Obama and the death of Clintonism.

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June 3 2008 4:35 PM

It's Your Party Now

Obama and the death of Clintonism.

Hillary and Bill Clinton. Click image to expand.
Hillary and Bill Clinton

Now that Barack Obama has the nomination wrapped up, everyone will be looking for the symbolic moment when he takes Clinton's hand and they raise their arms together. This is the traditional sign of party unity. This year it may not be enough to start the bygones era, given the charges of sexism and racism that have been traded between the campaigns and the number of Clinton fans promising to nurse their embers of grievance. Maybe raised arms won't be enough, and we'll need to see a hug or a kiss on both cheeks.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

In the pageant of reconciliation, Clinton, who has promised to campaign vigorously for Obama, will be repeatedly asked about her claims that he lacked the credentials to be commander in chief and would not be able to defeat John McCain. That will be hard enough for her. But it's not all. Unlike other second-place finishers who have merely had to sublimate their own ambition, Clinton will have to engage in the eclipsing of her husband's presidency and its legacy, which has largely defined the Democratic Party for the last 15 years.

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Barack Obama didn't just run against Hillary Clinton. He ran against Clintonism. The assault started indirectly in his book, The Audacity of Hope, which spoke about moving past the generational fights that had consumed baby boomers in the 1990s. He was attacking both parties for their preoccupation with Vietnam and the warmed-over cultural battles of the '60s and '70s, but on the Democratic side, this was an explicit effort to push away from the biggest boomer of all, Bill Clinton, and the turmoil of his reign.

The "Washington game" of massaging opinion and of political navigation, as Obama puts it in putting it down, was in part, after all, a Clinton creation. ''George Bush may have perfected divisive special interest politics, but he didn't invent it,'' Obama regularly said. ''It was there before he got into office." At the heart of that game-playing was the sin of what Obama called "triangulation and poll-driven politics." Triangulation has become almost a curse word in some Democratic circles, standing for selling out on principles and using liberals as foils for deal-making with Republicans. To engage in triangulation, as Obama and his supporters defined it, was a selfish act. It built political power for Clinton but not for the party he led, as Obama explained in one debate. It is because of this worldview that Obama famously picked Reagan over Clinton when talking about leaders who had genuinely transformed the country. Maybe as a term of her surrender, Clinton will demand a paean to Clintonism.

So what will Obamaism (or is it Obamology?) look like now that the Democratic Party is his to shape?There are a few specific, if not overarching, data points. As an antidote to the secrecy of Clinton's 1994 health care plan, Obama has promised his health care negotiations will be on C-SPAN for all to behold. When Hillary Clinton offered a gas-tax holiday, Obama argued against it, framing the plan as vintage Clintonism—a small meaningless sop confected only for political advantage. He said that if elected, it was just this kind of nonsense he'd avoid.

These are only hints, though. The larger promise of Obama's truth-telling has still not arrived. In Troy, Mich., yesterday the "truth" he offered about high gas prices was not that people would have to drive less, or carpool, or sell their SUVs, or maybe even accept a higher gas tax. He told the audience that energy conservation would come about through government spending, which would in turn bring Michigan new jobs. That's offering people candy, not spinach.

Obama has campaigned on the promise to pull together new coalitions, and perhaps this will be the best test of how he'll challenge Clintonism as he's defined it. The Clinton people call building a majority tailoring your convictions to appeal to particular blocs you need to win—independent voters, or the soccer moms of yore, or blue-collar white men. Obama critics decry this as a triangulation-ready watering down of principle. The alternative approach is to boldly state your convictions and convince people to move to your point of view.

In a campaign, you succeed if enough people buy enough of your message, or of you, to pull the right lever. But when Obama is president, his philosophy will have to take fuller shape. He'll actually have to win votes from members of Congress, which will test whether the inevitable trade-offs will be so great, or seem so political, that he infuriates his supporters. In figuring out how to navigate those choices, he might want to turn to the last Democratic nominee with a gift for giving fine speeches and promising a third way: Bill Clinton. Maybe Clintonism can never really die after all.