Bill Clinton was all over the news on Friday. He was identified as the go-between in a (failed) White House effort last year to get Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania to drop his (ultimately successful) Democratic primary challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter. And he was live, on stage, in Arkansas in a full-throated defence of embattled Sen. Blanche Lincoln.
In Washington, of course, the Sestak melodrama got all the attention. But Clinton’s efforts to save Lincoln from defeat in the June 8 Democratic primary runoff election against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter matters more, and is more interesting. It isn’t just that Lincoln is a longtime ally from the former president’s home state. Her battle is in many ways Clinton’s, as well.
It is a fight over differences and grievances within the Democratic Party that have been festering for years.
Lincoln comes out of the once-ascendant centrist wing of the Democratic Party and from the Democratic Leadership Council that was Clinton’s vehicle for remaking his party en route to the White House in 1992. Her opponents represent the progressive forces that gained significant power inside the party after Clinton left office. She has been targeted for defeat by labour unions, who, as Clinton put it Friday, want to make her “a poster child for what happens when a Democrat crosses them.” Her opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act is one of her alleged sins. She also has drawn the ire of progressive groups, who objected to her willingness to turn against the public option during the health care debate.
There has been a long debate over whether Clinton truly changed his party. To win the presidency the first time, he had to persuade voters that the Democrats had learned some important lessons from their wilderness years in the 1980s — that they were “new Democrats,” as he often said.
One change was to acknowledge the excesses of the Great Society, to admit that government couldn’t solve all problems and that market-based solutions were more effective. Another was to make the Democrats appear less dominated by culturally liberal ideas and organisations, as a way to start winning back some of the Reagan Democrats who had left the party in the 1980s.
In office, Clinton signed a controversial welfare reform bill over the objections of many liberals (but with the support of then-staffer Rahm Emanuel). He entered into negotiations with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other congressional Republicans to balance the budget. He embraced small-bore policies like school uniforms in his 1996 re-election, which frustrated Democrats who wanted him and their party to be more ambitious at a time of rising economic prosperity.
He remade his party well enough to win the White House twice for the first time since former President Franklin D. Roosevelt did it. By the time he left office in 2001, there was a consensus among Democrats around the ideas and strategies he had promoted, despite the controversy over his personal life. That consensus has generally held up.
Clinton remains one of the shrewdest strategists in the Democratic Party and he knows where elections are won and lost. He is still fighting to preserve the legacy of his presidency and the style of politics he brought to the party almost two decades ago.
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