It’s starting to feel a bit like 1992 again. A Bush is in the White House, the economy is a mess, and there’s a candidate who, in the view of a number of observers, is running on a message of hope, of moving past partisan differences, that resembles Bill Clinton’s campaign 16 years ago.
Now, I’m not sure that’s a fair characterization of the 1992 Clinton campaign, which had a strong streak of populism, beginning with a speech in which Mr. Clinton described the 1980s as a “gilded age of greed.” Still, to the extent that Barack Obama 2008 does sound like Bill Clinton 1992, here’s my question: Has everyone forgotten what happened after the 1992 election?
Let’s review the sad tale, starting with the politics.
Whatever hopes people might have had that Mr. Clinton would usher in a new era of national unity were quickly dashed. Within just a few months the country was wracked by the bitter partisanship Mr. Obama has decried.
This bitter partisanship wasn’t the result of anything the Clintons did. Instead, from Day 1 they faced an all-out assault from conservatives determined to use any means at hand to discredit a Democratic president.
For those who are reaching for their smelling salts because Democratic candidates are saying slightly critical things about each other, it’s worth revisiting those years, simply to get a sense of what dirty politics really looks like.
No accusation was considered too outlandish: a group supported by Jerry Falwell put out a film suggesting that the Clintons had arranged for the murder of an associate, and The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page repeatedly hinted that Bill Clinton might have been in cahoots with a drug smuggler.
So what good did Mr. Clinton’s message of inclusiveness do him?
Meanwhile, though Mr. Clinton may not have run as postpartisan a campaign as legend has it, he did avoid some conflict by being strategically vague about policy. In particular, he promised health care reform, but left the business of producing an actual plan until after the election.
This turned out to be a disaster. Much has been written about the process by which the Clinton health care plan was put together: it was too secretive, too top-down, too politically tone-deaf. Above all, however, it was too slow. Mr. Clinton didn’t deliver legislation to Congress until Nov. 20, 1993 — by which time the momentum from his electoral victory had evaporated, and opponents had had plenty of time to organize against him.
The failure of health care reform, in turn, doomed the Clinton presidency to second-rank status. The government was well run (something we’ve learned to appreciate now that we’ve seen what a badly run government looks like), but — as Mr. Obama correctly says — there was no change in the country’s fundamental trajectory.
So what are the lessons for today’s Democrats?
First, those who don’t want to nominate Hillary Clinton because they don’t want to return to the nastiness of the 1990s — a sizable group, at least in the punditocracy — are deluding themselves. Any Democrat who makes it to the White House can expect the same treatment: an unending procession of wild charges and fake scandals, dutifully given credence by major media organizations that somehow can’t bring themselves to declare the accusations unequivocally false (at least not on Page 1).
The point is that while there are valid reasons one might support Mr. Obama over Mrs. Clinton, the desire to avoid unpleasantness isn’t one of them.
Second, the policy proposals candidates run on matter.
I have colleagues who tell me that Mr. Obama’s rejection of health insurance mandates — which are an essential element of any workable plan for universal coverage — doesn’t really matter, because by the time health care reform gets through Congress it will be very different from the president’s initial proposal anyway. But this misses the lesson of the Clinton failure: if the next president doesn’t arrive with a plan that is broadly workable in outline, by the time the thing gets fixed the window of opportunity may well have passed.
My sense is that the fight for the Democratic nomination has gotten terribly off track. The blame is widely shared. Yes, Bill Clinton has been somewhat boorish (though I can’t make sense of the claims that he’s somehow breaking unwritten rules, which seem to have been newly created for the occasion). But many Obama supporters also seem far too ready to demonize their opponents.
What the Democrats should do is get back to talking about issues — a focus on issues has been the great contribution of John Edwards to this campaign — and about who is best prepared to push their agenda forward. Otherwise, even if a Democrat wins the general election, it will be 1992 all over again. And that would be a bad thing.