On Wednesday, Peter Wehner drew an interesting contrast between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama:
[Clinton] was in many respects a constructive intellectual force in the Democratic Party. He moved it toward the center, much as his friend Tony Blair moved the British Labour Party toward the middle, making it not only politically viable but politically successful.
Both Clinton and Blair achieved impressive political track records. They made their parties stronger, not weaker; and more, not less, appealing.
Barack Obama, so far at least, has had the opposite effect. His party was thoroughly repudiated in the first mid-term election of his presidency. The same thing happened to Clinton in 1994, though not on the scale that Democrats were defeated in 2010. But by this point in the Clinton presidency the prospects for Democrats were looking up, and in fact, Clinton was well on his way to winning a comfortable re-election. That doesn’t appear to be the case for Obama, who is turning the Democratic Party into a pre-Clinton party, one characterized by unalloyed liberalism.
I think it is worth adding to this the following assertion: it would be extremely difficult for a candidate like Bill Clinton to win the Democratic nomination in this day and age. Not impossible, but still a big challenge.
Clinton’s victory in 1992 was really the last exertion of strength by the Democratic South. After the Gennifer Flowers controversy broke, Clinton was flailing as a candidate in early 1992 – though he did impressively spin his second-place finish (with a whopping 42,000 votes!) in New Hampshire as the “Comeback Kid.” What really gave Clinton the jolt he needed was Super Tuesday. Designed to advance the Southern faction’s interests in the nomination battle, it had backfired in 1988 when Jesse Jackson and Al Gore split the Southern vote. But in 1992 there was no African American candidate in the running, so the Southern vote accrued mostly to Clinton, who won an outright majority in all six of the Southern Super Tuesday primaries. Combined with his prior victories in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, these wins catapulted him into a solid lead by mid-March. He took that momentum into the Illinois and Michigan a week later, and that was pretty much that.
All told, Clinton won roughly 51 percent of the primary vote that year, and about 43 percent of his vote came from the South. That's a lot. He was more dependent on his native region's support than even Jimmy Carter, who sixteen years prior was himself a very regional candidate. In the North, Clinton finished first in many primaries thanks to a split in the liberal vote between Jerry Brown and Paul Tsongas.
While it is not impossible to imagine a moderate, New Democrat from the South winning the nomination in this day and age, it would be a very unlikely feat. There are three big reasons.
The first is that the breeding ground for this kind of moderate Democrat really is the South and the Border States, which historically were the conservative “ballast” against the Northern, liberal factions in the Democratic party. However, in the last 30 to 40 years, these areas have trended decisively to the Republican party. That simply reduces the number of potential candidates (governors and senators) who could contest the nomination from such a centrist position.
The second is that as Southern whites have moved into the GOP, the ideological character of the Southern Democratic party has shifted. African Americans now dominate the primaries in the South – as was evidenced by Obama's rout of Clinton in the region – and they have long aligned themselves more closely to the Northern, liberal factions of the party. That presents an added challenge for a moderate Southern Democrat, as he could be beat from the left by a Northerner.
Third, Super Tuesday has lost its Southern flavor. In 1992, six of the eight primaries were from the South -- yet in 2008 just six of the fifteen were. It’s hard to imagine Bill Clinton coming out of Super Tuesday as the frontrunner if California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York had all voted that day in 1992.
To draw these three reasons into a single conclusion, we might say that the character of the Democratic electorate and the nature of the nomination battle in 1992 were such that a moderate like Bill Clinton would be able to win the nomination. Yet today, it would be substantially more difficult. As the saying goes -- "never say never" -- but it is really hard to envision the Democrtic party nominating somebody like that again.
As an exclamation point, it’s worth noting that the left has been expressing its discontent with Clintonian moderation for over a decade.. In 2000 Bill Bradley challenged Al Gore from the left, and fell just 6,000 votes short in New Hampshire -- a Bradley victory there would have made for an interesting primary race. Nine months later, Ralph Nader played the spoiler, winning about 3 percent of the popular vote, most of which came from the left wing of the Democratic party that was attracted to Nader's "not a dime's worth of difference" attack on Gore and Bush. In Florida Nader won 97,488 votes – and it’s a sure bet that, had he not run (or if the left had not been looking for an alternative that year), Gore would have won 538 more Nader votes than Bush. And then of course Obama won the nomination in 2008 not just by running against George W. Bush, but against the Bush and Clinton years. Importantly, the number of delegates Obama won from the primaries and caucuses was not enough to secure the nomination – he needed the help of the party establishment (the so-called “Super Delegates”) to defeat Hillary Clinton. That they backed Obama over the wife of the former president says a lot about where today’s Democratic party is.