This Is Not Your Older Brother’s Democratic Party

Pundits are already at work analyzing the campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and making comparisons, mostly negative, with the two successful campaigns of her husband, President Bill Clinton. Most focus on things such as charisma (he has it, she doesn’t), the “vision thing” (he had one, she doesn’t) or the unique difficulties facing a woman running for president (Ellen DeGeneres chimed in on this yesterday). Whatever validity these reasons have, there is one thing that is undeniable: The Democratic Party of 2008 has moved far to the left of the one that Bill Clinton conquered in 1992.

Bill Clinton confronted a Democratic Party in shock from three consecutive presidential shellackings in the 1980s. He preached a centrist politics that foreswore ideology in favor of interest group-friendly economics and , for a Democrat, a strong focus on national security concerns. As such, he supported the first Iraq war, though his reasoning left something to be desired, and even chose Al Gore as his running mate primarily because of his vote in favor of the war. He strongly supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in a pitch to win Big Business, and was even willing to stick a finger in the eye of the most radical elements of the Democratic Party by publicly criticizing rapper Sister Souljah.

The repositioning worked. Clinton won a share of the so-called Reagan working-class Democrats, a share of the South and moderate Democrats concerned about national security. The lesson that Bill took from his two successful campaigns was to downplay liberal social ideology and to never, ever, be labeled soft on national defense.

These lessons have not been lost on his wife. Sen. Hillary Clinton has worked hard on defense matters from her position on the Armed Services Committee and did vote in favor of the second Iraq war. She used her Senate years to focus on economic development for her constituents and rarely played a lead or prominent role in divisive social-issues battles, though she was a reliable liberal vote in the end. She obviously believed that her long record on behalf of liberal causes made her invulnerable to a challenge from the left.

In this assumption, she would be wrong. In point of fact, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has successfully flanked her on the left, which must be absolutely frustrating for someone whose real views are far to the left of what she has portrayed. Obama has made Iraq his main focus of attack, stressing endlessly that he was against the war from the beginning. He also has apparently not been hurt by other foreign policy gaffes that she has tried to take advantage of, such as his naive pledge to meet with every anti-American dictator within one year of his inauguration. The problem is that the Democratic base doesn’t much care about national security experience. They’re more interested in who can claim to be most different from President Bush.

In Ohio, Obama has opened up another front. He has pointed out, correctly, that Sen. Clinton supported NAFTA, which she unquestionably did. That NAFTA is an excellent policy initiative and a credit to the Bill Clinton administration is of no import. What is at issue is the battle for Ohio’s industrial unions, which will have a large impact in the Democratic primary. And those unions, or at least their leadership, are against NAFTA. Perhaps they see it as an extension of the class warfare that all Democrats have engaged in against American business. This Democratic Party has clearly abandoned international economic growth in favor of autarky and economic nationalism.

Sen. Clinton prepared for the general election before she won the primary. She thought she was invulnerable to a challenge from the left. The leftward drift of the Democratic Party has done her in, and threatens the party’s general election prospects in November.

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