Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Obama starts an argument

by shamanic

Greg Sargent at TPM has an Obama mailer that highlights the 1990s as a period of Democratic shrinkage in America's elected offices. It looks like an accurate accounting, and speaks to the amazing energy that Republicans were able to generate with their anti-Clinton frenzy and the scandal machine that, too often, the Clintons played into. I would add caveats, however.

Remember that the 1990s were when the southern realignment completed, so it isn't quite accurate to lay this entirely at the feet of Bill Clinton. Our party has now effectively realigned the northeast to balance this out and we're making strong inroads in the mountain west. These types of realignments take time. The GOP didn't get the solid south in one election or in one decade. If anything, we've had a faster go at it because we had to.

But I don't think that Bill Clinton has been too much of a player in catalyzing this Democratic realignment. We've spent this decade hearing from the media that "self-identified liberals" are a shrinking group and that Democrats can't possibly win unless we appeal more broadly, etc., etc., while "self-described conservatives" are a thriving affinity group that we can never reach out to, and so on. To me, that's a relic of Bill Clinton's leadership. He wasn't an especially liberal leader, but he continued to paint a portrait of liberalism as feckless, morally adrift, and opportunist.

It took the post-Clinton generation of leaders, notably Howard Dean, to stand up and say, "No, we have important, well thought out core values that are not negotiable, and we're going to run on them and we're going to stand up for them." Okay, our guys in congress have done a terrible job of standing up for them, but at least we've agreed they're good ideas and we're running on them. And they do appeal broadly. We never quite knew where Clinton was going to come down on an issue. We never quite knew when he'd jettison a core value in exchange for legislative victory, shafting us with things like a NAFTA agreement that included no environmental or labor protections. Are you kidding me?

So not surprisingly, the Democratic party was badly wounded by this era of core value free leadership. We've moved past it, and while it isn't entirely Bill Clinton's fault that the party's fortunes folded under his stewardship, it remains true that when you don't give voters something to vote for, they'll vote for the other guy. Clinton never knew if he was coming or going until he found himself facing a given direction. It's a valid critique.

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