Clinton Resurrects the Party’s Universalism

(AP Photo/Robert Ray)

Former President Bill Clinton addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

A funny thing happened to Bill Clinton on the way to the White House in 1992. He had planned to run as a New Democrat, the champion of the post-industrial economy, a Southern Gary Hart, against the more traditional liberal Mario Cuomo, the Democratic frontrunner as the primary season loomed. Then, in December 1991, Cuomo stunned the political word and scrambled Clinton’s calculations by announcing he wouldn’t run. Clinton’s leading primary opponent became former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, who was running not just as the more upscale, new economy candidate but on a platform—Simpson-Bowles avant la lettre—of scaling back Medicare and Social Security in the cause of fiscal prudence.

So Clinton put on a new identity, one in which he was existentially more comfortable: He became the common man’s tribune, a neo-lunch-bucket populist. He dispatched Tsongas handily with a campaign that took him to the woodshed for threatening retirees, and ran against George H.W. Bush as the guy who would get us out of recession and bring back the jobs. He had special appeal for white working-class voters who’d been turning increasingly to the Republicans over the preceding two decades. Clinton talked about the value of work, attacked welfare as we knew it, and denounced the black racialism of Sister Souljah. But he also championed the Democrats’ historic commitment to social programs by promoting his plan for universal health coverage. 

Clinton didn’t govern like a populist—the financial sector boomed as the economy recovered, and guided by such Wall Street icons as Robert Rubin, Clinton presided over the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the regulatory exemption for derivatives. But in his first two years as president, he fought for universal health care, unsuccessfully, and for a major expansion to the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor, quite successfully. He also raised the uppermost tax rate to 39 percent, which by the end of his term, along with full employment, brought the budget into balance.

After the 1994 elections, however, he governed with a Republican congress for the remainder of his two terms. And he was a genius at playing defense. He beat back the Republicans’ attempt to force him to scale back Medicare by closing down the government, which Clinton defeated  by letting them close it and then waiting them out. He became an expert at using his State of the Union addresses to argue against and ultimately demolish the GOP’s plans. As the budget deficit shrank, Republicans proposed to cut taxes on the rich again. Clinton delivered a State of the Union that argued that any surplus should be used to “save Social Security first,” to extend the life of the Social Security Trust Fund.  Watching on television, you could see the Republicans responding with looks first of bewilderment, then dismay. They know Clinton had outfoxed them.

Which is exactly what he did again last night. Clinton never was one for great prepared orations—his inaugural addresses were instantly forgettable. But let him riff on the holes in the Republicans’ arguments, the folly of their plans, and the superiority of the Democrats’ alternatives—as he did in his State of the Unions and he most certainly did yesterday in Charlotte—and he was magical. One part wonk, one part good old boy, one part lunch-bucket Democrat—there was, and is, no stopping him.

He is, as it’s easy to forget, perhaps the single best advocate for a case ever to come out of Yale Law. Give him a misleading argument, a cynical misrepresentation, a bald-faced lie, and he’ll tear it to pieces in his best down-home twang. By placing their convention just one week before the Democrats’, the Republicans were asking for it. With all their attacks still fresh in the public’s mind, they were just teeing the ball up for Bubba.

But what made Clinton’s speech strategically significant wasn’t just the success of his arguments, but also the arguments he chose to make. Almost alone of the Democratic Convention speakers, he largely steered clear of the social issues the Democrats have highlighted—the defense of reproductive rights, of gays and lesbians, of children brought here as undocumented immigrants—not because he doesn’t believe in them but because he wanted to talk dollars and cents, or, as he happily put it, arithmetic. On one level, that’s because he delivered the single best dollars-and-cents defense of Barack Obama’s record that anyone ever has—it was far more effective than anything Obama himself has said. The tallying of jobs created during Democratic and Republican presidencies, and then by Obama and by Congressional Republicans, and then the reasons why Democratic values spur more economic growth than Republican ones—these were straightforward, easily understandable arguments that somehow the administration has neglected to make. So at one level, by choosing to emphasize Obama’s economic record and dismantle the GOP’s attacks on it, Clinton was simply filling a void.

But that couldn’t have been the only reason that Clinton stressed the economic and eschewed the social. He knew he wasn’t just filling a void, but also talking to a group of voters whom the Democrats haven’t quite known how to persuade in recent years: those working-class whites who backed Clinton in the ’90s and haven’t been with the Democrats since. And by talking to them, he provided us with a sense of what the Democrats have been missing in recent years.

When Republicans have attacked Obamacare for helping Americans without insurance at the expense of Medicare recipients, what they mean—indeed, this is what Rush Limbaugh and his ilk openly say—is that Obama is helping blacks at the expense of the rest of us, by which they mean white people and elderly whites in particular. It’s a complete lie, but you need to methodically dismantle their attacks as Clinton did last night, and part of that process is just getting those swing white working-class voters to listen to you in the first place. That’s why Clinton declined to talk about gay marriage. You champion universal programs, he believes, with universal arguments, and downplay the talk about minority rights, even when you’ve helped win those minorities their rights. That’s how he won the White House in 1992, after his pollster, Stan Greenberg, presented him with data showing how working-class whites believed Democrats used the power of government to benefit minorities at their expense. Last night, it was how he helped Obama in his effort to hang on to the White House in 2012. 

Obama certainly understands this approach; it explains why he’s avoided discussions of African American issues like the plague. But as the Republicans’ social agenda has galloped so far right that it’s alienated millions of centrist voters, as Obamacare has proven difficult to defend, as the administration’s talking points on the economy have seemed increasingly ineffectual, Obama’s party has found itself most comfortable touting its achievements in advancing the rights of women, gays and lesbians and immigrants. That’s what much of this convention has been about. Until Clinton spoke last night, the party had lost its ability to mount a compelling defense of Obama’s his broad economic record—stopping the plunge toward Depression, enacting quasi-universal health care. And it had lost its ability to speak to a crucial swing constituency.

Will Clinton’s speech boost Obama’s prospects with those onetime Clinton Democrats, those working-class whites? Probably not, unless Obama and the rest of the party study what he said and how he said it. Democrats have been in trouble with these voters for decades. To appeal to these voters, the Obama Democrats don’t have to abandon their social liberalism—clearly, it’s not merely an act of conscience for them but also, they believe, a political plus. But they need to know how to make the kind of case that Bill Clinton made, too, a dollars-and-cents case, a lunch-bucket case for our times. To be sure, Clinton is sui generis, the single best campaigner in American politics since Franklin Roosevelt. He’s a hard act to follow, but the Democrats will suffer if they don’t try. 

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