01 October 2010

Why Obama isn't Clinton

Peter Beinart offers this excellent piece on Bill Clinton's move toward the center after the 1994 midterms, and why Barack Obama is quite unlikely to follow Clinton's lead.

Beinart notes that during his time as governor of Arkansas, Clinton was aligned with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which had been at war with the party's liberal base for years. Clinton not only governed as a centrist in Arkansas, but he campaigned as a deficit hawk, promised middle-class tax cuts -- at the time, a heresy for a Democrat -- and vowed to end "welfare as we know it." It was only when he swung left -- pushing health care reform and Don't Ask, Don't Tell during the first half of his first term -- that he set the table for the GOP to sweep back into power. After his party's 1994 defeats, Clinton turned the eyes inward, and seemed to understand that his defeats came about because he deviated from what had gotten him elected in the first place. He then set into motion a series of policies, including welfare reform, the Al Gore-led National Performance Review and most critically, his crusade for a balanced budget, that led to the longest peacetime boom in American history.

While Clinton and Obama both campaigned as centrists in 1992 and 2008, respectively, there is one critical difference between the two: Clinton actually was one, while Obama simply used trans-partisan vagueries to get elected. Anyone who knew anything about Barack Obama knew this image as a bipartisan healer was a fraud. This was a man who managed to rack up the most liberal voting record in the Senate in 2007 and wrote more autobiographies (one) than serious pieces of legislation during his utterly inconsequential Senate career.

If you were shocked that Obama swung to the left upon taking office, seemed completely unable to stomach bipartisan compromise and engaged in comically hyper-partisan demagoguery, you simply weren't paying attention to what he's been his whole political career.

Now, Obama will be faced with a nearly identical situation that Clinton encountered in January 1995: A Congress controlled by Republicans. And it's up to Obama as to how he will govern. Will he reach out to the GOP and find common ground on deficit reduction, green energy issues and entitlement reform? Or will he continue to dispatch surrogates to blast the GOP for being obstructionists? The president is the one who sets the tone. It's up to him.

These days, after a big-government Republican and an old-time liberal Democrat have spiraled us deep into debt and governed ineffectually, I've begun to long for the days of Clinton, the last legitimately decent chief executive. To say Clinton was a great president is missing his obvious flaws -- he pushed for an even more sweeping health care reform package than did Obama; his foreign policy during 1993-94 was disjointed and misguided; and, obviously, he betrayed his country's trust in the Lewinsky scandal. But in terms of his efficacy as a chief executive, Clinton was everything Obama was not. Clinton was willing to listen to Dick Morris and examine the flaws of his first two years in office. Obama still seems to be in love with his own celebrity, has built a team of yes-men who apparently don't disagree about anything, and genuinely believes the country is just as liberal as he is. In short, he is laughably out of touch, while Clinton was anything but.

That's why "triangulation" isn't coming back, and why the Clinton coalition that Obama so masterfully rallied in 2008 is irreparably broken.

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