December 15, 2003


With Endorsement of Dean, Gore Steers Democrats Away From Clintonism (Ronald Brownstein, December 15, 2003, LA Times)

As a political movement, Clintonism arguably was born on May 6, 1991, when Bill Clinton delivered a seminal speech on his "New Democratic" vision to a conference of the Democratic Leadership Council in Cleveland.

Political historians may conclude that Clintonism was eclipsed as the dominant set of ideas in the Democratic Party on Tuesday, when Al Gore, Clinton's vice president, endorsed Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential race.

Dean has demonstrated many assets in his bid for the Democratic nomination. He's run a groundbreaking campaign that has changed forever the way candidates look at the Internet. He's shown the capacity to inspire great passion among Democratic activists. He speaks the way a boxer jabs, with sharp thrusts that strike many voters as heartfelt and uninfected by political calculation.

But whatever his other virtues, it's difficult to argue that Dean upholds the political philosophy that Clinton advanced. Indeed, Dean is probably the Democratic contender who most directly rejects Clinton's vision.

By endorsing Dean, Gore has continued the journey away from Clinton that began in Gore's own 2000 presidential campaign. More important, the former vice president's endorsement suggests that just three years after Clinton left office, key portions of the Democratic establishment most associated with him are willing to acquiesce, if not to help, as Dean moves to redirect the party. [...]

[A]ll of Dean's arguments about the best approach for Democrats echo the left's complaints about Clinton; Dean's signature line that he intends to represent the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" is the description that liberals used to distinguish themselves from centrist "New Democrats" associated with Clinton. "That was the anti-Clinton line," says Al From, founder of the DLC, a centrist party group.

The distance between Dean and Clinton is measured partly in policy. Dean shares Clinton's commitment to fiscal discipline (though Dean has offered a health-care plan much more expensive than anything Clinton proposed after his initial proposal collapsed).

But Dean has rejected Clinton's emphasis on lowering trade barriers, his push to use the federal government as a lever to force greater accountability in the schools and his effort to balance tax increases on the wealthy with tax cuts for the middle class.

In conflicts such as Bosnia and Kosovo, Clinton worked to erase the post-Vietnam suspicion that Democrats flinched at using military force. Dean has insisted he is not reflexively opposed to using force. But by centering his campaign on opposition to the war in Iraq, Dean is steering the Democrats back toward their pre-Clinton identity as the party most dubious about committing troops abroad.

As important as the difference on issues is the contrast in tone. Though his personal problems threw sand in the gears, Clinton relentlessly sought to reconnect Democrats with swing voters through themes such as personal responsibility, government reform, national strength and bipartisan cooperation; he often said he intended to transcend "brain-dead politics in both parties."

Dean, by contrast, offers a biting, sometimes red-faced, partisanship that presents issues from abortion and civil rights for gay and lesbian Americans to taxes as an unambiguous conflict between right (liberals) and wrong (conservatives); in contrast to Clinton's call for a new synthesis between left and right, Dean says the Democratic Party's principal problem is that it has blurred too many differences with the Republican Party.

Now, even if you're a Democrat it must be relatively easy to convince yourself that Bill Clinton is such a contemptible man that failing to follow him should be seen a virtue, not a political sin. But substitute Tony Blair for Bill Clinton in the analysis and it becomes clear that what the Dean/Gore wing is steering the Party away from is the opportunity--which Bill Clinton too failed to take advantage of because he had to jag Left in order to get liberals to oppose his impeachment--to move the institution radically to the Right and thereby capture the middle ground.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 15, 2003 10:56 AM

Clintonism was a coherent ideology? Come again?

If Clintonism consists of a set of core beliefs, they might be summarized thus:

1. Bill Clinton is the greatest thing in the universe.

2. The purpose of every person and thing in the universe is to glorify (or at least satisfy) Bill Clinton.

3. Any person who does not glorify Bill Clinton must be ruthlessly destroyed.

4. Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.

5. Close the door, Monica.

Posted by: Mike Morley at December 15, 2003 12:52 PM

Clinton was never really a centrist. In his first days in office he pushed gays in the military. He and his wife pushed a single payor, universal health care plan. He only went as close to the center as he was forced to by circumstances.

On the other hand, Dean really is more a centrist.

How strange, that the perceptions should be exactlty the reverse!

Posted by: marcus tullius cicero at December 15, 2003 1:50 PM

Meanwhile down at the farm, Breaux is gone. oj, are you not missing an entry for the "60:40 Files"?

Posted by: MG at December 15, 2003 2:57 PM

I am not pleased with your analysis that Bill Clinton was in any fashion a centrist or moderate. This has been a constant theme for his 8 years in office. It's all talk and no substance. He did sign off on NAFTA, but that wasn't totally out of character, since Gary Hart and other Democrats from farm states had been pushing it for years. On all other issues he came down on the side of the most leftist elements of the Democratic party. His platform never varied an inch from the same platform of Al Gore (an extremist on environmentalism if there ever has been). His proposals for nationalized healthcare was his typical take on issues.
If you have to grant a Democrat some benefit of doubt as being a moderate, then a better example would be Gary Hart or Joe Lieberman neither of which will ever receive the nomination.

Posted by: h-man at December 15, 2003 3:42 PM


In 1992 Bill Clinton ran against crime, taxes, deficits, black activism (Sista Souljah in front of Jesse Jackson), the soft on China policy of GHW Bush, etc., etc., etc. He ran in favor of tax cuts, death penalty, free trade, Welfare reform, etc.

He obviously didn't govern as he ran, but that's who he ran as.

Posted by: oj at December 15, 2003 3:53 PM