The Second Coming Of Clinton

18 September 2003

By Stentor Danielson

That pesky 22nd Amendment is getting in the Democrats' way. Many in the party would like nothing more than to see Bill Clinton on the ballot again next November.

In 2000, it seemed like George W. Bush wanted the election to be about Clinton. Though voters vindicated Slick Willy in 1996 and the Congressional elections of 1998, the Bush team still tried to tar then-Vice President Al Gore with the sins of his boss. So he promised to restore dignity to the White House, and used "what would Clinton do" as a criterion for what not to include in his foreign policy proposals. Liberals laughed at the fixation that many conservatives had on the President.

Gore, meanwhile, would rather not have the Clinton imprimatur. He worked to show that he was different from the President, even selecting as his running mate Clinton's leading Democratic critic, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). In 2003, the tables have turned. The Democrats gearing up to unseat Bush are all evoking the Clinton legacy and trying to convince voters to see them as "Bill Junior." Being out of power for so long -- the Republicans have had the White House and House of Representatives for three years, and the Senate for two -- has made the Democrats wistful for the days when one elected arm of government, at least, was theirs.

Howard Dean seems to be the candidate most amenable to visions of Clinton returned. Both men were relatively unknown governors prior to their run. Both are politically eclectic, defying attempts to place them in convenient categories (Clinton made a philosophical issue of his "third way," while Dean seems content to just be an oddball). But all the Democratic hopefuls would like some of Clinton's magic.

Democrats like to compare Clinton's record to Bush's. The economy is the most popular comparison. Clinton presided over the '90s boom, a time of euphoric prosperity quite unlike the recession that had defeated his predecessor, the elder George Bush. The younger Bush is staring down a potential repeat as the economy remains sour. It's debatable how much impact a president really has on the economy, but in recent years a Democratic commander-in-chief has been correlated with a bull market and low unemployment.

The economy, coupled with the reversal of Ronald Reagan's tax cuts, allowed Clinton to produce the first federal budget surplus in memory. Bush, on the other hand, slashed taxes and saw that surplus quickly turn into the largest deficit in history. He pleads that the economy was on its way down before the first tax cuts kicked in, and that September 11 didn't help much, either. Nevertheless, the Democrats hope that their candidate next year will have the resolve to make the unpopular, but necessary, Clintonesque tax hikes to impose fiscal discipline on the federal treasury.

National security -- generally taken to be a no-brainer winning issue for the Republicans -- is also reputed to have been better under Clinton. Bill takes a lot of flak for his failed attempts to take out Osama bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan and the Sudan. But he did manage to keep the millennium celebrations at the start of 2000 free of the planned terrorist attacks. Bush, on the other hand, was lackadaisical about terrorism until September 11 woke him up. Some even suggest that Clinton's Operation Desert Fox strike on Iraq in 1998 was what got rid of Saddam Hussein's last weapons of mass destruction.

Then there's the issue of veracity. Clinton was pilloried for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Yet, as the now-popular slogan goes, "when Clinton lied, nobody died." Bush, meanwhile, has been facing increasing criticism for bending the truth about Saddam's nonexistent weapons and ties to al-Qaida as he made his case for the war in Iraq.

Clinton has the distinction of having defeated a supposedly unbeatable incumbent named "Bush." George Senior was riding high on his post-Gulf-War popularity and looked unbeatable, just as his son did after September 11 and the war in Afghanistan. But the sinking economy and problems on his right flank (the candidacy of H. Ross Perot) allowed a Democrat to go for the kill. Democrats hope to repeat the pattern, hammering the current president on the economy and his lack of fiscal discipline.

Even the big issues in 2004 are Clintonian. The centerpiece of Clinton's first term in office was a national health care plan. Derisively dubbed "Hillarycare" because of the First Lady's involvement in planning it, the scheme died an ignoble death, and even the thought of it was ruled out by the Republican hold on Congress for the last six years of Clinton's presidency. For this election, however, national health care is back. The major candidates all have their competing plans, and they hope to make them a major selling point of their campaigns.

Gay rights is also on the agenda. Clinton came into office hoping to end the military's ban on gay soldiers, but was forced to settle for the disastrous compromise of "don't ask, don't tell." The recent Supreme Court decision legalizing sodomy, the pending Massachusetts and New Jersey court rulings on gay marriage, and a culture that has fallen in love with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy ensure that gay rights will be an issue in 2004.

But the biggest thing Clinton had was charisma. Voters were convinced that he felt their pain. Bush also has some powerful charisma, coming from his strong but comforting performance after September 11 and his ability to portray himself as a "reg'lur Merkin." Gore, on the other hand, was brought down by his reputation for being too stiff and intellectual. So whichever Democrat gets the party's nod will need Clinton-scale medicine to counteract Bush's personal appeal.

Unfortunately, charisma is something you can't transfer from politician to politician. Certainly Bill will be on the campaign trail, endorsing the Democratic nominee. But the candidate can't promise to bring back Clinton's disarming smile the same way he can promise to bring back Clinton's fiscal policy.

Bill Clinton seems to be on track to becoming the Democrats' Ronald Reagan. Both men remind their partisans of the days when their party was ascendant, while serving as a focus of hatred and ridicule for the other side. Just as Bush was hailed (with justification) as the new Reagan, expect to see the 2004 Democratic nominee hailed as the new Clinton.

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