Clinton will be there for Obama in Charlotte. But the big-tent, business-friendly wing of the party 42 built is long gone. How the death of Clintonism could be a major hurdle for the president this fall.
When Bill Clinton takes center stage at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this week, he will make a characteristically forceful case for the party’s other big dog, Barack Obama, arguing that a second Obama term is a vital necessity, and sounding for all the world as if the current president has no greater admirer than the man from Hope.
Bill Clinton reacts to the Newsweek cover and talks to Brian Williams about his relationship with President Obama.
Every Democrat in the arena, and many beyond, will know better.
The relationship between the 44th president and the 42nd has been an uneasy one since 2008, when Obama denied Clinton a third turn in the White House by defeating Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. That bitterly fought primary campaign inflicted real wounds—including the suggestion by Obama’s side that Clinton slyly tried to help his wife’s chances by inserting race into the contest. Public reconciliation, and the top job at State for Hillary, followed, but the rift never really closed. Clinton is said to occasionally brood over the fact that Obama has not eagerly availed himself of the counsel of the party’s best political mind (Clinton’s). For his part, Obama cannot have failed to notice that Clinton has hardly faded from the scene, operating, through his Clinton Global Initiative, what sometimes seems a sort of shadow presidency.
Nor could Obama have been cheered when Clinton complicated the incumbent’s key campaign offensive this spring by declaring Mitt Romney’s business career “sterling,” or when Clinton said that the Bush-era tax rates should be extended, including for the very rich.
But Obama knows that he needs Clinton to lift a convention that many Democrats are pointedly avoiding, and to help rescue an imperiled reelection bid that will be nothing like the relatively easy ride that Clinton enjoyed in 1996.
So, Clinton will be in Charlotte, but Clintonism—that brand of centrist New Democrat politics that helped make him the first president of his party to win reelection since FDR—will be mostly missing. Conservative and centrist Democrats, so critical to Clinton’s efforts to reform welfare, balance the budget, and erase the image of the party as being reflexively anti-business, have nearly vanished.
Their absence complicates Obama’s bid for reelection, and his chances for an effective second term, if he gets one. Clinton’s brand of liberalism was designed to win elections, and brought Democrats back after a generation in the wilderness; Obama’s brand of liberalism produced the line that became the Republicans’ favorite refrain last week in Tampa: “You didn’t build that.”
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