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Clinton's Legacy

Marshall Whittman reflects on the Clinton legacy and proposes that too many Democrats nowadays have forgotten the lessons of Clintonism. I largely agree, but with several important caveats. The Moose writes:

Not surprisingly, the person who has raised the fallen Clinton standard is his wife. In the months after the election, Senator Clinton has best attempted to bridge the Democratic "trust gaps" in the areas of values and national security. On Meet the Press yesterday, she delivered a stellar performance from Iraq sounding like a tough Truman, JFK Democrat.
It's become something of a dogma in DLC circles that President Clinton bridged "the Democratic 'trust gap[]' in the area[] of . . . national security," but as at least one DLCer has been known to concede to me in conversation that simply isn't the case. Whether or not one thinks Clinton's national security policies were good on the merits (I think it was a mixed bag with things getting better over time) the public perception of Democratic weakness on national security continued apace throughout Clinton's term in office. He was able to overcome this long-time Democratic weakness not by actually overcoming it, but by having it magically go away as voters in the 1990s decided all of a sudden that they didn't care. It was a neat trick, but not exactly a model to emulate. Indeed, in some large part the party's current problem on national security is directly attributable to Bill Clinton.

The trouble is that after the public granted the Democrats a rare post-Vietnam opportunity to run the country, Clinton didn't seize the opportunity to turn public perceptions on this issue around. There was no effort made to articulate a liberal approach to the post-Coldwar world, or to create a cadre of credible, well-known spokespeople on these issues. As Heather Hurlburt recounted:

Late in 2000, with one eye on the presidential campaign and the other on history, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger called a group of staffers into his office. He wanted to give a major speech laying out the essence of the Clinton administration's national security doctrine and the challenge of transformation that lay ahead. We had a good story to tell, he said. Though the administration had not garnered high marks for security savvy in its early years, we had, as they say, grown in office. In the last five years, we had fought--and won--two wars under trying circumstances, deploying cutting-edge weaponry in Bosnia and Kosovo. We had not merely held NATO together but boosted its size and sense of purpose. We had stitched together a new web of agreements and alliances to constrain potential enemies and control weapons of mass destruction. We had seen the future of war: smaller-scale, higher-tech, faster and more diffuse. Now Berger wanted to formalize our thinking about the next challenge: modernizing the military, and American thinking about the military, to meet the new threats.

It would have been a great speech, and this former speechwriter has a file of drafts six inches thick to prove it. But Berger never gave it. White House staff convened meetings, prepared papers, and debated drafts with Berger, from whom we had full interest and engagement (the kind that drives speechwriters to hide under the desk). What we lacked was the kind of intense policy debate that usually characterizes White House life. No fevered arguments among staffers and Cabinet officials, just prolonged discussions agonizing over how best to present our record. Through the next month, while the Berger draft gathered dust on my desk, I wrote speeches on welfare, trade with China, women in American history, and why Middle East politics are like golf. Meanwhile, the security speech-that-never-was became an office joke. As quickly as Berger would slot it into his schedule, something else would knock it out. None of the White House political staff took any interest in it. Eyes didn't just glaze over; they rolled when I mentioned it. Why did I want to work on something so dull, when I could be writing about the budget battle?

This error was, perhaps, understandable in light of the situation, but it was a very real -- and, in retrospect, very grave -- error. This isn't to drag Bill Clinton or his substantive policymaking through the mud, but simply to see that just as the DLC argued for a clear-eyed view of the Democrats' problems in the 1980s, we have to have a clear-eyed view of what did and did not go right in the 1990s if we want to understand the national security politics of the 21st century. Similarly, on culture, it's a lot easier to get culturally conservative working class voters to pull the lever for Democrats if you stumble into a serious economic downturn à la 1992. Clinton did some good work on this topic -- better, in many ways, than Kerry did -- but if Kerry had been running during '92-style economic circumstances, there can be little doubt that he would have won. Real, but much more mild, economic problems simply aren't as useful to a challenger. And then there's the Perot factor.

It's also noteworthy that Clinton and the also-cited JFK employed some tactics that, while effective, were pretty morally dubious. The made-up "missile gap" was an important element of the very close 1960 presidential election. This is to say nothing of the fact that Kennedy would certainly have lost had he not been able to successfully appeal to white supremacists in the South, a tactic that's not likely to work again in the future. Clinton, meanwhile, made some praiseworthy moves to the center, but also some dubious ones like the decision to rush home and personally oversee the execution of a retarded African-American man as a means of "proving" that he wouldn't be unduly influenced by a desire to "pander" to the African-American community.

Realistically, there are lessons to be learned here, but no magic formula for future leaders to emulate.

February 21, 2005 | Permalink

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» Democrats and National Security from Andrew Olmsted dot com
Matt Yglesias, like many smart Democrats, is working hard to develop a solid platform for the Democratic Party in 2006 and 2008 after the party's troubles of the past four years. Today he's looking at the Democrats and national security,... [Read More]

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» Democrats and National Security from Andrew Olmsted dot com
Matt Yglesias, like many smart Democrats, is working hard to develop a solid platform for the Democratic Party in 2006 and 2008 after the party's troubles of the past four years. Today he's looking at the Democrats and national security,... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 22, 2005 8:48:57 PM

Comments

Matt wrote: "He was able to overcome this long-time Democratic weakness not by actually overcoming it, but by having it magically go away as voters in the 1990s decided all of a sudden that they didn't care."

It's not that it magically went away or that voters didn't care. It's that there weren't any serious threats to the US until 9/11. 9/11 didn't "change everything," but it did make citizens feel threatened in a way they hadn't been in some time.

Posted by: Jon K | Feb 21, 2005 12:59:37 PM

Clinton, meanwhile, made some praiseworthy moves to the center, but also some dubious ones like the decision to rush home and personally oversee the execution of a retarded African-American man as a means of "proving" that he wouldn't be unduly influenced by a desire to "pander" to the African-American community.

When you see someone who knows perfectly well that the view he's adopted for political purposes is wrong, but who adopts it anyway out of cyncial thirst for power, well, then, that's just disgusting.

I agree with both MYs.

Posted by: Delicious Pundit | Feb 21, 2005 1:08:24 PM

Clinton, meanwhile, made some praiseworthy moves to the center, but also some dubious ones like the decision to rush home and personally oversee the execution of a retarded African-American man as a means of "proving" that he wouldn't be unduly influenced by a desire to "pander" to the African-American community.

When you see someone who knows perfectly well that the view he's adopted for political purposes is wrong, but who adopts it anyway out of cyncial thirst for power, well, then, that's just disgusting.

I agree with both MYs.

Posted by: Delicious Pundit | Feb 21, 2005 1:08:52 PM

So it seems that you & Hurlburt are basically saying Clinton tried to close the gap on a policy level, but not on a political level--and that Sandy Berger's attempts to try that, at least once, were stymied by the fact that everyone in the White House agreed with him? Or knew that Mthe other side (Republicans) agreed, and therefore there was no battle, and therefore it was uninteresting? I mean, what do we need to do to foster the kind of passionate feelings about this subject? Do we need a bunch of Republicans telling us we're weak on security, or a bunch of Republicans espousing weak security views? Or do we need to (internally) hear more from people who are weak on security or who are strong on security? If debate fosters passion, how do we want to frame the debate?

Posted by: Saheli | Feb 21, 2005 1:11:08 PM

We have an Orwellian way of defining "national security" but if it involves more crap like Iraq count me out, they can go on "defending" themselves for all I care. We are getting real, real, close to recreating the Vietnam taboo about "defending" ourselves and maybe having the Republicans as the party of "national security" becomes an albatross.

Posted by: Ed Marshall | Feb 21, 2005 1:12:42 PM

but if it involves more crap like Iraq count me out, they can go on "defending" themselves for all I care.

Yeah, see, there we go getting all negative again. (Sorry Ed, no offense.) I see this all the time in the Bay Area, even in New York. I realize that's not even remotely representative of Democratic America, but it might be a little overly representative of Democratic Speechwriters. . .no, no, no! Not more crap like Iraq! The whole point is that Democrats have plenty of real, important things they want to do on National security that is not crap. Do not assume that because people want to be strong in national security they want to be strong in crap. They explicitly want to be strong in not crap. You know. Better scanning of the ports. Actually fighting the terrorists where they are hanging out. (which space has become much larger now, so I guess GWB finally got around to doing that. . .ugh.) Spending lots of money on human intelligence. Giving real communications gear to our firefighters. Like that. How do make it sound good though?

Posted by: Saheli | Feb 21, 2005 1:23:23 PM

"if Kerry had been running during '92-style economic circumstances, there can be little doubt that he would have won."

I'm not nearly as sure about this.

Clinton won by only 6 points in '92, and it's quite possible that Kerry could've run 3 points weaker than Clinton.

A Bill Clinton, or even a John Edwards, would've been able to beat Bush relatively easily in 2004. Candidates do matter.

"Similarly, on culture, it's a lot easier to get culturally conservative working class voters to pull the lever for Democrats if you stumble into a serious economic downturn à la 1992. Clinton did some good work on this topic -- better, in many ways, than Kerry did..."

Either that is a statement of supersonic understatement, or you don't really understand how fundamentally wide the gap was between Clinton and Kerry on their ability to appeal to culturally conservative working class voters.

"The trouble is that after the public granted the Democrats a rare post-Vietnam opportunity to run the country, Clinton didn't seize the opportunity to turn public perceptions on this issue around."

You play the cards you are handed. It's worth noting that Bush didn't emphasize foreign affairs in the 2000 election, which he certainly would have done had there been anything to exploit.

Clinton turned around public perception of the Democratic Party on economics and (pre-Lewinsky) on values in an amazingly dramatic way. There was no opportunity to do the same for foreign policy given the lack of threats.

"It's also noteworthy that Clinton and the also-cited JFK employed some tactics that, while effective, were pretty morally dubious."

And if Kerry had taken the morally dubious position of enthusiastically voicing support for the anti-gay marriage referenda, he'd probably be President right now.

Winning national elections is not for the squeamish.

"Realistically, there are lessons to be learned here, but no magic formula for future leaders to emulate."

Sure there is. Be a liberal hawk on defense. Be sympathetic to traditional values on culture. Be a lunchbox liberal on economics. Voila. This isn't rocket science.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 21, 2005 1:27:24 PM

Do not assume that because people want to be strong in national security they want to be strong in crap.

National Security is a euphemism that translates roughly into "beligerence toward states that have human rights problems and a leadership that isn't sufficiently respectful". That's going to continue and Hillary playing good soldier and giving us the Good News from Iraq shows exactly what their intentions are and it has nothing to do with real national security and way more with embracing the euphemism.

Posted by: Ed Marshall | Feb 21, 2005 1:31:25 PM

I'm a relatively recent-comer to the Democratic party (we're talking around 2002/2003), and I can tell you that one of the impressions I had of Clinton during the late-nineties was that he was weak on defense. I was all ready to hand over power to Bush and the Republicans in 2000, as I thought they'd be better at defense. I now regret such a mindset, but there you go.

That having been said, in hindsight it's quite obvious that we did have threats to our national security during the '90s, and that those threats weren't really acted on. Some of that blame falls onto the Clinton administration's shoulders, but, given the polarization which has gone on about our wars since 9/11, does anyone really think that Clinton, without a big event to bolster him, would have received the nation's blessing to go to war. Unfortunately, the first WTC attack, as well as the various bombings elsewhere in the world, weren't enough to rouse the American people.

Oh, and we can't leave out Republicans from the blame. It was their witch hunt, after all, that distracted Clinton during much of his second term.

Posted by: Matt (not MY) | Feb 21, 2005 1:37:35 PM

That having been said, in hindsight it's quite obvious that we did have threats to our national security during the '90s, and that those threats weren't really acted on.

I think you could have glassed Afghanistan at some point before 2000 and absolutely nothing would have turned out different.

The real bitch about all this is that states have become absolutely irrelevant and you can bring on universal conscription and build up the biggest army on the planet and none of it is going to do anything but encourage terrorists.

Posted by: Ed Marshall | Feb 21, 2005 1:45:34 PM

To add a voice to the chorus: Speaking as an adult in the 90s, Clinton was most definitely perceived as weak on national security. It's the economy, stupid.
The perception had some justice, for which Clinton shoulders a small part of the blame. Powell has a fair share of it.

Posted by: John Isbell | Feb 21, 2005 2:19:48 PM

I think that given another four years in office, the Clinton administration would have gone after Bin Laden for the Cole.

Posted by: praktike | Feb 21, 2005 2:21:24 PM

Good post. But I do think Clinton has gotten something of a bad rap on the whole "racing back to execute a retarded man" thing (even conceding its general ugliness).

First, I believe that the man was not brain damaged when he committed the crime, but only became so when he was shot by police. Now, I'm not sure that it makes sense to hold someone fully responsible for crimes they committed when they were in some non-trivial sense a different person, but doing so is less heinous than killing someone who lacked the capacity for full moral responsibility when the crime was committed. I abhor the death penalty and hardly admire Clinton for trying to use it to win political points, but it's not *quite* as bad as it's been made out to be.

Secondly, this is a perfect example of the double-bind Democratic politicians find themselves in. If Clinton *didn't* do something like that, he would have been condemned as an elite who is out of touch with the values of regular Americans. But when he *does* do it he gets condemned anyway on the assumption that, since he's an elite who is out of touch with the values of regular Americans, he can't really believe what he is doing, and thus is guilty of pandering. Republicans never face that bind. Indeed, as Matt pointed out in a recent post, Bush's position on homosexuality smacks of pure opportunism, but he's never called on it because the convention is that when Republicans behave as moral primitives they are simply acting on the basis of their authentic values, whereas Democrats are destined to be condemned as either out of touch elites or craven opportunists.

Posted by: pjs | Feb 21, 2005 2:26:59 PM

"if Kerry had been running during '92-style economic circumstances, there can be little doubt that he would have won."

On second reading, I realize there are two different ways to interpret this.

- If Kerry had been running during '92-style economic circumstances in '92, I don't think he would've been a shoo-in to win.

- If Kerry had been running during '92-style economic circumstances in '04, then he would've easily won.

Understanding the distinction is to understand how much Clinton was able to positively improve the Democrats' brand on economics and values.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 21, 2005 2:28:14 PM

"First, I believe that the man was not brain damaged when he committed the crime, but only became so when he was shot by police."

Billy Ray Rector shot himself in the head as police were closing in on him.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 21, 2005 2:30:29 PM

What Petey said. GHWB was a beaten man before the election.

Posted by: John Isbell | Feb 21, 2005 2:33:18 PM

"We had stitched together a new web of agreements and alliances to constrain potential enemies and control weapons of mass destruction."

One of the key problematic perceptions that the public has with many Democrats is their ability to confuse agreements about dealing with a problem with dealing with a problem. A treaty that doesn't get enforced isn't dealing with the problem. That is why the NPT is so frustrating. On paper it makes it appear that the international community wants to important things to stop proliferation, but in practice the international community just dithers about Iran and gave up on North Korea about 15 years ago.

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw | Feb 21, 2005 2:39:34 PM

"Understanding the distinction is to understand how much Clinton was able to positively improve the Democrats' brand on economics and values."

Man, considering how badly you guys fared in Congressional elections back then, I can only imagine how bad it would have been if you hadn't had Clinton polishing your image... LOL

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 21, 2005 2:42:01 PM

That is why the NPT is so frustrating. On paper it makes it appear that the international community wants to important things to stop proliferation, but in practice the international community just dithers about Iran and gave up on North Korea about 15 years ago.

Gave up on North Korea? That would I believe be the Bush administration.

Everything was mothballed and even if you take the North Koreans at face value that they had some sort of secret program going during the time they had agreed not to it couldn't have been anything as serious as popping the locks off the reactor and reprocessing plutonium.

This did not happen until Mr. W decided he didn't want to be blackmailed by this little pygmy and quit sending them fuel oil and they can freeze for all he gives a shit. Well, that's great and all but maybe instead of freezing they decide to sell off a bomb to buy the oil?

Posted by: Ed Marshall | Feb 21, 2005 2:52:44 PM

"Man, considering how badly you guys fared in Congressional elections back then, I can only imagine how bad it would have been if you hadn't had Clinton polishing your image... LOL"

The GOP gains in the House came almost exclusively during the '94 elections, and came almost exclusively in areas that the Democrats lost had their majority in 25 years before.

Those seats were low hanging fruit, just waiting for the death and retirement of incumbents, a Republican able to nationalize Congressional elections the way Gingrich managed to do, and a Democratic administration and Congress working together for the first time since the Democrats lost their national majority.

'94 was a train-wreck that had been waiting to happen for 25 years. It's hard to hold Congress indefinitely when you don't have a national majority.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 21, 2005 2:54:11 PM

"This did not happen until Mr. W decided he didn't want to be blackmailed by this little pygmy and quit sending them fuel oil and they can freeze for all he gives a shit."

Guess you weren't paying attention in 1998 or 1999. I'm shocked.

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw | Feb 21, 2005 3:16:41 PM

Did you read what I wrote?

Posted by: Ed Marshall | Feb 21, 2005 3:25:57 PM

Given that Clinton did not get us into Somalia (what % of Americans know that) and that the good work done in the region formerly known as Yugoslavia was worth high marks, 'Black Hawk Down' is a picture of defeat and withdrawal, and 'Behind Enemy Lines' is an interesting portrayal of 'brave military' versus 'cowardly government and internationals'.

Just getting in touch with mass culture and 'liberal hollywood media'.

Americans in general are very poorly in touch with the reality of their own situation, much less the global situation.

Posted by: TomR | Feb 21, 2005 4:03:05 PM

Actually, Sebastian, one of the genuinely difficult-to-understand things about the last thirty years is why there hasn't been more nuclear proliferation. A state is crazy, in realist terms, not to acquire nukes. Are you saying the NPT has nothing to do with it?

Posted by: Gareth | Feb 21, 2005 6:06:50 PM

"and a Democratic administration and Congress working together for the first time since the Democrats lost their national majority."

Now, that's truly amusing. Another way to describe it is that, getting the White house back after 12 years out in the cold, your party went totally apeshit, and frightened the public so much that at the earliest possible opportunity they handed both houses of Congress to the GOP.

Supposing you get your hands on the levers of power again, you think you'd be more restrained? Or will you go berserk again, and blow it, maybe for good? I'm betting the latter.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Feb 21, 2005 6:37:31 PM

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