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?

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.

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.”

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

Yes, Black Families Tend to Spank More. That Doesn’t Mean It’s Good for Black Kids.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

Politics

The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 6:23 PM Bryan Cranston Reenacts Baseball’s Best Moments to Promote the Upcoming Postseason
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.