Pushing Obama to 'Pull a Clinton'

The misunderstood and the misremembered

In the wake of the 2010 midterm elections, one of the more popular suggestions in the corporate media was that Barack Obama take a page from the Bill Clinton playbook and move to the right (Extra!, 12/10). But this narrative mistakes the problems of the current White House, and misremembers the history of Clintonian centrism.

Right after the midterms, CNN viewers heard regular calls for a Clintonian right-ward lurch. Wolf Blitzer asked (11/3/10), “Does the president now need to go to the Bill Clinton playbook and deal with triangulation and all that if he wants to be re-elected?” Democratic strategist James Carville answered: “He does not have a choice.... It’s going to be easier for him to move to them, because they are right-wing people coming out.”

Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez (CNN, 11/3/10) wondered: “Will the president move to more centrist ideas? Follow the Bill Clinton model, and actually do something?” Right-wing CNN pundit Erick Erickson chimed in:

It’s important to show that there’s a pivot for Barack Obama.... There have only been two presidents who were elected who came in as progressives,* and within two years their seats in the House and Senate were largely wiped out. And Bill Clinton pivoted to the right. Will Barack Obama do it?

In Newsweek (11/19/10), Zev Chafets declared that “President Obama might pull a Clinton and move to meet the electorate halfway.” Conservative Jonah Goldberg started out a November 16 Los Angeles Times column asking, “Should Obama pull a Clinton?” The headline, “Obama Can’t Play Center,” seemed to provide his answer.

In the New York Times (12/1/10), Matt Bai wondered if the deficit commission would finally offer Obama a chance to break with the left. Under the headline “Debt-Busting Issue May Force Obama Off Fence,” Bai argued that Obama’s “problem” is that, unlike Clinton, he “isn’t willing to break publicly with liberals.”

The popular comparison couldn’t be clearer: Clinton initially governed too far to the left and pulled back after voters delivered their midterm verdict on the excesses of liberalism. Change the year from 1992 to 2010, and swap out Clinton’s name for Obama, and you have your story. But the tale falls apart upon examination.

For one thing, Clinton mostly campaigned as a centrist DLC-style “New Democrat” in the 1992 campaign. As Extra! pointed out (9/92), the media’s initial fondness for Clinton was largely due to his self-presentation as yet another Democratic attempt to run away from the party’s liberal base.

In 1994, as in 2010, the center-right wing of the Democratic Party suffered defeats at the polls—but the media lesson was largely that this was the fault of progressives. The media coverage dwelt on how Clinton had managed to move away from his centrist roots and embrace old-line liberalism. Newsweek’s Howard Fineman (11/21/94) placed the blame on Clinton’s abandoning “the New Democrat centrist themes he ran on in 1992.”

There is little evidence to support the idea that Clinton lost because voters thought he strayed to the left—just like there’s little evidence that Clinton actually ever did stray much to the left. As Jim Naureckas pointed out (Extra!, 1-2/95), Clinton “offered centrist or conservative proposals on issues like crime, welfare, deficit reduction and trade. On healthcare, he avoided a single-payer approach pushed by progressives in favor of a complex, expensive, insurance industry- friendly plan.” One of the signal achieve-ments of Clinton’s early years was the passage of NAFTA in 1993—an accomplishment that largely alienated key parts of the Democratic base (Washington Post, 11/20/94). But in the corporate media’s recollection, Clinton moved to the right after and in response to the midterms—a politically useful conclusion that brands liberalism as a loser at the ballot box.

The political dynamic in Obama’s first term is, in many ways, exactly the same. White House policies that disappointed the party’s base abound—including the dramatic escalation of the Afghan War, the adherence to Bush-era terror policies and the failure to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Policies that are demagogued as pushing the country too far to the left—the economic stimulus plan and the healthcare law in particular—attracted serious and substantive criticism from progressive activists and elements of the party’s liberal base (Extra!, 9/09, 4/10).

Now, as with the Clinton failure in 1994, the press is asking us to believe that the administration managed to govern too far to the left and yet also failed to motivate those left-leaning voters to turn out in the midterms. The math simply doesn’t add up.

Sometimes the incoherence of the Clinton Playbook argument is on full display. “Can Obama Pull a Clinton?”—a Politico piece by John F. Harris (11/4/10)—began, “A young Democratic president comes into office with big ambitions, gets knocked back on his heels by Republicans in the midterm elections, then makes some deft moves to recapture the center and waltzes to reelection two years later.” Then followed the familiar line that Clinton’s midterm defeat was a “searing experience for him” that caused him to “recalibrate his ideological ambitions.”

Yet many paragraphs later, Harris noted that Clinton was mostly “returning in 1995 to a core set of values that had become obscured amid the clamor of his first two years in office.” Harris added that “Clinton was a centrist Democratic governor” before he was a presidential candidate, and that his speeches after the ‘94 midterms “for the most part...were lurches back to the rhetoric he had used when he began his bid for the presidency in 1991.”

If anything, a far more persuasive case could be made that neither Clinton nor Obama were defeated by an excess of liberalism at all. Rather, in their first two years in office, both embraced policies that alienated progressive voters and suffered midterm setbacks as a result (FAIR Media Advisory, 11/7/08; Extra!, 12/10).

The “Pull a Clinton” advice rests on another fallacy: that Clinton’s supposed move to the right was vindicated by his political success. Clinton-style triangulation certainly preceded his victory in 1996, though there’s little evidence that that was what helped him win; more plausibly, his re-election can be attributed to the fact that median wages, which had fallen from 1992 to 1995, began rising in 1996 (EPI Issue Brief, 6/25/99). And the Democratic Party on balance emerged from the Clinton years far weaker than it was in 1992; from the time Clinton came into office in 1993 until the end of his second term in 2000, the Democrats lost 12 Senate seats, 47 House seats and 12 governorships (L.A. Times, 4/9/00).

The pundits’ recipe for success, then, produces at best a second term for the Democratic president they are attempting to counsel. The main political function of the advice is to coax the White House further to the right—no matter where they are on the ideological spectrum.

* Erickson, born in 1975, seems to be unaware of the numerous presidents to the left of Clinton elected before that date.