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.