With Terry McAuliffe going down to defeat in the Virginia Democratic primary for governor, many bloggers are heralding the death of Clintonism. In the Los Angeles Times, Johanna Neuman wrote that Clinton’s attacks on Obama during the primaries “have dimmed his star and, with it, those of his acolytes.”
But it would be a mistake to read the Virginia primary as a referendum on Bill Clinton’s legacy. More often than not, staffers and advisers—especially those without experience running for office—fail to make the leap into elective politics, and there is considerable evidence that Clintonism survives in the Obama administration.
Obama is not a throwback to the Great Society or the New Deal. His liberalism is one born of the 1990s.
Running for elected office is different from serving in a popular administration, and the aura of the chief executive does not usually shine onto the campaign trail. More than a hundred years ago, George Cortelyou, who served as Theodore Roosevelt’s press and Treasury secretaries, saw his 1908 presidential bid fizzle—despite having run a great campaign for TR four years earlier. James Mitchell, who served as secretary of Labor under Dwight Eisenhower, ran for governor in his home state of New Jersey in 1961 and was favored to win. Mitchell attacked John F. Kennedy for his growth-stifling policy of “spending for the sake of spending.” But his opponent, Richard Hughes, a lawyer who had been involved in New Jersey politics since the 1930s, went on to victory.
Kennedy’s own advisers likewise failed to translate their patron’s star power into votes. In 1964, Kennedy’s charismatic former press secretary Pierre Salinger was deemed a likely winner over the actor George Murphy in the California Senate race. But even as Lyndon Johnson swamped Barry Goldwater at the top of the ticket—winning California along the way—Salinger lost. Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen ran for Senate in New York in 1970. Sorensen played up his experience with the Kennedys and was greeted like a celebrity on the trail—but still lost. Perhaps most unsuccessful was Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy in-law, who abandoned bids for governor of Maryland and Illinois, lost as the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee in 1972, and got nowhere in seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976. Despite all these losses, though, no one talked about a rejection of the Kennedy legacy.
The list of failed bids by presidential advisers continued into later decades. As recently as 2002, some claimed that Clinton’s legacy was diminished when his Labor Secretary Robert Reich did poorly in the Massachusetts Democratic gubernatorial primary, his Attorney General Janet Reno lost in the Florida Democratic primary, and his chief of staff, Erksine Bowles, lost a bid for a North Carolina Senate seat (losing to Elizabeth Dole—one of the few recent success stories of former Cabinet officials seeking office). Rahm Emanuel and Bill Richardson did win elective office that year, but what seems to have distinguished the winners from the losers was not their connection to Clinton but their personality and campaigning skills, as well as the peculiarities of each race.
If unelected presidential advisers don’t typically make a mark by winning elective office, they can wield influence by advising presidents. So far, Clintonites have done extremely well in landing top positions within the Obama administration. Secretary of State Clinton, Chief of Staff Emanuel, and economic adviser Lawrence Summers are the most prominent. The middle ranks of the White House are stocked with thirty- and fortysomethings with service in the Clinton administration.
The points of continuity between Clinton and Obama extend beyond staff. Obama is shaping up—much as Clinton was—as a liberal-to-moderate in most areas. In tackling national security, he has supported an escalation of military force in Afghanistan and much of the existing counterterrorism program. On politically dicey issues, such as the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists or support for gay marriage, he has avoided risky stands. Indeed, on cultural issues, his rhetoric emphasizes personal responsibility much like Clinton.
Obama’s efforts on the economy also are far from radical. He used federal funds to shore up the financial sector without great risk to investors. He has backed off campaign talk of revising NAFTA.
Obama is not a throwback to the Great Society or the New Deal. His liberalism is one born of the 1990s, when many Democrats came to marry liberal values with a more aggressive posture on national security, an acceptance of the primacy of market-based approaches to most domestic problems, and the use of social arguments about individual obligations.
What distinguishes the Obama presidency from the Clinton presidency, as much as can be said now, is not so much the man as the times. Clinton took office at the high tide of conservative Republican rule and found himself forced to scale back his expectations of what he could accomplish. Obama takes office at a time when the GOP has been discredited. The financial crisis has created for the first time in generations a chance to work with new economic solutions—even if Obama has moved cautiously to exploit that chance. Rising unemployment and weak housing markets have scared many Americans into seeking government activism when only a few years ago they were skeptical of such calls. Perhaps most important, Democrats have solid control of both chambers of Congress, with a House leader who stands with the progressive wing of her party and close to a filibuster-proof Senate. These conditions are creating immense pressure for bolder intervention and opportunities that did not exist under Clinton.
McAuliffe’s defeat, then, should be seen as just that—the defeat of a candidate with no prior elective experience who did not run a particularly good campaign, and who had banked his fortunes on money and television time rather than speaking to the people. Whether Clintonism leaves its imprint will be seen instead in whether Obama continues to govern—as he seems to be doing thus far—with the pragmatic, cautious pursuit of liberal (but not radical) goals that marked the presidency of his Democratic predecessor.
David Greenberg is a professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of three books, including Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image.
Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book, Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security—From World War II to the War on Terrorism , will be published this fall by Basic Books. More on Zelizer can be found at www.julianzelizer.com.