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The Clinton Paradox

Liberal Democrats claim they want "another Bill Clinton." But that's only half-true.

11:00 PM, Mar 15, 2005 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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BILL CLINTON has always bedeviled simple ideological classification. His presidency bore this out in spades. Clinton began in 1993 by tacking left--gays in the military, a big tax hike, national health care, the assault-weapons ban (NAFTA was a key exception). Then, post-1994, he lurched rightward to accommodate a GOP-led Congress--welfare reform, the Defense of Marriage Act, a capital gains tax cut, a balanced budget. And he capped it off with a center-left flurry--Medicare coverage for the "near-elderly," the Kyoto Protocol, outreach to Iran, outreach to North Korea, the International Criminal Court. Conservatives often paint Clinton as a left-wing ideologue. That misses the mark. Better to call him a liberal-leaning pragmatist.

But if you judged Clinton solely on his 1992 presidential campaign, you might well deem him a born-again conservative: a watered-down Joe Lieberman with panache. Which is why, when Democrats and liberal pundits yearn for "another Bill Clinton" to lead their party out of its doldrums, they're only being half-serious.

What they want, one assumes, is a charming, charismatic, good-looking, and eloquent partisan who appeals at once to both blue-state Deaniacs and red-state moderates. That sure sounds like Clinton, the Democrat who twice carried Ohio, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Arkansas (his home state), Tennessee (Al Gore's home state), Kentucky, Missouri, Louisiana, Nevada, and New Mexico. (Admittedly, Clinton benefited greatly from Ross Perot's independent insurgency.)

But it's necessary to separate Clinton's political personality from his political message. That is, take away Clinton's charm, charisma, looks, and dazzling rhetorical skills. (And, for that matter, take away his philandering, perjuring, and general moral opprobrium.) Then appraise his 1992 White House bid. Could any Democrat today run such a conservative-friendly campaign and still win his party's nomination?

The answer, in all likelihood, is no. Between Clinton's election and Howard Dean's ascension to Democratic National Committee chairman, the party's base shifted. These days, the most robust Democratic activism occurs on the grassroots left, not the intellectual center. In retrospect, then, Clinton's '92 candidacy looks remarkably conservative.

Let's review how Clinton cast himself. He was a "New Democrat," the poster boy of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). He favored middle-class tax relief and free trade. He boldly took on Sister Souljah and the party's race-baiting elements. He supported capital punishment--indeed, he left the campaign trail to approve the Arkansas execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a brain-damaged black man. Clinton backed welfare reform, vowing to end the federal program "as we know it." He even threw a bone to pro-lifers (albeit a meaningless one), pledging to make abortion "safe, legal, and rare."

In foreign policy, Clinton got to President George H.W. Bush's right on a bevy of issues--including Iraq, Russia, China, and the Balkans. (His running mate, then-senator Al Gore of Tennessee, was one of only 10 Senate Democrats to vote for Operation Desert Storm in January 1991.) Clinton struck such a center-right pose, in fact, that he won some surprising friends. In August 1992, 33 neoconservative and centrist foreign policy mavens took out a half-page ad in the New York Times and the Washington Post endorsing Clinton. Among other things, the ad praised Clinton for "stating his opposition to the brutal and archaic communist dictatorship in Beijing" and for embracing "authentic democrats in the society of the former Soviet Union." Two of the ad's signatories, Joshua Muravchik and Penn Kemble, also helped Clinton craft the chief foreign policy speech of his campaign.

Could so relatively hawkish a Democrat capture the party's nomination in 2008? It's not out of the question. As Ramesh Ponnuru has noted in National Review: "During the last nine presidential elections, Democrats have run hawkish candidates three times--in 1992, 1996, and 2000. It cannot be a coincidence that these were the three elections of those nine in which foreign-policy issues were least important, and in which people felt least threatened by foreigners." A hawkish Democrat's "best chance of winning" his party's presidential nomination, Ponnuru speculates, may be when "foreign-policy issues recede in importance." Given the near certainty that foreign policy and the war on terror will still be dominant concerns in 2008, hawkish Dems face an uphill battle.