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Busting the Clinton Ghost

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As we inch closer to the mid-term elections, rank-and-file Democrats have the ominous feeling that their Party does not have its act together. Dems need to take action to get their political train back on the tracks. A good first step would be to purge the ghost of Bill Clinton.

It’s one of the ironies of American political life that the farther ex-Presidents recede into the past, the better they seem to look. Even the iniquitous Dick Nixon was getting kudos by the time he passed on. Therefore, it’s understandable that after 5 years of a truly dreadful Bush Administration, many Democrats wax nostalgic for Bill Clinton. Yes, they acknowledge, Bubba had “issues,” but he was infinitely preferable to Dubya.

True enough. But Clinton’s issues have left a lasting mark on the Democratic Party. They’re responsible for many of the problems that currently plague the Dems. If FDR’s Party is going again to be the dominant voice in American politics, it will have to deal with these issues.

At the core of these issues is situational ethics, the philosophy that argues that no values are sacred. This propensity can be seen in today’s Clintonista wing of the Democratic Party that believes that winning is everything, that the ends justify the means. This position advocates tactics that shift as their perception of the mood of the electorate changes. The Clintonistas rely upon polls rather than principle.

When he first ran for President, most Democrats believed that Bill Clinton was a person with a firm set of moral values. During his initial campaign, Clinton spoke of “A New Covenant with America,” that represented ethical standards that all Democrats could be proud of. “We offer our people a new choice based on old values. We offer opportunity. We demand responsibility. We will build an American community again. The choice we offer is not conservative or liberal. In many ways, it's not even Republican or Democratic. It's different. It's new. And it will work. It will work because it is rooted in the vision and the values of the American people.” Over and over, in that initial campaign, Bill Clinton used the words, “Opportunity, responsibility, community.”

After he was elected, Clinton changed. Outwardly, he was still the same charismatic, articulate person. But over time, Bill and his advisers adopted the position that the ends justified the means, that winning was everything. Bubba quit talking about his “New Covenant,” and deemphasized “responsibility.” He redefined FDR’s Party as “Republican Lite.”

Many Party loyalists noted this change and warned that in terms of ethics, Clinton and his followers were becoming indistinguishable from Republicans. When Clinton co-opted the “Welfare to Work” program, true blue Dems saw that he was abandoning the historic Democratic commitment to protect America’s less fortunate citizens—forsaking opportunity. When Clintonistas boasted of their “third way” philosophy, many in the party saw this as a repackaging of Neo-Liberal ideology that elevated corporate profitability over the common good. When Clinton lied about his liaison with Monica Lewinsky, and then tried to minimize it as a personal matter, many Dems warned that it needed to be taken seriously. They saw that in the eyes of many Americans, Clinton’s personal morality reflected upon all Democrats—our willingness to take personal responsibility for our conduct. These observers foresaw that Dems, in general, would be accused of “Bill Clinton disease;” espousing “sixties values” such as free love, and the attitude, “if it feels good then it’s okay to do it.” At each point, Clintonistas brushed off these protests, pointing to Bubba’s personal popularity and his ability to win elections. But when charismatic Bill was gone, the taint of his immorality stuck to the Party.

The Clinton era did not produce a stronger Democratic Party. To the contrary, it’s legacy is the philosophy that principles don’t matter, that what counts is reading the mood of the electorate and being nimble enough to adjust to changing voter preferences. This counsel probably cost Al Gore the Presidency. The former Vice-President, who’s a person of deep personal morality, got tragically bad advice. He ran a campaign based upon issues, rather than on principles. Surrounded by Clintonistas, Gore attempted to win with a Clinton-style campaign, forgetting that he lacked Bill’s charisma. Gore hid his true character from the electorate. Forgot that he is a values-based Democrat.

In 2006, Clintonistas remain a powerful element in the Party. The Democratic Leadership Council, the campaign of Hillary Clinton, and the role of Rahm Emanuel as chair of the DCCC, shows the extent of their influence. At a recent event, DLC leaders were asked about the Democratic message in 2006; they replied that the “events and the economy will determine the outcome,” therefore Dems needed no “message” at present. Of course, the Clintonista “no message” mantra produced their vacuous position on Iraq: make it President Bush’s problem; don’t demand withdrawal because it makes Dems look weak; instead insist upon “benchmarks for success.”

Here’s the point: recent polls indicate that three-quarter of Democrats are people who have definite moral values. They may have voted for Bill Clinton in the past but they don’t embrace situational ethics. They certainly don’t believe that the Democratic Party will be successful by abandoning its historic principles. They feel that FDR’s party actually has a set of values that should dictate what its program is. Prominent among these are honesty, responsibility, equality, opportunity, and community.

Ironically, these are values that candidate Bill Clinton talked about, and then jettisoned once he became President. Now Democrats have to put the Clinton era behind them and move on. It’s time to reassert core Democratic values and purge Clinton’s ghost.


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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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