The Memo: The incredible shrinking Bill Clinton
The man once known as the Big Dog seems much smaller these days.
Former President Bill Clinton was the dominant figure in Democratic politics for much of two decades, from his first victory in 1992 until Barack Obama won the 2008 election.
Now, he is an afterthought.
His appearance at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday was low-key and relatively brief. His address, delivered in his trademark husky drawl, was solid but unremarkable. It vanished from the political conversation as soon as it had been delivered.
Part of Clinton’s diminished status can be attributed to the passage of time. November’s presidential election will be the first in which Americans who had not been born when he left office will be eligible to vote.
But the issue is more complicated than that.
Politically, Clinton is the emblem of a centrism that is scorned by rising young leftists. Even its adherents, including newly-minted nominee Joe Biden, have learnt to speak in a more modulated way about the kind of politics that Clinton proudly and loudly espoused.
To Clinton’s left-wing detractors, it’s past time to move on from him — and from Hillary Clinton, whose presidential campaign record is 0-2 and whose 2016 loss to President Trump still festers. She will be speaking at the convention on Wednesday night.
But the Clinton loyalists — and there are some, still — argue that the revisionist history around the 42nd president ignores the context from which he sprang. In doing so, it overlooks his skills and the lessons that might usefully be learned, they say.
Clinton rose to become the Democratic nominee in 1992 partly as a corrective to what was then seen as an electorally suicidal brand of liberalism.
A Democrat had last won a presidential election 16 years before. The two most recent nominees had been disastrous. Michael Dukakis had blown a sizable polling lead to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Walter Mondale had been crushed by President Reagan four years earlier.
It’s startling now to look at the electoral maps of Clinton’s victories, given how much America’s political geography has changed.
He carried Tennessee and Louisiana in both 1992 and 1996.
Maybe — at a stretch — Clinton could be said to have had some marginal advantage in those states because they share borders with his native Arkansas, which he also won. But that doesn’t explain why he also carried Kentucky and West Virginia twice — states in which no Democratic presidential nominee today would even bother to compete.
Georgia today is a state at the more ambitious end of Biden’s target list. Clinton was the last Democrat to win there, in 1992.
Yet for all of Clinton’s successes, it is also easy enough to see why he is derided by progressives today.
His rhetorical centrism is part of it.
Clinton billed himself as a “New Democrat,” the better to distance himself from previous electoral losers. He spoke about the need for small government and for a “vital center” in American politics.
The controversial pollster Dick Morris, detested by some of Clinton’s own staff, was an eager advocate of “triangulation” — the concept of the president staking out a position somewhere between and above the traditional positions of Republicans and Democrats.
But it wasn’t just the rhetoric.
Clinton enacted welfare reform legislation that was deeply unpopular with the left, and remains so. His 1994 crime bill accelerated mass incarceration. His support of the death penalty was firm enough that, as a presidential candidate who was also Arkansas’s sitting governor, he returned to his home state to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector. Rector, a Black man, was so brain damaged that he asked to save some of his last meal “for later.”
If those moves were contentious at the time, they have only grown more so as the conversation around racial justice has become sharper.
Clinton, for all his popularity with Black voters at his peak, fits uneasily into a party seeking to demonstrate its awareness of the insidious nature of racial disparities.
The same is true of his personal behavior.
His sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky nearly brought him down. The GOP effort to remove him from office sparked a fierce defense of Clinton. Some renowned feminists, including Gloria Steinem, rallied to his side.
At the time, the consensual nature of the relationship was the focus of Clinton’s supporters.
It is implausible to imagine the same defense being mounted from similar quarters today, given the stress now placed upon imbalances of power. Clinton was 49 and president of the United States at the time of his first encounter with Lewinsky. She was 22 and a White House intern.
There have, too, been even graver allegations about Clinton that his party has largely chosen to sidestep.
Clinton has always denied any suggestion of coercive sexual behavior, and his allies have characterized such allegations as motivated by political or personal enmity.
That doesn’t change the fact that there is at least one detailed allegation, from Juanita Broaddrick, that he raped her.
His friendship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein looks, to many, like a thread that has yet to be fully unravelled.
Put it all together, and it’s no surprise Clinton is increasingly marginalized.
Time has indeed moved on.
Once, his party idolized him. Now, it holds him gingerly at a distance.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.