Bill Clinton's Party of One

In late 2002, I saw Bill Clinton speak at a glitzy "Countdown to Victory" party for Gray Davis in California. Davis was an impressively uninspiring politician; a nakedly transactional, cutthroat political operator, he was the only elected official I ever saw the eager beavers in the College Democrats duck away from a picture with. A year later, he would be thrown out of office in one of the most remarkable political rebellions California has ever experienced.

Davis' supporters were clear-eyed about his failures. The audience assembled that night was there to exult in the likely victory, but it was a joyless, cynical celebration. Hacks milled around the various salmon plates exchanging world-weary quips about the state's Democratic establishment. Then Bill Clinton took the stage.

That night, Clinton achieved something extraordinary: He breathed political charisma into Gray Davis. "When you vote," said Clinton, in his hoarse, soft drawl, "you tell someone, here. Here are my hopes, and my dreams, and what I want for the future." And he reached out, with those legendarily large hands, and he closed his fist. "Please. Help me do something with them."

The audience was silent, rapt. The effect would wear off, of course, but in a single speech, Clinton had restored their faith, not only in Davis, but in politics. It was a changed room. Walking out, the attendees talked in low, urgent tones about what could be achieved with another term in the governor's mansion. I'd known Clinton was politically skilled, but this was a different order of talent.

Bill Clinton's formidable political reputation is, in large part, the product of such speeches. And no one has seen Clinton give more speeches than the reporters who've covered him. Nightline's Terry Moran described Clinton as "the man often called the most gifted politician of his generation." The New York Times' Adam Nagourney echoed that description and added that "for anyone who has observed Bill Clinton over the past 20 years … his performance this year on his wife's behalf has been startling." That last part, at least, is true. Clinton has made some monumental miscalculations in this campaign, the worst of which was saying, about Obama's win in South Carolina, "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in '84 and '88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here." The dismissive comment cemented the shift in the African American vote toward Obama and may have helped doom Hillary Clinton's campaign. The political establishment has been so astonished at Clinton's missteps that some reporters, like Vanity Fair's Todd Purdum, have publicly wondered whether a form of post-cardiac surgery dementia has overwhelmed Clinton's faculties.

Such speculation says much more about the press' overestimation of Clinton's political abilities than the likely aftermath of his heart troubles. Clinton can give a gorgeous speech, yes, but as he'd be the first to tell you these days, a speech is "just words." And thorough analysis of Clinton's political career suggests that the words haven't always been matched by the results.

The beginning of Clinton's political legend lies in a simple, and not unimportant, fact: He recaptured the White House for the Democrats after 12 years of sustained Republican control. The emotional significance of this to those who endured the Reagan-Bush years was tremendous. But the political trick Clinton pulled off is often overstated. Long periods of one-party rule, after all, are quite rare in American politics. Since the ratification of the 22nd Amendment, the same party has held the White House for three consecutive terms exactly once. This is no accident. Political movements tend to weaken when in power. They grow corrupt and unresponsive; internal fissures form and widen; the problems they were asked to solve fade from view, and the electorate turns toward new dilemmas that require new thinking.

And so it was in 1992. Clinton did not run against Ronald Reagan, the charismatic architect of the previous 12 years of Republican dominance, but George H.W. Bush. The Soviet Union, which Republicans had used to such great effect in the 1970s and 1980s, had collapsed. The two years preceding the election, 1990 and 1991, saw a deep recession, which powered the anti-incumbent, right-wing populist challenge of Ross Perot. The Republican Party had controlled the White House for a long time, but in 1992, they were without the charismatic leader who'd led their charge, the external threat he'd used to build their majority, and the economic numbers that sustain incumbents.

Even amid these conditions, Clinton's win was not preordained. It was, however, dramatic. Clinton was assumed dead in the primaries, when the Gennifer Flowers story broke and his numbers collapsed in New Hampshire. Allegations about draft dodging were supposed to doom him in the general. But Clinton fought back and endured both scandals. He didn't just win, he survived.

As a political performance, it was thrilling. But it was often defensive. And that pattern continued throughout his career: Clinton proved masterful in repelling the onslaught when his back was to the wall, but the near-death experiences and unexpected comebacks that defined his career failed to provide him a solid base from which he could systematically build a movement or sell his beliefs. Clinton's political genius manifested itself not in the construction of a greater and grander Democratic Party, or a new and expanded progressive majority, but in the sheer fact of his survival, and his ability to govern competently, and at times brilliantly, against such odds.

Clinton's time in office had its successes and its failures. But politically speaking, Clinton enjoyed the successes and the party often endured the failures. The party makeup of Congress tells the story: At the start of Clinton's term, Democrats controlled 57 Senate seats to the 43 held by the Republicans. In the House, they held the chamber 258 to 176. By 2000, the final year of Clinton's term, Republicans controlled the Senate, holding 55 seats to the Democrats' 45. They also ran the House, with 223 seats to the Democrats' 211. Large Democratic majorities had given way to total Republican dominance.

This was not all Clinton's fault. Congressional scandals, the overdue conversion of the Dixiecrats, the obstructionism of the Republicans, and much else played a role. But nor is Clinton blameless. His first-term legislative strategy was, in many ways, dismissive of the coalition beneath him. Many of the high-profile fights he picked -- NAFTA, the Deficit Reduction Act, gays in the military, and gun control being prominent examples – were much more divisive for Democrats than for Republicans. They forced tough votes from vulnerable Democrats and angered crucial allies (notably labor). Health care, which was supposed to be the sweetener amid all this tough fiscal medicine, was epically mishandled, and became yet another black eye. In the 1994 midterm elections, Democrats lost more than 50 seats in the House.

Clinton was also a personally incautious politician, who had real enemies. Whitewater may have been a specious scandal trumped up by his antagonists, but Lewinsky was not. And however unfair the Republican Party's decision to attack Clinton's private life, it was deeply selfish for Clinton to hamstring his own presidency, and all that he could have accomplished, by offering up such ammunition to his enemies.

Clinton's reputation, however, came not in spite of these mistakes and losses, but because of them. After the disastrous midterms, he was expected to be a one-term president. Instead, he battled back to soundly trounce Bob Dole in 1996. After Lewinsky, many thought he'd be forced to resign. Instead, he endured the jeers and embarrassments and ended his term a reasonably popular president. These were not only impressive performances; they were dramatic ones. And they served as the foundation for Clinton's reputation as an indomitable political mastermind.

But on a crassly political level, the Democratic Party that closed out the Clinton years was not necessarily stronger than the party that had preceded it. It had benefited from some of the ideological fights Clinton won and some of the issues he had taken off the table (notably welfare), but it had also been harmed by some of his behavior, weakened by missed opportunities, and marginalized in Congress for the first time in a generation.

In light of this record, Clinton's behavior during the primary has not been out of ordinary at all. His political talent has, historically, been for getting himself elected. He's just not that good at getting others elected.

In all of this, there is a lesson for another politician who is being heralded as the great political talent of his generation: Barack Obama. Clinton was not, at the end of the day, able to use his political talents to build up his party. He was a good president, but he would've been much greater had he been able to construct and activate a progressive movement that could have pushed for broader legislative change. He believed, too deeply, that voters had given him their hopes and dreams, and that those hopes and dreams depended on his survival. But one man is a weak vessel for the aspirations of millions. There is strong evidence that Obama understands this. His background as a community organizer and his emphasis, in this campaign, on field work and movement building, suggest that he's attempting to build something bigger than himself. If he succeeds, then he will be a political talent the likes of which Democrats have indeed not seen in generations. If he fails, then he better hope he's got Clinton's talent for political survival.