Bill Clinton Brought Democrats Back to Life: A Zombie Idea That Won’t Die

Bill ClintonDavid Shribman, a former New York Times political writer who is now the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s executive editor, had an op-ed about Clintonism in the Times (5/21/16):

In its original form, Clintonism was an effort to pull the Democratic Party — which had lost five of the six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988 — back into political relevance…. Mr. Clinton wanted to help big corporations thrive, favored trade policies that unions loathed and spoke of reining in welfare and fighting crime….

The 42nd president left the White House with high approval ratings after serving during years of economic growth. Many liberals felt bruised, even betrayed — there were some high-profile repudiations of the president, especially when he signed a welfare overhaul in 1996 that set time limits on benefits. But no one doubted that he had given new life to the party when he left office in 2001.

“No one doubted that he had given new life to the party”? Actually, plenty of people have doubted this (e.g., Jeff Cohen, L.A. Times, 8/9/00). But since corporate media keep pushing the fantasy of Bill Clinton as savior of the Democratic Party, it’s worth going over the reality once again.

Bill Clinton came into office with 258 Democratic House members, which was at the time a fairly typical number. The Democrats had controlled the House every Congress but two since 1931; even when the Republican presidential candidate won in landslides in 1972 and 1984, the GOP didn’t manage to win more than 192 House seats.

Then came Clinton’s triangulation, which, as Shribman writes, allowed Clinton to pass “major parts of his agenda, from a trade deal with Mexico and Canada to welfare reform to a crime bill.” The NAFTA trade pact in particular alienated a key part of the Democratic coalition–the labor unions. This led directly to the 1994 midterm massacre, in which the Democrats lost 52 seats and control of the House; since then, the Democrats have only controlled the House twice.

Likewise, Clinton came in with 57 Democratic senators, and lost nine of those seats in the 1994 midterms. Since then, the Senate has mostly been Republican-controlled; it wasn’t until 2009 that there were more than 50 Democrats in the Senate.

The Democrats had big losses on the state level under Clinton as well. From the late 1950s onward, Democrats had a big advantage in state houses that continued almost unbroken through the Nixon and Reagan eras. That ended in 1994; since then, party control of state legislatures has on balance favored Republicans.

Real Clear Politics: Party control of state chambers

Chart: Real Clear Politics (11/11/14)

With governors as well, the Clinton era was likewise when the good times stopped rolling for the Democrats.

The evidence is clear that Clintonism has been a disaster for the Democrats, but the idea that Bill Clinton saved the party is one of those zombie ideas that won’t die. Corporate media are simply too invested in the idea that moving to the right should be good for the Democratic Party to notice that this hasn’t happened in real life.

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Felicia Kornbluh, a professor of history at the University of Vermont and once a FAIR staffer, explained in an interview with CounterSpin (8/28/15) just what it was about Clintonism that made it such a disaster for progressive politics:

We progressives do ourselves an enormous disservice when we don’t really examine what happened in the ’90s and how terrible a kind of Clinton Democratic politics were for us, because it has undercut every type of argument that we have made for every kind of generous or expansive or humane move in terms of domestic politics. Because the opponents have this tool—they can basically use the welfare reform discourse, and bring back those racial and sexual stereotypes, to kill anything. They went after the ACA with this, they went after food stamps, they are now going after disability benefits using the same playbook, and we have to go back to the ’90s and say, “Look, that playbook is no good, and we will not let you vilify people this way.”…

I think we really have to understand the politics of the ’90s, and I think there was a kind of deliberate political choice that drove all of this: From the perspective of the Clinton administration and certain people in the Democratic Party, it was a very explicit idea, that certain people would have to be cut adrift, that it was really going to be OK. They were willing to pay the price with other people’s bodies, with other people’s well-being. African-American women and low-income women and their kids would be cut adrift, because the Democratic Party couldn’t afford to defend them, and wasn’t willing to pay that price.

And the bargain would be then they would save the Democratic Party, they would save Clinton’s political career, and I guess they thought they would also be able to save some type of progressive agenda, maybe around healthcare or something like that. As it turns out, they didn’t do that much for us, and they did unleash this terrible, terrible policy with all of these wide ramifications….

It was all part of what was called “a new Democratic project,” and that was the project that came out of the late ’80s, early ’90s—and Clinton was a national spokesperson for it well before he became president. And that was very appealing to the Washington Post, the New York Times and NPR. It was a kind of rebranding of the Democratic Party and of a certain kind of centrist liberalism that a lot of those institutions, those media institutions, were kind of invested in and believed in. It’s hard to understand; at the time, if you were listening from a race-conscious perspective, it was just all grotesque, but I guess those institutions had none of that orientation; the fact that there were these massive exclusions just didn’t really seem to matter to them, or to hit them, at all.

Jim Naureckas is the editor of He can be followed on Twitter: @JNaureckas.

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This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.