Even people who think the 1990s would’ve been far better had Bill Clinton remained poor and impotent (politically, that is) tend to look back at the Clinton era in the same way the Philadelphia Eagles will some day think about their Super Bowl loss. That is to say, as Republicans’ red-faced frustration has subsided, it’s been replaced with a healthy dose of respect for Clinton, the political juggernaut. They never did find a way to beat him.
But as much as Republicans might hope, wish and pray the Clintons are finished, every now and then, a yucky feeling comes back because in fact, the Clintons have lingered in Washington like bad tuna salad. (They didn’t leave the White House in 2000 in a helicopter; they left in a cab.) And a few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton previewed for her opponents what they should expect from Mrs. Clinton, the candidate. To Republicans’ chagrin, the prequel to Clinton II walks and talks an awful lot like Clinton I.
Still too recent for Republicans to forget, Bill Clinton’s presidency is probably best known for the masterful execution of Dick Morris’ vaunted “triangulation” strategy. This was described pretty well as “the art of trying to be all things to all voters, or at least getting as close as possible.” (Clinton’s White House called it the “Third Way.”) Whatever it’s called, it’s sort of a Camp David for ideas, a retreat of sorts. In 1994, as President Clinton fended off emasculating questions about the “relevancy” of his very Office, he retreated to the Third Way and discovered the road to (and through) his second term. (Bob Dole learned first-hand its devastating effects, when in 1996 Clinton co-opted a key Republican issue, welfare reform, by signing into law, well, welfare reform. Mr. Clinton never looked back.)
In the end, Morris’ strategy not only reinvented Bill Clinton’s presidency but left a permanent imprint on White House politics, at least if we’re to judge by the last four years. Conservatives may lament President Bush’s politically “pragmatic” policies, but they certainly helped prevent a John Kerry presidency. In fact, it was in the thick of this fall’s campaign that Morris, who’s a bit on the outs with DNC, impishly praised the deftness with which Bush had “stolen all the Democratic issues.” Imagine that. After an initial “right flank” on tax cuts, Morris wrote, Bush had veered toward center and hijacked a number of “liberal issues” in advance of the campaign. Among them were staples like federal education funding, ethnic profiling and affordable generic drugs, all of which left Senator Kerry groping to decide upon, frame and then pretty up a clear alternative. For all sorts of reasons Kerry couldn’t, and we know the rest.
These days, liberals are debating some daunting questions, foremost among which is the lingering impact of an erstwhile liberal Democratic in the Oval Office who all but disemboweled, you know, “liberalism.” They complain that Bill Clinton’s politicking — it was hardly motivated by magnanimity, after all — left his party in tatters. Republicans certainly hope, hope, hope this is the case and in the main, it’s a safe bet they’re encouraged by Howard Dean’s ascendancy in the DNC because Mr. Dean, to them, personifies the DNC’s problems.
A few weeks ago, though, Republicans re-encountered that familiar 1990s angst — an unpleasant sort of reflux that accompanies thoughts of a Billary redux. To recap: Senator Clinton’s curiously apolitical speech before a largely pro-choice crowd appealed for “common ground” on abortion and urged them, quite benignly, “We should be able to agree that we want every child born in this country to be wanted, cherished and loved.” Hillary’s fan club mobilized to register their applause; McLaughlin pundibot Eleanor Clift, who wouldn’t know “common ground” if she stepped in it, or on it, shilled that Ms. Clinton had “adopted her husband’s gift of framing issues in a commonsense way that reaches across the liberal-conservative divide.”
This is one way to put it, I suppose, but this cheeky cheerleading sounds almost willfully ignorant of the shrewd calculations behind Ms. Clinton’s boldest retreat — I’ll stipulate this is a contradiction in terms — into that unassailable fortress, the Third Way. (Our goal as “people of good faith” should be to “reduce the number of abortions”? Well, um, no kidding.)