What Happened to Clintonism?

Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton; drawing by James Ferguson

Bill Clinton was eighteen years old and already set on a career in politics when, in 1964, the Democratic Party won its most substantial victory since the New Deal. Lyndon Johnson got more than 60 percent of the popular vote in the presidential election and carried forty-four states. The Democrats ended up with sixty-eight seats in the Senate and 295 seats in the House of Representatives. But after that there was far more bad news than good for the Democrats for most of the next three decades.

For Clinton personally, every significant political setback of his long career in electoral politics was delivered by the right, not the left. He was the comanager of George McGovern’s presidential campaign in Texas in 1972, which lost the state by a two-to-one margin. He lost his first race as a candidate, for Congress from Arkansas in 1974, to a Republican. He lost his first reelection campaign as governor of Arkansas in 1980, again to a Republican. And in 1994, when Clinton was president, the Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress, plus ten governorships.

All of us have to coordinate our ambitions with the conditions of our times. Even if Bill Clinton is innately and sincerely a moderate Democrat, as a politician from Arkansas who began his career in the 1970s and 1980s there was no other realistic position for him to take. He was chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, the organization founded in 1985 to move the party to the center, at the height of the Reagan years; as president, Clinton governed mainly from the middle, lost ground politically whenever he tacked to the left, and gained it back whenever he tacked back to the right—most notably in the period between the 1994 and 1996 elections when he brought in Dick Morris as an unofficial but influential political adviser.

It’s worth remembering how successful Clintonism—an approach that combined pro-market economic policies with rhetoric that put middle-class families in the highest place of honor—seemed to be at the end of his presidency. Except for 1964, the Republicans had carried California in every presidential election from 1952 to 1988. They had carried Illinois in every election from 1968 to 1988. Clinton won both states, twice, and today it seems inconceivable that either one could go Republican in a presidential election. In his reelection campaign, Clinton won Arizona and Florida, which hadn’t gone Democratic for decades.

Before Clinton took office, it was common for people in politics to talk about a “Republican electoral lock” on the presidency, and words like “liberal” and “tax” had an evidently lethal effect on Democratic candidates. By the time Clinton was preparing to leave the White House, it seemed as if he had built a far stronger Democratic Party. The country was prosperous and at peace. The federal budget was balanced. Crime rates were down. Al Gore and George W. Bush…

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