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GO BACK TO WHAT WORKS (Be Like Bill)

By Al From and Bruce Reed
Sunday, June 11, 2006

As the 2006 and 2008 elections loom ever nearer, Democrats are racking their brains for a political philosophy that can return the party to power. Everywhere, we hear the same lament: If only Democrats had a proven formula for winning elections and governing the country.

Fortunately, we do: It's called Clintonism.

By any logical standard, Democrats of every stripe ought to be embracing Clintonism and its central tenets -- providing people with more opportunity while demanding more responsibility, and being willing to try new methods to realize progressive ideals. As an instrument of progress, it's beyond compare. Just recall its achievements: record budget surpluses, rising incomes, more than 22 million new jobs, millions leaving welfare and poverty for work.

As a political formula, its record is just as impressive. Not only was Bill Clinton the first Democratic president in 60 years to be reelected, but consider this: In the three elections before 1992, Democrats averaged 58 electoral votes. In 1992 and 1996, Clinton averaged 375. He won a dozen red states twice.

So why haven't Democratic elites embraced Clintonism -- particularly after the ill-fated campaigns of 2000 and 2004, when party nominees who shied away from it didn't carry a single Southern state? Unfortunately, some in our party never accepted Clinton's willingness to challenge orthodoxy to achieve progressive ends on welfare reform, fiscal responsibility, crime and trade.

And perversely, many in the party have also held Clinton's enormous political success against him. Precisely because he was so popular -- leaving office with a 66 percent approval rating in the Gallup poll -- they assume he must have betrayed Democratic principles along the way.

Not so. Clinton won handily because he reconnected the Democratic Party to the principles that had made it a majority party in the first place: Andrew Jackson's credo of opportunity for all, Franklin D. Roosevelt's thirst for innovation and John F. Kennedy's ethic of mutual responsibility. He put forward the most ambitious Democratic agenda since Lyndon B. Johnson, and the most broadly successful one since FDR.

Clintonism has never been about mushy compromise and electoral expedience. From the beginning, it has been a tough-minded attempt to modernize liberalism and solve the nation's problems. Today, Democratic governors and legislatures nationwide are applying its principles in new initiatives to reinvent government, reform high school education and promote college.

If Democrats win in 2006 and 2008, the party will need Clintonism more than ever. The problems President Bush will leave behind, from deep deficits to a calamitous foreign policy, cry out for the bold pragmatism Clinton pioneered.

Democrats ought not bury Clintonism. If we're smart, we'll write its second act.

afrom@dlc.org

breed@dlc.org

Al From is founder of the Democratic Leadership Council. Bruce Reed is president of the council and coauthor of the upcoming book "The Plan: Big Ideas for America" (Public Affairs).

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