A report surfaced today that Bill Clinton is frustrated as heck that the Dems can't manage to get a coherent or persuasive message together for the midterms. And he's even doing what he can to get together good talking points for candidates and stump in all the right places to help save the Democratic majorities even if the current leaders can't manage it themselves.
Now, before saying anything else, let me say that there's never been a bigger fan of Bill Clinton's than me (though I had some wavering in 2008). And I've never doubted his intuitive political skills, which make him -- whatever else you think of him -- one of the consummate, defining political players of the 20th century. And, as you've seen if you've read what I've written over the last three months, I've been distressed by the Democrats' inability or unwillingness to grasp hold of what winning political issues there are in such a rough climate.
But let's not be born yesterday. Anyone over 35 has a good adult memory of the 1994 midterm. That's when Stan Greenberg was telling congressional candidates to run away from President Clinton, just two years after Stan helped engineer his election. Clinton was considered toxic politically in broad swathes of the country -- swathes that anyone around then has to remember look an awful lot like the swathes where President Obama is toxic today. And even though the country was then in a comparatively mild economic funk rather than a full blown catastrophic and persistent recession, for all his political skills President Clinton couldn't do anything the stem the tide. He was impotent, diminished, helpless, crushed and all the rest.
Being president is hard. Being president two years into your first term is hard. And being at the center of the polarizing political storm -- as Obama is today and Clinton was 16 years ago -- tends to wipe the political genius and midas touch and all the other good stuff right off of you. 10% unemployment doesn't make you look that good either.
This isn't justifying any mistakes. But I'm surprised how short the memories are of many people who do this political analysis thing for a living.
No, the people talking about the lackluster performance of Obama's administration (aside from opponents, but that is only to be expected) are people who are anything but political shills, people like Paul Krugman and Mark Thoma, and the thousands upon thousands of Democrats and Independents who voted for Obama on the expectation of dramatic action and change, but now feel that they were sold a bill of goods. I don't count myself in either group since I've never believed Obama would do anything of note, thus his lackluster performance is exactly what what I've expected of him all along.
Which leads me to that last little snark of Mr. Marshall's. Since I've got at least ten years on the guy and my background is political science (specifically, political theory - the study of systems, idea and ideologies), I figure I have both experience and subject matter knowledge on him, though I'm smart enough not to try to make a living analyzing politics. My memory is long and my knowledge of political events a hell of a lot clearer than WKJM, who has been part of the myth machine for several years now. What I recall about the1994 mid-terms was that Bill and Hillary had been put through the meat grinder over their whole-hearted but losing attempt to enact health care reform, they were reviled by the press (those hicks who trashed our lovely little place!), the Democratic party was in the last throws of losing the southern Dixiecrats, and Reaganism was still the norm. He enjoyed none of the advantages that Obama enjoys in terms of party and media support, and had much more respected opponents. The Democrats themselves were dealing with scandals in the House, and Newt was rolling out the Contract With America.
WKJ's quote "Clinton was considered toxic politically in broad swathes of the country" begs the question of just who thought he was toxic. The majority of voters didn't, but they weren't voting for Bill. They were voting for their Congress Critters, just as they are today. The media certainly wasted no effort to inform me how horrible Clinton was as a president, which is how it earned the moniker the "so-called Liberal media". Stevensonian cultural elites sat on their hands and refused to aggressively counter the Right-wing Noise Machine, all of which is documented in Somerby's Incomparable Archives. In short, those of us who actually were, you know, there at the time and not invested in CDS understand the very different environments and opportunities. Not agreeing with Clinton or thinking that health care was handled badly is very different than thinking he was "toxic".
This gets back to Bill Clinton being the most gung-ho Democrat on the planet. FDR would be hard pressed to be as big a party booster as the Big Dog, which is weird given how much grief the party has given Clinton over the years. I think he even beats out Hillary, which is a hard trick to pull off. This stands in contrast to Obama not using the word Democrat on his campaign literature, calling his followers "Obamacans", and doing pretty much everything he can to distance himself from the party. If there is a lack of commitment between the party rank and file and the current administration, I think there needs to be some honesty about who walked away from whom. As I said after listening to Bill's speech at the 2008 convention:
Bill meandered a bit at the start, trying a little too hard to counter objections to Obama the person. He did a better job of this than anyone else I have heard speak except Hillary, but it was the wrong kind of cadence for this actor. I read an opinion piece recently (can't locate link) that said as long as the campaign is about Obama as a person, he will lose, because there is not much there to talk about. I'm going to resist the obvious snark line and shift the emphasis of that observation. If you are a Democrat, if a campaign is made small, individual, personal, reduced to the parts and proclivities that make up the candidate, you will lose. If you can be reduced to a cackling laugh, a misrepresented statement, a bad land deal, an awkward mannerism, you are toast. It is part of the overall Republican push to atomize people, needs, issues and interests, to reduce them to mere opinion or a personal failing, and thereby disguise the relationships of power that can help or hurt us. Bill's comparison of Obama to himself as the nominee was not just a generous gift to Obama, but a warning to the Democrats not to fall for the trap of morality politics that took out Gore and Kerry.
The change that came over the Big Dog in his speech is when he turned away from examination of the particular candidate and launched into his whirlwind indictment of Republican ineptitude and catastrophic governance. Bill Clinton laid out in no uncertain terms what the hell a Democrat does and how we affect the entire world for the better. This is why you are a Democrat! Not to make nice-nice with the extremist loons in the opposition, but to deliver the goods. Goods like increased wages and reduced inequality, real health care and fewer corporate profits, more security and less international resentment. Bill Clinton made clear that the subject of politics is exactly that - politics. Policy. Partisanship. Standing the fuck up for what you know is right and refusing to capitulate to the nervous nellies who can't think of anything except the fucking. Daring the bastards to shut down the govenemnt, or try to impeach you, and coming away the winner. Doing right by people and being the most loved president alive. Beating out most of the dead guys, too. ...
Hillary and Bill walk onto a stage and the energy goes through the roof. They are politically effective, which is why they are attacked so savagely by enemies from without and rivals from within. They speak to what it means to be a Democrat. They believe in this party in a way that the current leadership does not. The plea/threat for the Clintons to go all out for those who can barely stand to say the word "Democrat", let alone "partisan Democrat", betrays the the understanding that this is so.
What scares Marshall the most is not that Bill might be criticizing Obama, but that Bill's very presence illustrates all that is missing from the current administration. Comparing the loss of the 1994 mid-terms to the potential loss of the 2010 mid-terms is an attempt to obfuscate causes by mindlessly jabbering about effects.
Yes, Obama came in to office with a hellacious mess on his hands - and a majority in both houses and an electorate screaming for change. He had the political opportunity of a lifetime to transform the fundamental terms of political engagement, just as both FDR and Reagan did. He could have taken on the banks. He could have charged ahead for substantive health care reform. He could have pounded the shit out the failed policies of the Reagan Revolution and pinned the blame for everything on them, and the country would have lapped it up exactly the way they responded to FDR. But he didn't and now he will play (at best) catch up for the remaining two years.
WKJM is not the only one who is trying to avoid talking about the reasons for party discontent by presenting a half-assed and historically inaccurate picture of the 1994 mid-term election. What he doesn't seem to get is that because the majority of the nation doesn't hold the Clintons in contempt the way he and the other Purchased Fellows do, every time he (and others of his ilk) make this comparison, he keeps reminding us about the way Bill never quit, never gave up, never stopped articulating his vision of what the party should be and how he was going to work to achieve that end. And that resulted in retaining the White House in 1996, and gaining back House seats in the next three elections - 1996, 1998, 2000.
There is also a problem with making this comparison, because it upsets the dearly held belief of the chattering class that the defeat of the Democrats in 1994 was because of Clinton, not because of a fragmented party, a consolidated Right, or other conditions external to the administration. If Obama can't be held responsible for the (expected) defeats of 2010, then it stands to reason that Clinton is not responsible for 1994. My bets are going to be that there will not be as many seats lost as in 1994, and that this will be held as some kind of proof that Obama's magical powers prevented a catastrophic blow, unlike Clinton's bad results in 1994. The fact that Dems should be picking up seats as FDR did in his first term, is not a matter for general discussion. I'm surprised WKJM's "memory" is not long enough to look at that example. Shouldn't someone with a Ph.D. in history know about such things?
When I see The Precious be a real Democratic candidate, espousing the values and enacting the legislation that people like FDR, Truman, LBJ and, yes, Bill Clinton, have done, then we can stop talking about him being toxic to the interests of rank and file Democrats..
PS - Click the link to the WaPo article that evidently inspired WKJM to write this deeply incoherent piece. In it, Bill defends Obama vigorously, chides the party for not being better organized, and slams the opposition roundly. He even talks about the 1994 mid-terms and the need to prevent that from happening again. Umm, what's the objection again? "But let's not be born yesterday." Again - who are you addressing and what are you criticizing them for?
(Photo of Bill Clinton and Sen. Patty Murray by John Lok, The Seattle Times)