Bill Clinton’s Back to Work: If he’s so smart, why can’t he save the Democrats?

If Bill Clinton’s So Smart, Why Can’t He Save the Democrats?

If Bill Clinton’s So Smart, Why Can’t He Save the Democrats?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 9 2011 11:23 AM

Book Learning

If Bill Clinton’s so smart, why can’t he save the Democrats?

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Some Democrats did run on that first idea. The president campaigned on that, too. Clinton argues that Republicans were “both candid and clever in presenting their own policy agenda in printed materials distributed to their more ideological base voters.” But he omits something: to wit, the boost that Republicans got from the new and enhanced third party political organizations, from the well-known American Crossroads and Americans for Prosperity to the more generically named mystery PACs that arrived in October. Clinton makes no mention of Citizens United v. FEC at all. His 2010 doesn’t look like the one we lived through. Hey, he’s smarter than we are about politics—maybe we missed something.

“For the first time since their big losses in 1994,” writes Clinton, “when the Republicans ran on the Contract with America, the Democrats did not counter the national Republican message with one of their own. There was no national advertising campaign to explain and defend what they had done and compare their agenda for the next two years with the GOP proposals. The large amount of money Democrats raised, $1.6 billion, was almost all spent on local races, just as it was in 1994, with similar results.”

It makes sense, but according to Karl Rove, not even Bill Clinton thinks it’s 100 percent true. In his memoir, Rove writes about talking to Clinton after the 2006 elections, in which the Democrats won back the House. Back then, Clinton seemed to appreciate the value of local spending. “We should have won twice as many seats,” Clinton told Rove, “but we didn’t because of what you all did to get out your vote. No one will give you credit, but I know what you all did.”


A major get-out-the-vote effort was exactly what Democrats tried last year. Why didn’t it work? Ah, this is the stuff that Clinton really knows but doesn’t say. He just implies it. Massive progressive reform isn’t going to happen anymore. Clinton never writes that, but the sad little eulogy for big-dreaming liberalism is sort of the point of this book. He piles on (and numbers!) micro-ideas about what could fix the economy—infrastructure banks, green tax credits, local retrofitting initiatives. “We could provide free training and the cash equivalent of a ten-year property-tax holiday for investments that create more than a certain number of jobs or reopen a closed factory,” he writes. The twist is left up to his footnote: “This is an idea I first heard suggested by Newt Gingrich.”

The point of all this is that liberalism is basically over. It should keep its gains. It should stave off the “antigovernment bloc” by limiting the points of attack—declaring war on red tape, for example. (This is another thing that Obama’s Democrats have actually done. Stop laughing! The growth of regulations under Obama is slower than it was under Bush.) Focus up: Just try to improve what we’ve got. Clinton’s boldest defense of progressivism takes the Occupy Wall Street movement’s anger and bleaches it.

“Our process is too tilted in favor of powerful private interests over the public interest,” he writes, “in favor of short-term financial gains over long-term employment and income growth, in favor of consumption over investment, in favor of pushing more of our national income up to the top 1 percent over increasing the incomes of the middle class and giving poor people a chance to work their way into it.”

What’s the best way to make that happen now that the white Southerner’s old allegiance to the Democrats is gone? How do you fix things when the natural majority party doesn’t want the government to govern? Stop dreaming, get busy tweaking. Any other advice isn’t going to work so well.