A third Clinton term?

By Marc A. Thiessen
Tuesday, December 14, 2010

It was the American left's nightmare come to life: Bill Clinton, the Great Triangulator himself, back at the White House podium on Friday, selling Barack Obama's tax deal with Republicans. As if he'd never left, Clinton held forth in classic form. Asked about the criticism Obama was taking from his own party, Clinton bit his lower lip and empathized. "A lot of them are hurting now, and I get it," he said soothingly. "But we had an election. The results are what they are. The numbers will only get worse in January, in terms of negotiating." Besides, Clinton said, it's a pretty good deal. "A lot of hard-core conservatives think the Republicans gave too much," Clinton said, citing Charles Krauthammer, whom he called "a brilliant man."

This is precisely what liberal Democrats believed they had put behind them when they chose Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries. With Obama, the left thought they had finally elected a True Believer. But instead of delivering a second New Deal, it now looks like Obama may deliver the third Clinton term. Liberals see how the president has positioned himself between the "hostage takers" on the right and the "sanctimonious" left, and have discovered - to their horror - that Obama knows how to triangulate after all.

Clinton and Krauthammer are right - Obama did cut a pretty good deal. The president managed to convince Republicans (who just campaigned on a platform of fiscal responsibility) to support hundreds of billions in new deficit spending and to abandon their long-standing promise to make the death tax extinct - agreeing to a massive 35 percentage-point tax increase instead. Getting your opponents to abandon two of their core principles just weeks after they thumped you at the polls is pretty impressive.

But the left is unimpressed. Instead, it has unleashed a fusillade of pent-up rage at Obama. In recent days, the president has been attacked for everything from freezing federal workers' pay to striking a free-trade deal with South Korea. He has been excoriated for his failure to fight for a carbon tax, amnesty for illegals and a public option in health care. He has been chastised for not closing Guantanamo, not ending the war in Afghanistan and not prosecuting Bush administration officials for war crimes. On The Post's opinion page this month, one liberal activist even called for a Democratic primary challenge - not to defeat Obama, mind you, but to force him to abandon his "record of spinelessness" and embrace a "populist agenda."

Apparently, the lesson the left has learned from its historic shellacking at the polls - the biggest loss of seats since 1948 - is that Obama has not been liberal enough. First Democrats reelected Nancy Pelosi as their House leader and tasked her with keeping Obama in line. And now they are busy forming a circular firing squad over the tax compromise. Was losing 63 seats in November not enough for them?

Obama is a liberal president governing a center-right nation. A Gallup poll showed that just 20 percent of Americans call themselves liberal, while 42 percent are conservative and 35 percent are moderate. After he spent his first two years in office alienating moderates and energizing conservatives, it should be obvious that Obama cannot succeed by appealing to the 20 percent liberal minority. This is a fact that the president appears to be grudgingly coming to accept. Letting taxes go up and fighting for principle might have pleased the left, but it would have alienated the rest of the country. So Obama cut a typical Washington deal. Both sides got what they wanted. Nobody had to pay for anything. It was Clintonesque - and that is why it has so angered the left.

Liberals worry that Obama will follow up by further emulating Clinton and working with Republicans to pass free-trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia (much as Clinton worked with Republicans to pass NAFTA) - and that this will be followed by more centrist compromises. They want Obama to champion amnesty, cap-and-trade, and other left-wing priorities - and damn the political consequences.

But the man who once said he would "rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president" might be having second thoughts. Perhaps this is why he invited a "mediocre two-term president" to the White House for a little political advice. Liberals may not care if 2012 is a repeat of the electoral drubbing they took in 2010 - but the guy at the top of the ticket apparently does.

Marc A. Thiessen, a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the book "Courting Disaster." He writes a weekly column for The Post.

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