Monday, January 21, 2008

The Reagan Myth and the Clinton Reality

I've spent much of the last 16 years defending Bill Clinton. I've done it over the last four plus years in the dKos community when people attacked him for not effectively pursuing a more progressive agenda. I've also done it in countless discussions and arguments with more conservative friends and acquaintances elsewhere. Many of the criticisms I defended him against were complete and utter BS. Other criticisms may have had some measure of validity, but not enough to warrant the conclusions reached or the degree of animosity directed toward him.

Bill was my guy. I loved the Big Dog, and forgave him everything. The first Dem since FDR to be elected to two terms, he was a proud member of the DLC and triangulated the hell out of more progressive Dems, but I defended it as necessary under the circumstances. Bill Clinton was not elected during a particularly progressive era. The first two years of his Presidency ushered in an even less progressive era. That is how poorly even a man of his incomparable political skill managed to sell the American people on the more progressive agenda he did, at least initially, arrive in Washington with.

As promised during his campaign, Bill tried to end the discrimination against gays and lesbians serving in the military during the first month of his administration, and suffered his first major failure. He later passed a more progressive income tax bill and signed the Brady Bill. On the flip side, with Al Gore masterfully taking on Ross Perot on Larry King Live, the Clinton administration pushed NAFTA through against the wishes of most Democrats in Congress.

He then had, perhaps, his biggest setback. Health Care. He gave this task to Hillary. She failed miserably. Despite having a Democratic House and Senate, it was a total flop. Hillary now says she has the scars to prove it. But scars aren't results.

By 1994, the electorate was angry at both Clintons and took it out on the Democrats in Congress. It was an historic realignment. Bill was left to answer questions from the White House press corps regarding his relevance. In his next State of the Union Address Bill appeared to concede:

"The era of big government is over."

Should this be seen as a renunciation of FDR's New Deal? LBJ's Great Society? Those were, indisputably, visions requiring Big Government.

After the 1994 election, the Clintons' primary strategy was one of personal and political survival. He brought back Dick Morris, who also worked with Trent Lott, Jesse Helms and other Republicans, and they developed a triangulation stategy that allowed Bill to regain popularity, often by co-opting the Republican agenda. After this point, Clinton's signature legislation was welfare reform. Was he so bereft of ideas that he had to co-opt the Republican agenda?

So last week, Barack Obama, in a broad ranging conversation, says:

"I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not."

Bill takes offense. Sensing an opportunity, the words get twisted by Hillary:

"My leading opponent the other day said that he thought the Republicans had better ideas than Democrats the last 10 to 15 years."

Flat-out lie. Obama never said it. But let's look at what he did say (it obviously bears repeating since so many folks here and elsewhere keep screwing it up)

"I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.

Bill Clinton never won even a simple majority of the American electorate. After 1994, Clinton played on a Republican playing field. He did it well. He did not change the trajectory of the country in a significant way, however. He did not sell America on progressive ideals. On the contrary, he lost the Congress and it took a total failure like George W. Bush for the Dems to get it back. What Clinton did do was survive-- an impressive enough feat in itself.

Reagan created a myth. But in that myth the voting public became more susceptible to hearing the word "liberal" as a negative and "conservative" as a positive. Bill Clinton served for two full terms and never reversed the reality created by that myth. "Conservative" as a term and governing philospy has only begun to diminish in political value under the failures of George W. Bush, in a way it never did under whatever successes Bill Clinton had.

Largely because of the enormous failures of Bush and the Republican Congress, America may be ready for a more progressive agenda. The country is certainly ready for some type of "change." While I can see how Hillary Clinton might narrowly win the White House, I cannot see how she might successfully expand her coalition and sell a progressive agenda that even her exceptionally skilled husband could not. On the other hand, I can see how her election could have the same negative impact on recent Democratic Congressional gains that Bill's election did. Edwards has a strong progressive message, but has yet to significantly expand his support from 2004, and with diminishing resources and media time, it seems unlikely that he will.

Obama seeks to build an expanded coalition that will allow for the ushering in of a new progressive age. While he has a progressive agenda, his challenge is to have a more focused message that sells that agenda so that he can claim a mandate if we wins. He has an historic opportunity in many ways. He needs to seize that moment.