THE PLANK JUNE 10, 2009
Terry McAuliffe's crushing defeat in yesterday's Virginia Democratic primary for governor is being hailed as a loss for Bill Clinton, the end of Clintonism and the Clinton era, and a triumph for Barack Obama and his politics. "The McAuliffe loss will be seen (rightly, mostly) as an echo of the Clinton loss and another blow to the Clinton brand," declared Politico's Ben Smith, while Hotline trumpeted, "McAuliffe Loss Wraps Clinton Era." That may be true in a very, very narrow sense--but it is for the most part false and misleading.
Most presidents assemble political machines of fundraisers, consultants, and advisors. Clinton's political retinue included McAuliffe, Mark Penn, Dick Morris, Harold Ickes, Ron Brown, and Mickey Kantor. These minions are usually not politicians, and if they eventually gain public office, it is usually in appointed positions like postmaster general or, more recently, secretary of commerce (which both Brown and Kantor held). But civil service reform and the two-term limit has prevented the creation of presidential machine politics on a par with local machine politics. Presidential machines don't usually survive a presidency.
The only reason Bill Clinton's political machine endured at all was because of Hillary Clinton, who relied on some of the same people. But it collapsed when she was defeated in the Democratic presidential primary last year. Obama co-opted much of what remained (including Clinton herself), and those he didn't co-opt went back to their own businesses or tried to establish their own political careers--like McAuliffe did. McAuliffe's defeat in Virginia was personal. Sure, Bill Clinton campaigned for him. But Virginia was never a strong state for Clinton, and it's not surprising that McAuliffe, who never held public office, was defeated by an experienced state legislator.
But more broadly, has the ascent of Obama ended the politics of the Clinton era--what is being called Clintonism? I'd draw a distinction between the Clinton of 1992-1994 and the Clinton of 1995-2000. There is enormous political continuity between the Clinton of "Putting People First" (his 1992 campaign manifesto drafted by Robert Reich and Derek Shearer) and today's Obama administration. When Clinton was elected, the economy was in recession, and Clinton's initial proposals (including a stimulus program, industrial policy, and national health insurance) anticipated what Obama has proposed during his first year. Like Obama, Clinton imagined himself as Franklin Roosevelt's successor--even paying a conspicuous visit during his first hundred days to Hyde Park.
But Clinton's political situation turned out to be more like that of Woodrow Wilson than Franklin Roosevelt. He was a Democrat governing in what turned out to be a Republican era who had been elected because of a split in the GOP; and after getting repudiated at the polls in November 1994, he had to pursue a much more cautious policy for the rest of his six years. Clinton's last six years were dominated by incremental reform and "new economy" boosterism. McAuliffe was associated with the fundraising shenanigans of those years--which certainly didn't help his attempt to win the Virginia primary.
Obama's task is one of making good on the promise, and avoiding the pitfalls, of the early Bill Clinton. He is the president Clinton aspired to be in 1993, but was prevented from being--partly due to political miscalculation (primarily on health care legislation), but mostly because of the circumstances of the time, which didn't invite the kind of bold initiatives that Clinton wanted to undertake. He has many of the same people working for him in key positions--Rahm Emmanuel, Larry Summers, and Hillary Clinton herself, to name the most obvious. They represent continuity with, rather than a break from, Clintonism, the Clinton legacy, and the Bill Clinton presidency.
--John B. Judis