Someday soon, when Hillary Clinton exits the Democratic presidential race, Barack Obama will walk onstage and praise her and her husband to the heavens. Publicly, Obama can afford to be magnanimous. But it’s a good bet the private Obama feels the way a lot of his supporters do: like sending Ken Starr a fan note. For many Obama activists, Clinton’s brass-knuckles campaign confirmed everything they had always suspected about Hillary and her husband: that they’re cynical and ruthless, the detritus of an era in which Democrats sold out their ideals to get elected. Obama’s backers generally feel about the Clintons the way Reaganites felt about Gerald Ford and the way beer aficionados feel about Bud Light: that by compromising core principles, they watered down the brand.
As it shows Clintonism the door, however, Obama Nation should remember something: without that pair from Arkansas, it wouldn’t be here. The 1990s weren’t always pretty, but for Democrats, they were deeply necessary. Because Bill Clinton threw his body into the line, wrecking the Republican Party’s intricate defenses, Obama today has the political room to run.
For starters, Clinton deracialized American politics. He didn’t deracialize it completely, of course. But knitting together a coalition of blacks and whites is easier today because Clinton restored the Democrats’ credibility on economic issues and took three of the most racially toxic issues in U.S. politics—crime, welfare and affirmative action—off the table.
When Michael Dukakis ran for President in 1988, crime was perhaps the biggest issue in the campaign. It splintered his coalition, pitting blacks who saw the death penalty as racially unfair against blue-collar whites who demanded a hard line against crime and too often associated that crime with blacks. Today, by contrast, roughly 1% of Americans say crime is their top issue, and no one even knows what Obama’s position on the death penalty is. For Obama, that’s an enormous boon, and Bill Clinton deserves a lot of the credit. His policies—especially his bold proposal for 100,000 new cops—helped bring down the crime rate. And by embracing the death penalty, he eliminated one of the GOP’s best wedge issues. That embrace was ugly at times, as when Clinton flew back to Arkansas during the 1992 campaign to oversee the execution of a mentally retarded man. But it was politically shrewd. And because Clinton did it then, Obama doesn’t have to now.
Clinton also removed the word welfare from America’s political lexicon. In the mid-1980s, when pollsters conducted focus groups with Reagan Democrats, they found that when they talked about government help for the needy, voters saw it as welfare: taking money from whites to give to undeserving blacks. That attitude was hugely unfair, but it was a political reality. Clinton changed that when he reformed welfare in 1996. By making it brutally clear that people who didn’t work wouldn’t get much help from Washington, he made it harder for Republicans to tag Democratic antipoverty programs as handouts to “welfare queens.”
On affirmative action, Clinton took the air out of a deeply polarizing issue by “triangulating” it—tweaking preference policies rather than abolishing them or defending them outright. But perhaps Clinton’s most important contribution to Obama had little to do with race. The Clinton presidency restored the Democratic Party’s reputation for economic management, which Jimmy Carter had nearly destroyed. By almost 20 points, according to the Pew Research Center, Americans today trust Democrats over Republicans to guide the economy—a huge boon to Obama in what looks like a recession election. Obama owes much of that advantage to George W. Bush, of course. But he owes some of it to Clintonism too.
If Clinton had been more principled, if he had been less of a panderer, if he had tried to be purer than his political opponents—if, in other words, he had been more like Obama—he might have opposed the death penalty, vetoed welfare reform and unambiguously defended affirmative action. He might also have gone with his liberal base, not Wall Street, and chosen economic stimulus over deficit reduction in 1993. And had he done those things, Barack Obama would probably not be in a commanding position to become the next President of the U.S. So as they bid Clintonism goodbye, Obama fans should show a little gratitude. If Bill weren’t the person they revile, Barack couldn’t be the person they love.
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