The history of the 1990s, revised

Imagine if conservatives had been this excited about Bill Clinton’s presidency when Bill Clinton was president

Topics: War Room,

The history of the 1990s, revised (Credit: Reuters)

(updated below)

Pretty much from the moment Barack Obama became the likely Democratic nominee four years ago, the right began creating a revisionist history of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

When it actually played out in the 1990s, Republicans challenged Clinton’s legitimacy, obstructed his agenda, belittled his character, forced a government shutdown and impeached him. This wasn’t that surprising; it’s just how the right tends to respond when Democrats claim the White House. This was as true under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s as it is today under Obama.

The shift to Obama as the new sworn nemesis created a new role for Clinton in conservative folklore. No longer was he a lying, scandalized, illegitimate president whose incompetence led directly to 9/11; now he became a model for moderate, responsible and pragmatic presidential leadership – a legacy to be invoked as a means of portraying the current Democratic president as dangerously to the left of his own party’s tradition.

This is the effect that Mitt Romney was going for a few weeks ago when he lamented that Obama had “tucked away the Clinton doctrine in his large drawer of discarded ideas.” It’s what Artur Davis, the one-time rising Democratic star who flamed out in Alabama and his now reinventing himself as a Virginia Republican, was going for when he wrote this week that “this is not Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party (and he knows that even if he can’t say it).” And, as Ed Kilgore notes, it seems to be what the Weekly Standard’s Jay Cost is going for when he backs up Davis’ claim by arguing that the Democratic Party “was never really Bill Clinton’s party.”

Cost makes a few claims that are worth exploring. One involves how Clinton became the Democratic nominee in the first place:



He was far from the consensus choice of the party in 1992. In fact, most of the major interest groups that dominate the party today either opposed him or were lukewarm to his candidacy in 1992. What put Clinton over the top that year was his domination of the Southern primaries, thanks in large part to the sorts of white, working class voters who now call themselves Republicans.

But it’s more complicated than that. Clinton did come to the 1992 race with a reputation as a “new Democrat,” a centrist Southerner who’d run the Democratic Leadership Council. Initially, he planned to play these credentials up in his primary campaign, believing that his main opposition would come either from Mario Cuomo or Tom Harkin. But when Cuomo balked at running and Harkin failed to ignite, Clinton instead found himself battling Paul Tsongas and his Wall Street-friendly message.

Adroit politician that he is, Clinton then ran as the defender of the party’s New Deal/Great Society coalition. He did clean up in the Southern primaries, but the most important part of his base was African-American Democrats – same as it would be for Obama 16 years later.  In Georgia, for instance, Clinton beat Tsongas by an overall 57-24 percent spread, his first win of the ’92 primary season. Among blacks, his margin was 74 to 14 percent. Among whites, he earned only a slight majority. As a column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution put it at the time:

Mr. Clinton won more than 70 percent of the black vote. But he won only 53 percent of the white vote. That’s a majority, but it’s only a majority of those who asked for a Democratic ballot. It’s a decided minority of the white Georgians who voted Tuesday. Some exit polls showed a quarter of those who voted for Mr. Clinton intending to vote for Mr. Bush in November. In short, the Arkansan beat Paul Tsongas, a complex candidate from Massachusetts, and three other rivals who almost didn’t bother to campaign here and who didn’t buy television time.

In other key primaries, Clinton rallied senior citizens in Florida with Social Security-themed attacks on Tsongas and used strong labor support to score the commanding Illinois and Michigan victories that knocked Tsongas out. Some white Southerners who are now Republicans were part of Clinton’s coalition, but he mainly relied on a very traditional Democratic coalition to win the nomination.

As president, Cost claims, Clinton “offered a reformist agenda to Congress, but the congressional liberals stymied him in 1993-94.” One item he cites here is deficit reduction – a reference to the 1993 budget that Republicans unanimously opposed (and attacked as “the largest tax increase in history”). But the tax hikes weren’t at all a break with what Clinton campaigned on. In language that Obama himself might use today, Clinton spent the ’92 general election bemoaning that under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush “the rich got richer” while the middle class fell behind. With Republicans claiming class warfare, he vowed to raise taxes on those earning over $200,000. At the 15:20 mark of the first fall debate, for instance, you can watch Clinton making the case for taxing the rich:

Clinton did have to abandon his middle class tax cut campaign pledge, but it wasn’t liberals who forced him to – it was Alan Greenspan and deficit hawks like Tsongas. Far from stymying him, liberals were essential to the enactment of the ’93 budget, which in turn played a major role in the massive surpluses that would emerge by the decade’s end.

Cost is certainly right that there was liberal disaffection with Clinton throughout his presidency – whether on NAFTA in 1993 or welfare reform in 1996. But there was never anything approaching an intraparty revolt. Knee-jerk predictions that Clinton would face a serious ‘96 primary challenge after the disastrous 1994 midterm never amounted to anything, and his support from the party’s base remained healthy throughout his term. By the time he left office, a few liberals considered him a traitor, some were thrilled with his performance, and most were generally pleased but wished he’d been more ambitious and achieved more. (That last sentiment was the foundation for Bill Bradley’s and Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaigns.)

The right’s new caricature of Clinton as the voice of a conservative Democratic wing that no longer exists is as inaccurate as its old one. He was, and is, a complicated politician, skilled at tailoring his ideology to mesh with his target audience of the moment. As president, that trait enraged liberals and conservatives alike. It’s still unclear where, if anywhere, Clinton personally fits on the ideological spectrum. But in the 1990s he campaigned and governed as the leader of a Democratic Party that is very much recognizable today.

Update: I shouldn’t have lumped Cost in with Romney and Davis the way I did. As I made clear above, I don’t think his take on Clinton’s legacy is right at all, but he’s a smart and informed writer and it was wrong to imply that he’s actively trying to distort history.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>