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

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

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton addresses the audience at the seventh annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI).
Should the Democrats continue to heed Bill Clinton's advice?

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images.

I remember it like it was yesterday, the night I saw Bill Clinton give progressives bad advice. The former president was onstage at the 2009 Netroots Nation conference. He had an airport-hangar-sized room to win over, and he did—by talking about why health care reform needed to pass.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

“I'm telling you,” said Clinton, “no matter how low they drive support for this with misinformation, the minute the president signs a health care reform bill his approval will go up. Secondly, within a year, when all those bad things they say will happen don't happen, and all the good things happen, approval will explode.”

This was August 2009. The health care bill passed in March 2010. The president’s approval didn’t go up; it fell. One year later, his approval didn’t explode, and neither did the public’s love for health care reform. Clinton kept giving advice, and very often the Democrats ended up taking it, consciously or not. They struggled so manfully to avoid their Clinton-era mistakes, and they lost anyway.

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The Democrats have lost their majority in the House, but Clinton’s still here. He has more advice. Out Tuesday he released Back to Work, a book of policy, punditry, and finger-waggery that Clinton wrestled with because he didn’t want to “just add another stone to the Democratic side of the partisan scale.” He ends up adding a couple of boulders to the scale, and he adds to one of the micro-mysteries of modern Democratic politics. If Bill Clinton’s so smart, why can’t he save us?

Take Clinton’s “talking points” theory. He looks back on the 2010 elections, during which he did “more than 130 events” for Democrats, and decides that the party missed out by ducking his advice. “Vice President Biden and I tried to get the Democratic National Committee to send out a centralized set of talking points to its large e-mail list,” he writes, “so Democratic foot soldiers would at least have some good ammunition for their phone and door to door campaigns. We couldn’t persuade the decision makers to do so.”

The Democrats didn’t have talking points in 2010? This sounded goofy, but when I asked Democratic strategists about it on Tuesday, they agreed. The White House message shop didn’t compete with the GOP. Democrats panicked and ran screaming from the bills they’d passed. But … hadn’t they passed the bills in the first place? Hadn’t they avoided the big mistake Clinton warned about?

Clinton’s answer is so simple that it can’t possibly be right. “These problems,” he writes, “could have been finessed with commitments to reform—not repeal—the health-care law and to change how we produce and consume energy in a way that grows the economy and creates jobs.”

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