By: Todd S. Purdum –
In September 1963, two months before his death, John F. Kennedy mused aloud to his old friend the journalist Charles Bartlett about the prospects for the 1968 presidential election, in which, he presciently worried, his brother Robert might run against Lyndon Johnson.
“He gave me the feeling he wasn’t pleased,” Bartlett would recall years later. “He wanted a record of his own. I sensed that he wanted the Kennedy administration to be Jack, and Bobby was going to turn it into a succession thing. Jack didn’t want a dynasty, although I am sure his father would have wanted that.”
By all accounts, Bill and Hillary Clinton never had any such qualms, and now their quarter-century project to build a mutual buy-one, get-one-free Clinton dynasty has ended in her defeat, and their joint departure from the center of the national political stage they had hoped to occupy for another eight years. Their exit amounts to a finale not just for themselves, but for Clintonism as a working political ideology and electoral strategy.
Twenty-five years ago, Bill Clinton almost single-handedly repositioned the Democratic Party for electoral success, co-opting and defusing Republican talking points and moving the party toward the center on issues like welfare and a balanced budget, in the process becoming the first presidential nominee of his party since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win two consecutive terms. But even as he left office after the bitter 2000 recount, and George W. Bush returned the White House to Republican hands, there were questions about whether Clinton’s political philosophy would endure beyond his own tenure.
In 2008, Barack Obama explicitly campaigned against what he saw as the small-bore, one-from-column-A and two-from-column-B policy initiatives—school uniforms and the V-chip to block violence on television—of the Clinton years. Rejecting the political advice of his Clinton-era chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, he swung for the fences instead, jammed health care reform through Congress on the narrowest of partisan votes, and paid a terrible political price, even while governing in most other ways as a pragmatic Clinton-style centrist.
What Bill and Hillary Clinton seemed to miss as they sought to burnish Bill’s legacy and build her a new one in this campaign was that the kind of “New Democrat” he’d once exemplified was now extinct, a victim first of Clinton’s own successes, and then of the economic and social dislocations of the globalism whose inevitability he foresaw when he predicted that Americans would one day “change jobs four or five times in their lifetimes!”
Bill Clinton’s “Third Way” ideology was also undone by sheer geopolitical realities—there are almost no Blue Dog Democrats left after a generation of redistricting, primary challenges and electoral defeats in the South—and by Obama’s cooler, more cerebral style of politics, which he deployed to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2008 as a strikingly fresh face.
By 2016, spurred by anger at Wall Street, and at Washington gridlock and business as usual, the Democratic Party had moved well to the left of the one Bill Clinton had inherited in 1992. And while Hillary Clinton recognized the change intellectually, she seemed unable to catch up to the practical realities of its political implications for her campaign. She embraced bold approaches on hot-button issues like immigration and gun control that would have been shocking for a Democrat in her husband’s day, and accepted what was arguably the most liberal Democratic Party platform in history, but that never seemed to be enough to satisfy younger voters, especially. “People thought she’d been conceived in Goldman Sachs’ trading desk,” says one veteran Clinton aide, noting the irony that this was millennial voters’ jaded view of a woman often seen in the 1990s as reflexively more liberal than her husband.
“Part of the problem is that there have just been lots and lots of changes in America in the past 25 years,” says Elaine Kamarck, who was a senior domestic policy adviser in Bill Clinton’s White House and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “There were just a lot of cultural issues that were relevant for Bill that were gone by the time Hillary’s campaign came along, because by and large they’d been resolved or defused.”
Kamarck points in particular to the fraught politics of race and crime, a pair of linked issues to which Clinton, as a Southern Democrat, was acutely attuned—and at a time when memories of Republicans’ disemboweling of Michael Dukakis with the infamous Willie Horton ad, were still painful and fresh.
“A Democratic Party that was seen as more sympathetic to criminals than to victims was not a Democratic Party that was going to win elections. Bill Clinton had to correct that, and he did, and by 2015 we just did not have that kind of violent crime any more,” Kamarck says. The Clintons expressed regret for their 1990s posture, in light of declining crime rates, but Donald Trump still managed to paint the pair as somehow soft on crime, cherry-picking data on rising murder rates in cities like Chicago to claim that crime was “out of control” despite FBI statistics showing just the opposite was true overall.