The Sunday Take

Bill Clinton has not shrunk from the political spotlight

Bill Clinton remains engaged in American politics, providing fresh fodder for the long debate of whether he truly changed his party.
Bill Clinton remains engaged in American politics, providing fresh fodder for the long debate of whether he truly changed his party. (Brian Chilson/associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bill Clinton was all over the news Friday. He was identified as the go-between in a (failed) White House effort last year to get Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania to drop his (ultimately successful) Democratic primary challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter. And he was live, on stage, in Arkansas in a full-throated defense of embattled Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D).

In Washington, of course, the Sestak melodrama got all the attention. But Clinton's efforts to save Lincoln from defeat in the June 8 primary runoff election against Democratic Lt. Gov. Bill Halter matters more, and is more interesting. It isn't just that Lincoln is a longtime ally from the former president's home state. Her battle is in many ways Clinton's, as well. It is a fight over differences and grievances within the Democratic Party that have festered for years.

Lincoln comes out of the once-ascendant centrist wing of the Democratic Party and from the Democratic Leadership Council that was Clinton's vehicle for remaking his party en route to the White House in 1992. Her opponents represent the progressive forces that gained significant power inside the party after Clinton left office. She has been targeted for defeat by labor unions, who, as Clinton put it Friday, want to make her "a poster child for what happens when a Democrat crosses them." Her opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act is one of her alleged sins. She also has drawn the ire of progressive groups, who objected to her willingness to turn against the public option during the health-care debate.

There has been a long debate over whether Clinton truly changed his party. To win the presidency the first time, he had to convince voters that the Democrats had learned some important lessons from their wilderness years in the 1980s -- that they were "new Democrats," as he often said.

One change was to acknowledge the excesses of the Great Society, to admit that government couldn't solve all problems and that market-based solutions were often more effective. Another was to make the Democrats appear less dominated by culturally liberal ideas and organizations, as a way to start winning back some of the Reagan Democrats who had left the party in the 1980s.

In office, Clinton signed a controversial welfare reform bill over the objections of many liberals (but with the support of then staffer Rahm Emanuel). He entered into negotiations with Newt Gingrich and congressional Republicans to balance the budget. He embraced small-bore policies like school uniforms in his 1996 reelection, which frustrated Democrats who wanted him and their party to be more ambitious at a time of rising economic prosperity.

He remade his party well enough to win the White House twice for the first time since former president Franklin D. Roosevelt did it. By the time he left office in 2001, there was a consensus among Democrats around the ideas and strategies he had promoted, despite the controversy over his personal life.

That consensus has generally held up. The battle for the Democratic nomination in 2008 between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton was grounded far less in major policy disputes -- though they tried to exaggerate some of their differences -- than in personalities and leadership styles.

Their biggest difference was over the Iraq war, which Obama opposed and Hillary Clinton supported, though by the time of the primaries in 2008 their policy prescriptions were nearly identical.

But Clintonism did come in for criticism. Former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean, during his 2004 presidential campaign, was often disdainful of Bill Clinton's triangulating tactics, angering the former president. Progressive groups such as MoveOn went after his wife over the war but shared Dean's confrontational leanings.

Clinton remained immensely popular inside the party, but not all of his policies did. The biggest shift came in the area of trade policy. As a candidate and as president, Clinton tangled with organized labor trade by pushing the North American Free Trade Agreement. After he left office, and as the impact of global economics fell more heavily on workers, many Democrats moved closer to the unions' position on trade. Even Hillary Clinton sounded a tougher line on trade than her husband had while in office.

More significantly, the energy within the party shifted from the centrists and the Democratic Leadership Council to the left and the grassroots. Centrists argued that was because their ideas had been assimilated into the party permanently. Those on the left said the times demanded something different, substantively and stylistically. They demanded confrontation when George W. Bush was president and have helped perpetuate permanent warfare with the Republicans during Obama's presidency.

Clinton has not shrunk from some of these fights. He urged passage of comprehensive health care at a time when some in his party were wavering. But he knows the limits of that style of politics. His impassioned defense of Lincoln on Friday was grounded in his argument that the extremes in both parties are too dominant, which he said the voters abhor.

"Voting against Lincoln would only make the problem worse," he said, according to a report from the Arkansas News Bureau. He added, "If you want to make Washington more like it is, vote against Blanche Lincoln. Vote for this 'poster child' strategy. It will send the message to the Republicans and the Democrats: 'Back off in your corners, stop talking to each other.' "

The former president remains one of the shrewdest strategists in the Democratic Party, and he knows where elections are won and lost. He is still fighting to preserve the legacy of his presidency and the style of politics he brought to the party almost two decades ago.

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