The Washington Post

In the Clintons’ talk of brokering compromise, an implicit rebuke of Obama years

In recent stump speeches and policy remarks, Bill and Hillary Clinton have offered sharp criticisms of the partisan gridlock paralyzing Washington, signaling a potential 2016 campaign theme if Hillary Clinton chooses to run for president.

The Clintons’ critiques in recent days have been explicitly aimed at congressional Republicans, who helped spur a 16-day government shutdown and potential debt default in October. But their remarks also seem to contain an implicit rebuke of President Obama’s failure to change Washington as he pledged when first running for the White House.

The arguments suggest a way that Hillary Clinton could attempt to run in 2016 as an agent of change — potentially putting her at odds with the two-term Democrat she would be seeking to replace.

At campaign rallies and other recent appearances, both Clintons have called for soothing partisan tensions and have espoused a vision of governing by compromise. Barnstorming Virginia this week with longtime friend and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, Bill Clinton repeatedly assailed ideological politics on both sides of the aisle.

“When people sneeringly say, ‘McAuliffe is a dealmaker,’ I say, ‘Oh, if we only had one in Washington during that shutdown,’ ” the former president said at a rally here in Norfolk on Monday. “It’s exhausting seeing politicians waste time with all these arguments. It is exhausting. People deserve somebody who will get this show on the road.”

Former President Bill Clinton headlined a rally for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe on Monday night. Here's what you missed. (The Washington Post)

Such themes of change and comity are particularly ironic for the Clintons considering that one or the other has held public office in Washington for the past two decades. Bill Clinton’s tenure in office was also marked by fierce partisan battles that roiled the nation, including an impeachment fight and two government shutdowns.

In the 2008 Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton dismissed Obama’s message of post-partisanship as woefully naive. But since stepping down as Obama’s secretary of state earlier this year, she has adopted a similar theme, repeatedly berating lawmakers for choosing “scorched earth over common ground.”

“We are careening from crisis to crisis instead of having a plan, bringing people to that plan, focusing on common-sense solutions and being relentless in driving toward them,” Clinton said last week during at a Center for American Progress gala.

Neither Clinton has brought up Obama directly in their remarks or explicitly criticized his leadership. Still, the Clintons’ general critiques carry echoes of the charges Republicans have frequently leveled against the current president: that Obama doesn’t respect their ideas and resists any compromise with them.

Obama has been making his own pleas for bipartisanship, even if they fall on deaf ears on Capitol Hill. “Now more than ever, America needs public servants who are willing to place problem solving ahead of politics,” he said at Wednesday’s memorial service for former House speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.).

The Clintons have been careful to distinguish between promoting bipartisanship and ceding ground on core values. Hillary Clinton, for example, has been busy advocating for traditionally liberal issues such as minority voting rights, gay marriage equality and women’s rights.

This appears to be an effort by Clinton, following a four-year hiatus from domestic politics, to cement ties to the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. If she runs, Clinton would want to avoid a repeat of the 2008 campaign, when Obama built support among liberal activists by running to her left on the Iraq war.

The Clintons’ message is one that Democrats across the country could carry into the 2014 midterm elections, where the battle for control of the Senate could come down to a handful of hotly contested races in states that lean Republican.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D), who represents a Northern Virginia swing district, said after a recent McAuliffe rally that the message laid out by Bill Clinton would be “a really powerful theme into the next cycle.”

“We’re the party of governance,” Connolly added. “You want things to work? You have to eschew that hard-right, I-know-best ideology.”

In Kentucky, where Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), Clinton recorded a video endorsing Grimes in which he says the nation needs more political leaders “willing to work together across the lines of party, geography and philosophy.”

“We have simply got to have more people who are willing to reach across the aisle and say, ‘I’m ready to work with you to build a better future,’ ” Clinton said.

In his Virginia speeches, Clinton said that he learned through eight years as president and 12 years as Arkansas governor that it’s important to advocate for your own philosophy but a mistake to not consider your opponent’s.

“When you’ve got a complicated set of problems with a lot of moving parts — and even Albert Einstein couldn’t give you the right answer to every question — the only thing that works is cooperation,” Clinton said Sunday in Dale City.

Principled compromise, Clinton asserted later that evening in Hampton, Va., is “a moral position.”

“It simply recognizes that nobody’s right all the time, your life is as important as mine, your opinion is entitled to the same respect mine is, and we’re all in this together, so we might as well work together to row this boat and go somewhere,” Clinton said.

Clinton’s presidency, however, was marred by plenty of partisan battles. Republicans torpedoed his health-care reform proposal and won control of the House midway through his first term. In 1995, a budget stalemate with the GOP-controlled House led to two separate government shutdowns. Three years later, the House voted to impeach Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Nevertheless, Clinton credited his work across the aisle with balancing budgets and creating 22 million new jobs — and lamented the state of the country today.

“This economic thing, it’s terrible,” Clinton said in Hampton. “Median family incomeafter you adjust for inflation, is lower than it was the day I left office. That was a long time ago. And we need somebody who wants to do something about it.”

Many voters attending the rallies said they longed for a return to the Clinton era.

“He’s the voice of reason,” said Sally Mullikin, 52, a self-described women’s rights advocate from Richmond.

“We’re tired of the fighting,” said Eileen Slade, 63, a Democrat from Midlothian, Va., who was wearing a “Ready for Hillary” button. “We want compromise — whatever it takes to get things done.”

This is the sentiment that both Clintons have been channeling. At his Virginia stops, Bill Clinton repeatedly said the Founding Fathers wanted elected officials to be practical above all else, designing a system of governing that would force them to negotiate with each other.

“Read the Constitution of the United States of America,” Clinton said Sunday in Richmond. “It might as well have been subtitled, ‘Let’s Make a Deal.’ ”

Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.

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