The End of the Clinton Era of Democratic Politics

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The elections of 1992 and 2016 mark the beginning and the probable end of one of the great runs in political history.Photo: Cynthia Johnson/Liaison Agency; Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The contrast in the bookend images of the beginning and end of the Clinton presidential campaigns could not be much starker. In 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign broke a Republican Electoral College lock, and he took office as the leader of “different kind of Democratic Party” — one more in sync with both centrist impulses among white voters. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign broke a Democratic presidential winning streak — though it did maintain a winning streak in the national popular vote.

In 1992, Bill Clinton led a so-called New Democratic movement that represented successful congressional and state and local elected officials impatient with the national party’s fecklessness. In 2016, Hillary Clinton represented a final toehold of Democratic power in Washington, even as the Donkey Party’s strength out in the states reached a low ebb.

The contrasts go on and on. In 1992, Bill Clinton became the first (and, up until now, last) Democratic presidential candidate since 1980 to carry the white working class; his campaign spent a lot of time looking at how to appeal to the “Reagan Democrats” in places like Macomb County, Michigan. On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was largely done in by a historically poor performance in this same demographic, especially in states like Michigan (she lost Macomb County by more than 10 points).

In 1992, Bill Clinton was the leader of a young, insurgent, policy-oriented branch of his party challenging the “paleoliberals” who were still living in a social democratic wayback machine and the identity politicians who had forgotten how to construct a broadly appealing message. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was the representative of older forces in her party; she left younger voters cold in the primaries — running against a septuagenarian social democrat, no less — and lukewarm in the general election. Her main emotional appeal revolved around her identity as a woman.

In 1992, Bill Clinton was very much on the offensive. In 2016, his wife was largely on the defensive from the beginning to the end of the whole campaign.

This story of decline is not just about the Clintons, of course. Even though he defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries, the Obama administration is usually — quite rightly, I would say — viewed as a continuation of the Clinton tradition in policy and politics. Indeed, the familiar observation that Hillary Clinton was running for “Obama’s third term” this year could quite easily yield to a broader characterization that she was running for a fifth term for the Clinton-Obama brand of center-left politics.

You could certainly see this in her campaign and her government-in-waiting: crammed with the best and brightest of both the Clinton and Obama campaigns and the Clinton and Obama administrations. When the good ship Hillary sank on the evening of November 8, an enormous amount of talent and accumulated experience went into the vasty deep along with her presidential aspirations.

As my colleague Eric Levitz observed today, there is now a leadership vacuum in the Democratic Party that will most likely be filled, for the moment at least, by decidedly non-centrist “populists” like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (if Bernie were a decade younger, he would almost certainly be the de facto leader of the party — but he’s not). Looking for a “centrist of the future” is a tough job. Self-styled Democratic centrists in office today are a pretty colorless lot, aside from characters like Rahm Emanuel and Andrew Cuomo who enrage progressives. Perhaps Kirsten Gillibrand or Julian Castro or Gavin Newsom or Maggie Hassan can revive the old center-left brand. But aside from leadership, the bigger problem may be about ideas.

For all of Hillary Clinton’s vast policy chops, and the array of advisers she had at her command, she drifted away from quite a few of the old Clinton family themes. This phenomenon is almost universally attributed to political opportunism — she repudiated the TPP and emphasized a lot of old left-labor policy prescriptions, it was broadly assumed, first to preempt Bernie Sanders’s appeal and then to keep Trump from outflanking Democrats on the “populist” front. But beneath all of the politics was a much more fundamental problem: The whole conception of the relationship between activist government and the private sector the Clinton tradition had maintained just was not credible anymore.

Central to the entire Clintonian New Democratic movement (of which I was a loyal foot soldier for a long time) was the belief that the best way to achieve progressive policy goals was by harnessing and redirecting the wealth that a less-regulated and more-innovative private sector alone could generate. That seemed to work during the late 1990s and sporadically even later. But the economic collapse at the end of the Bush administration and the struggle to head off growing inequality throughout the Obama administration has made the create-then-redistribute model for Democratic economic policy less and less satisfying, while creating a backlash among those who view any Democratic cheerleading for the private sector — especially the financial community — as a de facto act of betrayal signaling a high probability of personal corruption.

As Neil Irwin noted in an especially insightful recent column, even within Hillary Clinton’s policy apparatus there was a steady trend toward abandoning the old Clintonian model and instead focusing on a predistributive economic model that sought to shift wealth from the top to the middle and bottom of the income brackets by capturing more of it for the “masses” at the very beginning — via instruments ranging from high minimum wages and employer mandates to aggressive antitrust action and strong support for collective bargaining. This very different policy emphasis, and with it a more hostile attitude toward the corporate sector, was not just a matter of “shifting to the left” to head off Bernie Sanders; it was an acknowledgement that the old Clinton (and to a large extent Obama) economic strategy had failed substantively and politically.

One way to look at it is that old-school labor-oriented liberalism has finally won its very extended argument with centrists and is ready to reassume leadership of the Democratic Party under the banner of Bernie Sanders or Sherrod Brown. Another way to look at it is that neither wing of the party has some magic formula. And that problem extends beyond economic policy, too. Faced with the aggressively reactionary cultural thematics of the Trump campaign, progressive “populists” often fell into their old habit of condescendingly telling white working-class voters their most fondly cherished beliefs were just neurotic symptoms of their “real” economic class grievances. And as Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate gaffe about the “deplorables” showed, centrists often had little to say to cultural traditionalists other than “Please, hurry up and die off.”

For a very long time, the Clinton/Obama style of policy and politics represented the best politically feasible vehicle progressives had devised for managing an era of enormous economic and cultural change without alienating a majority of the electorate or forgetting the big prize of a fairer and more diverse country. It all seems to be falling apart at the moment, but Democrats really do need to move beyond a choice between the best thinking from the recent or the distant past. While the Clinton project in national governance has seemingly come to an end, it would not be wise for Democrats to throw their fortunes entirely into the proposition that the ideas Bernie Sanders has been relentlessly promoting for 40 years just now happen to be exactly right.