Opinion

The Great Debate

Democrats must overcome Clinton nostalgia

President Bill Clinton salutes supporters at a campaign rally Oct. 31, 1996. REUTERS/Archive. 

Democrats now delight in watching Republicans flounder as they try to free themselves from the failures of President George W. Bush and the extremes of the Tea Party. But the GOP’s tribulations should not blind Democrats to their own challenge. The party must free itself from the legacy of former President Bill Clinton and the centrism of his New Democrats.

Clinton’s successes in office have little relevance for Democrats today. The 1990s were a very different time both politically and economically. In fact, many of Clinton’s policies led to the travails now facing Americans. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution. And Clinton’s strategy of co-opting conservative themes offers no way out.

The Clinton Temptation

Democrats understandably feast on the comparison between the salad days of the Clinton presidency and the Bush debacle. Twenty-two million new jobs under Clinton; the worst jobs record since the Great Depression under Bush. The longest period of growth in U.S. history under Clinton; the weakest recovery and biggest bust under Bush. Budget surpluses under Clinton; deficits as far as the eye could see under Bush. No wonder President Barack Obama called on Clinton to make his case for re-election at the 2012 Democratic convention.

As leader of the New Democrats, Clinton tacked to the prevailing winds of that conservative time. His first presidential campaign in 1992 combined a populist economic focus on jobs – “It’s the economy, stupid” – with transparent efforts to disarm explosive Republican wedge issues. He promised to “end welfare as we know it”; embraced the death penalty and harsh “three strikes and you’re out” mandatory sentencing; and gained editorial approval by blindsiding Jesse Jackson with his “Sister Souljah” gambit.

The price of defying your base

Defying your base is always risky. It can either bring you down — or it can make you look stronger.

Right now, politicians in both parties are trying to pull it off.  Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) – a likely contender for the 2016 Republican nomination – is preparing to challenge conservatives on immigration reform. President Barack Obama is defying liberals on entitlement reform. What are they thinking?

Your base is people who are with you when you’re wrong.  Sooner or later, every politician gets in trouble. He needs people to stick up for him — people who say, “He was there for us and we’ll be there for him.” President Ronald Reagan’s base, for example, stuck with him during the Iran-contra scandal. So did President Bill Clinton’s base during impeachment.

Can GOP blame Obama for the sequester?

More than 25 years ago, Representative Jack Kemp told me, “In the past, the left had a thesis: spending, redistribution of wealth and deficits. Republicans were the antithesis: spending is bad.”

He went on to explain, “Ronald Reagan represented a breakthrough for our party. We could talk about lower taxes and more growth. We didn’t have to spend all our time preaching austerity and spending cuts. The question now is: Do we take our thesis and move it further, or do we revert to an anti-spending party?”

We now have the answer. Republicans have reverted to an anti-spending party. Their latest cause? Austerity. Their argument? A shrinking economy is better than big government.

Obama must surprise in State of the Union

President Barack Obama stirred with an unexpectedly powerful inaugural address – a second effort that far surpassed his first. He summoned great themes of American history to argue cogently for his second-term agenda. Now he has a chance to deliver a State of the Union address that improves on those of his first term, too.

The key to success? Presidents still have the power of surprise. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “I am like a cat. I make a quick stroke, and then I relax.” As in his inaugural, Obama should surprise us – this time with new policies and sharp specificity. On the budget, democracy reform and immigration, the president stands well positioned.

Forget the Super Bowl, or even the Oscars. For us policy wonks and ex-speechwriters, this is the biggest event – the time to crack open a beer, microwave the Buffalo chicken wings and settle down in front of the TV for a siege of viewing.

For Obama’s second Inaugural, skip the poetry

President Barack Obama should hope that old adage, “You only get one chance to make a first impression,” isn’t true. In his second Inaugural Address Monday, he has a chance to sharpen his arguments and move the nation in a way that eluded him the first time around.

Instead of a soggy sermon about political maturity, Obama should offer a ripping defense of his vision of government and its role in the economy. He has nothing to fear but controversy itself.

Obama faces a low bar. Facing history, presidents often choke. They know that these talks are among the only ones sure to be collected in a book or chiseled on the wall of their presidential library. The genre tends toward the ponderous.

How Obama seized the narrative

Barack Obama may finally be defining himself as president. The question is: What took him so long to seize the narrative and find his character as “leader.”

Obama now has strong public support in the fiscal crisis faceoff. Even as the House Republicans scramble to find a way into the argument, the president has a tight grip on the storyline.

This is a big change from the fierce healthcare reform fight and the 2011 debt limit crisis. The chattering class then continually asserted that Obama had “lost control of the narrative.”

GOP: Blame message not the messenger

Here’s what’s supposed to be happening:  After losing two presidential elections, Republicans are supposed to be re-evaluating what their party stands for.  Are they out of line with mainstream America?  Does the party need to change?

The answer is yes.  So the party moves to the center and searches for candidates with broader appeal.  Republicans don’t need another spectacle like the 2012 primaries, where the contenders ran the gamut from a panderer to the right (Mitt Romney) to the far right (former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum) to the extreme right (Representative Michele Bachmann, Texas Governor Rick Perry) to the lunatic fringe (Herman Cain, Representative Ron Paul).

There was one moderate in 2012 — Jon Huntsman.  Huntsman didn’t make it past New Hampshire, where he came in first among the tiny number of Democrats who voted in the Republican primary.

McGovern: Forging a modern political party

George McGovern’s death Sunday marked the departure of a remarkably influential figure in American national politics. Though remembered largely for his landslide defeat to Richard M. Nixon in the 1972 presidential race, McGovern succeeded in reshaping the U.S. political landscape for the next 40 years.

His losing campaign forged the modern political party. Just as Barry M. Goldwater’s crushing defeat in 1964 mobilized a generation of conservative activists and transformed the GOP, McGovern’s insurgency led to the modern Democratic Party of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. For the South Dakotan senator bequeathed to his party a reconstituted style of politics, a cadre of activists and an new path to electoral victory.

McGovern’s star-crossed campaign opened up the entire U.S. political process—he appointed, for example, the first national party chairwoman. More important though, he created a template for challenging the party establishment, one emulated frequently over the next 40 years — by the Republican right as well as the Democratic left.

Biden changes 2016 race as well as 2012

Whoever wins on November 6, and however the president is thought to have done in the remaining debates, the only sure winner of the debate season is Joe Biden.

He has moved from the nearly man to the coming man, from also-ran to man-to-watch. Why so? Biden attracted a great deal of criticism from conservatives for his grimacing in the veep debate in Danville, Kentucky, for laughing in the face of GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, for shamelessly grabbing all the attention so that even when Ryan was speaking, everyone was watching Biden’s scoffing antics on the split screen. The Democratic base loved every second.

In a practical lesson on how to hug the limelight and dominate the conversation, Biden showed President Barack Obama how he should have torn into GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in Denver — and how he will have to make up lost ground in the few remaining weeks.

Hitchens was an atheist who believed

By James Ledbetter
The opinions expressed are his own.

It seems entirely possible that Christopher Hitchens will be primarily remembered in America for his public atheism. I suspect Hitchens himself was surprised at how wildly popular God Is Not Great became, giving much-needed voice and ammunition to thousands of godless heathens in the land of the drive-through church.

Yet it’s an inadequate way to remember the man, and not because Hitchens did little more in that book than to lay some tracing paper on the Enlightenment’s best thinkers and draw giddily (though with acidic and often very funny ink), or because—this is not an exaggeration—the American public regards atheists on about the same level as rapists.

The problem is that splitting the atheism away from the body of Hitchens’s work debases it into a kind of rascally parlor trick—“Uncle Christopher, say the mean thing about Mother Teresa again!”—and distracts from the thorny paradox at the heart of Hitchens’s thinking. Which is: While certainly an enemy of superstition and an eager chronicler of the sins and idiocies of the world’s religions, Hitchens was actually a lifelong believer, if strictly in man-made gods. It is impossible to contemplate his prodigious and passionate writing without recognizing that it was always animated by crusades, holy men, and devils.

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