The Bill Clinton of 2014-2016 Will Not Be the Bill Clinton of 1992

Everyone who is familiar with the 1992 presidential campaign knows that Bill Clinton ran as a “new kind of Democrat,” one who would “end welfare as we know it,” one who would help craft a society that would reward those who “work hard and play by the rules.” When he ran for president in 1992, Clinton knew that he would not win if he adopted a traditional liberal stance, so he crafted the now-famous “Third Way” approach and campaigned and governed under a Third Way banner. Of course, the Third Way approach to politics and government was reinforced by the advent of “triangulation,” which came after the disastrous (from the Democrats’ perspective) 1994 midterm elections. Pursuant to the Third Way approach, Clinton accepted–after two vetoes–a Republican welfare reform bill, balanced the budget (after much Republican prodding) and expanded free trade, while at the same time initiating micro-governmental reforms that won bipartisan approval, in part because they were cleverly crafted so that Republicans could not vote against them. Partly by circumstance and accident, and partly by design, Clinton did indeed become a new kind of Democrat during the course of his presidency.

One might naturally expect him to work with Hillary Clinton in order to revive the Third Way approach to politics once the latter finally announces that she is indeed running for president. But as Ira Stoll writes, based on the Clintons’ recent appearance at the Harkin Steak Fry in Iowa, we shouldn’t count on the Third Way making any kind of comeback during a new Clinton campaign, or during a new Clinton presidency:

One of Bill Clinton’s great achievements as president was to win passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a tariff reduction treaty that Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has described, together with other tariff reductions through GATT/WTO, as “the largest tax cut in the history of the world.” Yet at the Iowa Steak Fry, Clinton danced away from that accomplishment, emphasizing what he called “fair trade and not just free trade.”

[. . .]

Clinton’s great domestic policy achievement other than free trade, welfare reform, was not mentioned by him at the Iowa Steak Fry or in the DSCC letter.

To be sure, Stoll writes that “Bill Clinton will surely find a way, once the midterm elections and the Democratic primary is over, to tone down the partisan leftism and reach out to more centrist and independent voters.” But for now, Team Clinton is veering heavily left, which may make veering back to the middle especially difficult if and when Hillary Clinton locks up the Democratic presidential nomination. It is important to emphasize that during the 1992 contest for the Democratic nomination–not just during the general election, when he had to appeal to moderates, independents and disaffected Republicans–Bill Clinton pushed a Third Way approach to politics (as did his wife). But in the upcoming campaign, any and all thoughts about being new kinds of Democrats will be banished from the mindscape of Team Clinton–at least during the primaries and caucuses, and quite possibly, even through the general election.

So for those of you who think that voting for Hillary Clinton will be a great way to bring back the 1990s and new kinds of Democrats, think again. The Clintons aren’t interested in creating some kind of permanent philosophical shift in the Democratic party. They are only interested in winning, and if winning means repudiating Bill Clinton’s political and governmental legacy, well, Bill Clinton will be the first person to advocate that they do so. That’s how devoted he and the rest of the Clinton machine are to ideas and principles.