Bill Clinton addressed a Democratic Party last night that was no longer the party he led 20 years ago, but such are his political skills that he had no trouble winning its heart and—the tricky part—its head.
The heart stuff came easy. The major part of Clinton’s mission was to humanize Hillary, who, he noted rightly, has become a cartoon figure to millions of Americans. The head stuff required convincing Americans, and Bernie Sanders supporters in particular, that Hillary was, as Bill put it, “a change maker.” And so his speech ambled down two parallel tracks: Hillary the mom and Hillary the operational wonk rotated in and out of Bill’s account.
The kind of change-maker Bill described, accurately, is incremental, pragmatic, tactically brilliant. She’s not a movement-builder, a compelling orator, or a progenitor of dreams (save, by example, to girls). If the United States had split its top executive office in two, with a president in charge of vision and a prime minister in charge of execution, Hillary might be the best prime minister imaginable. Within the limits of a prime-ministerial sensibility, Hillary is a change agent par excellence.
Tuesday night was Hillary Humanization Night and not only in Bill’s speech. Speakers described her, from personal experience, as the parent who doted over every child she met, friend of the sick and the injured, comforter of the bereaved. Other speakers told how she translated those impulses into public policy, winning health coverage for children and for the first responders to 9/11. Bill’s speech described both those Hillarys.
But the party he described them to was one with radically different concerns than the party he reshaped in the early 1990s. After 12 years of Republican presidents who’d moved the country well to the right on both social and economic issues, the Clinton who campaigned for the presidency in 1992 believed returning Democrats to power required considerable accommodation to that rightward drift. He campaigned to “end welfare as we know it,” and once in office pursued economic policies dear to Wall Street’s heart: trade deals with Mexico and, much more disastrously for American manufacturing, China; repealing the Glass-Steagall Act; and declining to regulate derivatives.
To be sure, in the Clinton’s first two years, with a Democratic Congress, he was able to make taxes more progressive and expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. But he failed to secure passage of his (and Hillary’s) signature initiative, which would have gotten the nation close to universal health coverage. But he swam in a rightward tide. In his 1995 State of the Union address, reeling from the Republican landslide in the 1994 midterm elections, he proclaimed, “The era of big government is over.” Bill Clinton’s presidency accepted as a matter of political necessity the ideological hegemony of Reaganism, just as Eisenhower’s accepted the assumptions of the New Deal.
But Reaganism is over, its economics crumpled in a heap after the financial collapse of 2008, while the GOP’s provincial social conservatism now commands the allegiance of a dwindling minority of Americans. Ironically, Bill’s 1990s accommodations to Reagan-age conservatism may end up hurting Hillary come November. His push for free trade, enlarging the sway that Wall Street, holds over Main Street has had the long-term effect of consigning much of the white working class into more strait-jacketed and difficult lives—and sending them into the arms of a Donald Trump. Hillary’s campaign understands this all too well: That’s why the platform now calls for a new version of Glass-Steagall and why Hillary has been compelled to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The more Wall Street-oriented and culturally conservative wings of the Democratic Party have largely vanished as concerns about economic inequality have taken center stage and as Southern and more conservative working-class whites have abandoned the party for the Republicans. The Democratic Leadership Council, which championed both Wall Street’s interests and social traditionalism, is no more. Such onetime intellectual leaders of the DLC tendency, such as William Galston, now author papers on curtailing stock buybacks, which enrich major investors at the expense of everyone else.
Only a handful of unreconstructed 1990s Clintonians are visible at this year’s convention. One such dinosaur was Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who spoke wistfully in an interview yesterday about his hopes that Hillary might support the TPP after all, and delivered a centrist oration at yesterday’s session that the delegates almost entirely ignored.
The Hillary whom her husband so lovingly sketched last night was the policy-maker of good deeds. In the convention’s final two days, her campaign needs to turn the emphasis to Hillary’s more combative, if newfound, populism. The tough dame who favored the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and who wrongly favored going into Iraq needs to project some toughness against the financial interests that have diminished the nation’s middle class, even if that means biting the hand that’s fed her. We’ve seen the caring liberal; Bill told us all about her. It’s time to see a hard-assed defender of the 99 percent.