up with new ideas based on the enduring values of our party, focused on actually improving the lives of the American people, as the actual Clinton administration succeeded in doing so well. And that's one legacy we'd be fools to abandon.