Was Bill Clinton Clintonian? It depends on what the meaning of "Clintonian" is.


For Bill Clinton's detractors, the term "Clintonian" implies reliance on poll-tested political formulations and shifting policy positions. Earlier this year, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) derided President Obama's rhetoric as full of "Clintonian back-flips," while the conservative Daily Caller recently taunted Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, calling his varying views on government bailouts "Clintonian."

To his supporters, however, the term "Clintonian" is the opposite of slick. To be Clintonian means you possess a political philosophy, intellectual integrity and the courage to take on the outdated orthodoxies of your own party. (This stands in stark contrast to today's leading GOP presidential aspirants, who oppose even minimal tax increases, deny global warming and question the validity of evolution to appeal to a unique slice of Americans known as Iowa caucus-goers.)

Clinton dislodged the pillars of Democratic Party liberalism in favor of a new governing philosophy that placed pragmatism over ideological obeisance. This intellectual crusade began with the Democratic Leadership Council — a think tank Clinton helped mold — and his 1992 campaign, when he proposed bold, fresh approaches to crime, welfare, race relations, trade and the economy. In a series of "New Covenant" campaign speeches, he redefined what it meant to be a progressive in the modern age and showed that as reformers, Democrats could also appeal to the broad center of the American electorate.

At times, Clinton helped feed the notion that "Clintonian" was shorthand for cautious political calculation, as when he allowed the callow political consultant Dick Morris to define his post-1994 agenda as "triangulation." And even some of his closest allies accused him of sometimes taking the path of least resistance, as he did with the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law, which attempted to split the difference on gays in the military — a policy Clinton now says he regrets.

But the more expansive notion of "Clintonian" infused his White House. He was fond of saying privately that he cared more about trend lines than headlines. He saw that the nation was on the verge of a post-industrial information age and urgently proposed ideas to make the American workforce better suited for a desk than an assembly line. Clinton understood that everything we knew about the economy was changing — and that the New Deal and Great Society approaches that had made America more prosperous and more just would not provide a blueprint for this new era.

For a Democratic Party still in the grip of Mondale-era liberalism, his ideas initially seemed heretical. But he led the country through booming economic growth, turned the budget deficit into a surplus and drove the crime rate down. And today, the Democratic Party that Clinton challenged is largely gone.

Clinton's opponents continue to fight over his legacy and still hope to make the negative definition of "Clintonian" stick. The debate will ultimately be settled by historians, but we believe that the term's deeper meaning — the willingness to challenge stale orthodoxies; to reform, not reject, government; and to modernize progressive ideas — is the one most likely to endure.

matt.bennett@thirdway.org
jon_cowan@thirdway.org

Matt Bennett and Jonathan Cowan are co-founders of the think tank Third Way. Both served in the Clinton administration, Bennett as a deputy assistant to the president and Cowan as chief of staff of the Department of of Housing and Urban Development.

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