Bill Clinton’s Job This Week

Andrew Sullivan —  Sep 4 2012 @ 12:35pm


I wrote last week that Bill Clinton’s speech will be as important as Obama’s in Charlotte – especially in reaching out to jittery independents. Lizza unpacks the Clinton-Obama relationship:

For Clinton, Obama’s solicitousness is a welcome affirmation of his legacy and, perhaps, an opportunity to boost his wife’s Presidential prospects. For Obama, the reconciliation could help him win in November. It’s also an ideological turnaround: Obama, who rose to the Oval Office in part by pitching himself as the antidote to Clintonism, is now presenting himself as its heir apparent. It’s a shrewd, even Clintonian, tactical maneuver.

Peter Boyer argues, however, that Obama’s policies are unlike Clinton’s:

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.”

Boyer’s piece is deeply unpersuasive to me. First, the “you didn’t build that” line is obviously a lie – and Clinton was an advocate of investing in infrastructure, and education as much as Obama and more protective of Medicare. Welfare has been reformed – and all Obama has done is allow states to innovate to make the work requirement more effective. On taxes, Obama has cut them in a severe recession, while Clinton wisely raised them in a much milder downturn because he had some Republicans to back him. Boyer then channels Al From – remember him? – and suggests Obama is more left-wing than Clinton – without contextualizing that with respect to completely different circumstances. If you inherit the worst recession since the 1930s, you are not somehow inherently more left-liberal when you add a modest stimulus; you are following mainstream economics. And he quotes Doug Schoen – Clinton fanatic and Fox News attack-Obama Democrat – to diss Obama thus:

“What David Axelrod and Obama have done is they have substituted class warfare for Clintonism,” says Doug Schoen, a Democratic political analyst and pollster (including for Newsweek and The Daily Beast) who has advised both Clintons. “At every juncture, they have substituted class-based politics—resentment of the rich, taxing the rich—for fiscal discipline, and prudence.”


Obama has cut taxes for the middle class, got us out of Iraq, decimated al Qaeda, pushed through universal health insurance (which the Clintons, following From’s advice, failed to do), cut Medicare, saved the auto industry (and got the money back), saved the banks (and got most of that money back too), adopted a truly innovative education policy (Race To The Top), invested in more clean energy than Clinton ever did, and passed a stimulus bill that was a third tax cuts … and he’s a liberal, while Clinton was a centrist? Does Doug Schoen believe that if Obama had inherited the economy of 1992, he would have behaved much differently? And does anyone think the much more radical GOP is today even capable of cooperating on anything? The man Clinton was able to deal with – Gingrich – called the Ryan plan “right-wing social engineering.” My issue with Boyer’s piece is that it barely touches the different GOP that Obama has to deal with – and tried manfully to engage. And that its talking points are from the 1990s, an entirely different time with very different challenges.

Ed Kilgore lays out Clinton’s “urgent opportunity and obligation in Charlotte”:

[T]o demolish, as no one else can, the mendacious claim that Obama is unraveling successful and popular Clinton policies, most notably the 1996 welfare reform legislation. Most of the Romney/Ryan ads playing on this racially heavy-handed theme feature Clinton’s image, supporting a much longer series of assertions by the GOP candidate and his campaign that Obama is a radical old-school social democrat who is determined to unravel Clinton’s “centrist reforms” of his party and of the public sector.

Which was Boyer’s thrust as well. It’s not true.

(Photo: US President Barack Obama embraces former President Bill Clinton during a campaign event in New York on June 4, 2012. By Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)