Newsweek: Obama Needs to Be Clinton

A few weeks ago Newsweek got a lot of attention for Niall Ferguson’s factually challenged cover story slamming the Obama case for re-election.

This week, in true corporate media style, we get the “other” side: An argument that Obama should move the Democratic party to the right.

Peter Boyer’s piece, “Why Barack Needs Bill,” recycles some of more dubious claims about the effectiveness of Clinton’s brand of center-right “triangulation.” Since this is the media’s usual advice for Democrats— move to the right in order to capture the center– it’s worth unpacking.

Clinton-style “New Democrats,” Boyers explains, “have nearly vanished.” And this is trouble:

Their absence complicates Obama’s bid for reelection, and his chances for an effective second term, if he gets one. Clinton’s brand of liberalism was designed to win elections, and brought Democrats back after a generation in the wilderness; Obama’s brand of liberalism produced the line that became the Republicans’ favorite refrain last week in Tampa: “You didn’t build that.”

What Republicans say about Obama should be set aside for the moment–especially considering this “favorite refrain” is such a gross distortion of Obama’s words.

Where did all those New Democrats go? Well, many of them lost elections. So if the Clinton model was “designed to win elections,” it didn’t work. But we’ve known that for a long time already. As FAIR founder Jeff Cohen pointed out in 2000:

When Clinton entered the White House, his party dominated the U.S. Senate, 57-43; the U.S. House, 258-176; the country’s governorships, 30-18, and a large majority of state legislatures. Today, Republicans control the Senate, 55-45; the House, 222-211; governorships, 30-18, and almost half of state legislatures.

Clinton didn’t bring the Democratic party out of the wilderness–it’s more accurate to say that he led the party into one.

Boyers goes on to recall Gore’s 2000 loss–which again complicates the idea that Clintonism is an obvious winner–and how this dealt a further blow to the Democrats:

With Al Gore out of the picture, the party took an ever-more-stridently leftward turn, and by 2004, what Howard Dean called “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” was in full ascent. The energy in the party resided in the antiwar left, reawakened by Iraq, and by 2008, candidates in the Democratic presidential primary were expected not only to oppose the war, but to apologize for ever having supported it—and all but Hillary Clinton did. (No apology was required of Obama, who’d opposed the “dumb” war from the start.)

Now one could make the argument that this move to the left–coupled with growing public anger at the Bush administration and the Iraq War–explains how the Democrats regained a Congressional majority. Or, in other words, that this “stridently leftward turn” was a winner.

Newsweek gives an array of conservative Democrats like Doug Schoen, Al From and Artur Davis space to talk about all the things they would do to steer the party back to the right. From’s Democratic Leadership Council was founded to “find a way to sell a liberal program to a nation that consistently rejected it”– a funny idea, considering the party’s hefty Congressional majority through those years that the public was apparently rejecting its message. And Davis apparently “argues that the post-Clinton Democratic Party has willingly set a course toward the model of the fringe-European left.”

There’s little pushing back on the argument that Obama has gone too far to the left, probably because Boyers seems to agree with it:

Obama’s presidency has seemed, in key regards, a repudiation of the New Democrat idea. Clinton Democrats embraced business; Obama attacked private equity. A New Democrat would have championed the Keystone XL Pipeline; Obama, yielding to environmentalists, has resisted it.

It’s hard to know where precisely this Obama “attack” on private equity exists, outside the minds of some journalists and Wall Street leaders. Certainly there’s little in the way of policy in this regard. As for Keystone, Obama is delaying a decision, keeping environmentalists at arm’s length. It is, if anything, a pretty Clintonian move on his part.

It’s nonetheless revealing that a piece that rests on the on the assumption that Obama has strayed too far from the “center” can find so little evidence to back that up. To Boyers, the Obama years mean, unfortunately, that the “era of big government isn’t over anymore.” How Obama has made government “bigger” is left under-explained. Which is a good thing, since it, too, is a difficult argument to make.

Just as corporate media cheered Clinton for pulling Democrats to the right, they’ve consistently counseled Obama to do the same–to pull a Clinton on the left/liberal base of the party. But if you ask many of them, he already has.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.