The Bill Clinton Comeback is Coming SoonAugust 18, 2020
For 40 years, ever since he got elected Arkansas governor at age 32 and thrown out of office at age 34, Democrats have been falling in and out of love with Bill Clinton.
At the moment, many of them are feeling distinctly out: The former president’s brand of centrism is seen as too compromising, and his private life and disreputable personal associations too compromised.
When will this generation of progressives fall back in? For some, it will be just hours from now, when the 42nd president addresses the virtual Democratic national convention. His familiar fluency surely will help some sympathizers remember why they liked him, or make some skeptics forget why they were so mad.
For others, renewed appreciation for Clinton will be much slower in coming. A quarter-century of following this singular politician, however, leaves me convinced Clinton’s reputation will not stay indefinitely in its current, depressed, state. Setback has always been followed by revival—a cycle that is likely to continue in historical argument even, at some future date, when Clinton himself is no longer alive to shape the debate.
If you think of presidential reputations as like stocks on Wall Street, now might be a good time to add some Bill Clinton to your portfolio. He is currently trading well below reasonable projections of his long-term value.
For all the pockmarks on his record—in a #MeToo era some critics regard his sexual transgressions as beyond defense or redemption—it is worth remembering some of the reasons why Clinton in 1992 ended a slump that saw Democrats losing five of the previous six presidential elections, and why in 1996 he became the first Democrat since FDR elected to two full terms.
The specific “New Democrat” rhetoric and policies, including welfare reform and fiscal discipline, that infused Clinton’s presidential campaigns and administration were reflections of the 1990s — aimed at political problems that were confronting Democrats, and public policy problems confronting the country, as defined by large blocs of voters in both parties. These are a primary source of disdain toward Clinton from an ascendant left. It’s true that some of Clinton’s remedies from those years are hardly relevant to new political imperatives and new policy problems in 2020.
But some of Clinton’s approach to politics and governing is relevant—and is woefully absent from contemporary politics. What’s more, it is a mistake to attribute Clinton’s success to some kind of political mystique. He did not prevail in two elections and an impeachment battle merely by being a silver-haired, silver-tongued charmer.
Clinton’s brand of politics, by my lights, had five identifiable, nonmystical signatures that could and should be emulated by a new generation of Democrats (or for that matter by post-Trump Republicans). These should hold merit even among people who believe Clinton should be canceled for his personal failings or who deplore his policy record.
The politics of persuasion
Go back and listen to some important Clinton speeches, including some of the early ones in 1991 (at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, or laying out his “New Covenant” agenda at his alma mater Georgetown University) as he was just beginning his first presidential campaign.
The comparison highlights the poverty of contemporary political rhetoric. Clinton’s tone is conversational, not hortatory. He makes an argument as if speaking directly to a person who has a genuinely open mind that could be shaped by a logical presentation of evidence and appeals to both self-interest and national interest.
President Donald Trump offers an exaggerated, almost cartoonish style of speech that is practiced in milder form by many other current politicians. This is language, noted one Democrat who used to help Clinton prepare speeches, whose primary purpose is to mobilize the committed. While New York Gov. Mario Cuomo once famously said that Democrats should campaign in poetry and govern in prose, Clinton believes that “politics and governing are one long conversation where you have to explain to people what went wrong and why, explain your plan to fix it, persuade them your idea is better than the other side’s,” this Democrat noted. “Today, politics tends to be heavy on assertion, light on explanation, and bereft of persuasion.”
The politics of specificity
The great curse of modern political life is abstraction. Politics is a means for asserting identity or virtue, or denouncing the moral defects of opponents. Often missing from this rhetoric is the concrete human dimension of politics—that there are real people, with actual names who live at specific addresses, who are affected by policy decisions.
Clinton was often hailed for his empathy, but this is often remembered as principally a stylistic gimmick—dewy-eyed, raspy-voice murmurings that, “I feel your pain.”
This misses the substantive dimension of empathy. Clinton’s dozen years as governor gave him a tangible feel for what really happens at the intersection of politics and ordinary lives. When battling Newt Gingrich’s Republicans in the 1990s, Clinton sometimes signaled willingness to compromise, and in other cases was much more willing to fight. The choices weren’t random. He dug in his heels against Republicans on making Medicaid a block grant program because he knew that in most state capitals the nursing home lobby would make a successful dash for the money and poor kids would get shafted.
This fluency in translation, from politics in theory to politics in the living room, is something that Barack Obama—who commanded larger vote shares in his victories than Clinton did—acknowledged that he did not possess to the same degree. In 2012, Obama called Clinton the “explainer in chief.” Hillary Clinton knows just as much or more about policy than her husband, but her inability to convey visceral connection with voters is probably the biggest reason she did not match his feat of winning the White House.
Meanwhile, in 2020, the politics of specificity and connection is at low ebb. Trump talks mostly about himself rather than the problems or aspirations of voters. Joe Biden has succeeded in building up a polling lead over Trump in part by talking hardly at all during the five months since coronavirus lockdowns began.
The politics of candor
This one may raise eyebrows. Way back in Arkansas in the early 1980s, an editorial writer tattooed Clinton with the moniker “Slick Willie.” As president, he denied lying under oath about Oval Office fellatio by claiming, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”
Clinton’s occasional instinct to try to talk himself out of jams obscures a more fundamental truth about him: He is an uncommonly transparent politician. If you want to know what he really thinks all you need to do is listen.
As White House reporters, we learned never to tune out during his evening remarks at fundraisers because Clinton would often make news with extemporaneous remarks.
Over the years, I’ve been around Clinton in plenty of not-for-quotation settings. The off-the-record Clinton is a bit earthier and more profane than he would ever be in public. But there is no large gap between what he says and how he says it between settings.
That is a considerable difference between most politicians I’ve covered, including unsuccessful Democratic nominees like Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. All possessed personalities and ideas that were vastly more compelling than their public personas; all labored with reputations for insincerity and contrivance.
An age of social media and nonstop news cycles supposedly puts a premium on human authenticity. The reality is that it puts a premium on message control and artifice.
The lesson from Bill Clinton is that there is great power in narrowing the gap between what a leader says and what he or she really thinks.
The politics of joy
“The politics of joy” was a phrase coined by Hubert Humphrey. That seemed wildly misplaced in the dark year of 1968, just as not many voters are feeling especially joyful in 2020.
But there is something to be said for a politician who fundamentally loves the business of being a politician, who has fun in the job, and invites voters to have fun also. Truth be told, Trump showed flashes of this at times in his 2016 campaign. But it has mostly receded under the weight of a messianic message (“I alone can fix it”), dark imagery (“American carnage”) and the monomania of relentless insults (“crazy Nancy”).
Journalists used to make fun of the voraciousness with which Bill Clinton plunged into a rope line at a campaign rally, shouted compliments from a loudspeaker while standing on the caboose of a train taking him to the 1996 convention (“I like your dog!” “Nice garden!”), or ran far behind schedule as his speeches ran overtime. The heaviness of public life these days, and the sourness of public debate, puts Clinton’s ebullience in an appealing light.
The politics of shared purpose
Clinton’s centrist “Third Way” politics didn’t fall out of fashion among progressives by accident. It was seen, with some fairness, as culpable in three major policy and political debacles. On policy, many moderate Democrats (including Hillary Clinton) backed George W. Bush in marching to war in Iraq. Rising inequality, and the catastrophe of the 2008 financial meltdown, shined a harsh light on how pro-business Democrats had been complicit with Republicans in not doing enough to bring the excesses of the free market to heel. And the “let’s be reasonable and work together” posture struck by many centrist Democrats seemed naïve in the face of the implacable partisanship and ideological zeal of figures from George W. Bush to Mitch McConnell and Trump.
But some on the Democratic left, in their zeal to show more fight, sometimes describe Bill Clinton as more tepid and accommodationist than he really was. There was a reason Republicans tried to evict him from office in impeachment. Bernie Sanders in a speech describing his socialist philosophy said he was inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Bill Clinton in his “New Covenant” speech likewise said his philosophy was inspired by FDR. In that speech, he denounced Reagan era conservatism for promoting “a gilded age of greed, selfishness, irresponsibility, excess, and neglect.” Laying out a triad of values that he would turn into a mantra—”opportunity, responsibility, community”—he called for an expansion of government’s role in advancing the less privileged, an expectation that people would embrace the notion that they had obligations to fellow citizens. He bemoaned a style of politics “pitting rich against poor, black against white, women against men—creating a country where we no longer recognize that we’re all in this together.”
Is that brand of politics really so obsolete in 2020?