Politics & Policy

Bill Clinton Has Become the Democrats’ Reagan

Years after he left office, the party can't quit him.

A new Wall Street Journal/Annenberg Center poll drives home something you may have already guessed: Bill Clinton is the only American politician people want to listen to.

The 42nd president outscores seven other prominent figures when registered voters are asked whether a campaign endorsement from that person would help or hurt a candidate.

Among the luminaries Bill Clinton beat out were President Barack Obama, his wife Michelle Obama, and most importantly, Clinton’s own wife Hillary Clinton. Some 38 percent of poll participants said they would look at a candidate more favorably if Clinton endorsed him or her, while 24 percent would take a less favorable view. The two first ladies reportedly had one-percentage-point net positives (i.e., slightly more people would take an endorsement from them as a positive), and the handful of Republicans named in the survey — including 2012 presidential runner-up Mitt Romney, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Senators Ted Cruz (Texas) and Rand Paul (Kentucky) all would do more harm than good with an endorsement. Hillary Clinton was the only Democrat likely to run for office in the future who was mentioned in the poll — presumably because the pollsters couldn’t find any other nationally prominent Democrats. (Neither the Journal nor the Annenberg site put the poll data online. The above is from a news article.)

That’s bad news for Christie, Cruz and Paul, but the Republicans have a deep bench of competent governors — and if the last six years haven’t taught Americans to elect presidents from state houses rather than the Senate, we are truly unteachable. It’s also bad news for Hillary Clinton, but luckily for her the Democrats have no bench at all. (I keep waiting for the “Vote MOM” craze to sweep the nation, but Maryland governor Martin O’Malley remains a long shot by several parsecs.)

Bill Clinton’s enduring dominance — which has now gone on almost as long as his 2000 State of the Union Address — points to a broader problem for the Democratic Party. Nearly 14 years after he left office, Clinton encapsulates not just his party’s better days but its ongoing stagnation. When Democrats want to point to a good economy, they can only point to Bill Clinton. When Barack Obama needed rescuing after his near-fatal first 2012 debate with Romney, he turned to the ex-president he none-too-secretly despises. When any Democrat anywhere needs to fill up a parking lot, that Democrat’s lonely eyes turn to Bill Clinton.

Republicans are used to this kind of thing. The image of Ronald Reagan keeps escaping the bonds of mere nostalgia to dominate the GOP’s current self-image. It is stunning to tour the swag tables at any GOP event and find the framed posters, coffee mugs and t-shirts almost exclusively devoted to the Cattle Queen of Montana co-star, while such wonderful Republican presidents as Dwight Eisenhower, Calvin Coolidge and some guy named Abraham Lincoln go mostly or entirely unacknowledged. Right now, Center for the National Interest president Dmitri K. Simes is disparaging Obama for being “no Ronald Reagan,” while Fox News is running a hypothetical declaration of war on the Islamic State we might be hearing if Reagan were still president. (The exercise is about as enlightening as the old Saturday Night Live “What If” sketch that asked questions like “What if Spartacus had a Piper Cub to help his rebellion?” and “What if the early settlers had to fight dinosaurs but the Man From U.N.C.L.E. went back to help them?”)

The elevation of these two is understandable. For my money, Clinton and Reagan are the two best presidents America has had since I’ve been alive — in the sense that America was relatively peaceful and prosperous under them, and their administrations did not substantially undermine the well-being of the citizens. (I don’t really believe in good presidents, only less-bad ones.)

But the unending nature of the Clinton Era is something that should concern Democrats for several reasons.

First, Republicans, for all their Reaganolatry, have taken the first step toward sobriety and admitted they have a problem. There is considerable discussion among conservatives about whether it’s time to leave the Reagan legacy behind. Florida governor Jeb Bush has urged the party to give up its “nostalgia” for the 40th president. Because the Washington Post always has the best interest of Republicans at heart, the paper’s from-the-right columnist Jennifer Rubin condemns the “unfailing reverence on the American right for Ronald Reagan” as a “myth [that] has become a burden for the modern GOP.” The estimable Jim Antle has provided five reasons Gipper nostalgia misleads conservatives, and last year The American Conservative reassessed Reagan’s foreign policy in a cover story with the title “Forget Reagan.” No such reconsideration of the Clinton cult has taken place, and it probably won’t as long as Bill Clinton maintains his sway over voters.

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Second, it’s been quite some time since Bill Clinton left office. To put it in perspective: Five years after he left office, Reagan announced his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and he remained out of the public eye thereafter. Fifteen years after leaving office, he was dead. Bill Clinton will have been out of office for 14 years this January — and it has been a solidly lousy period for the United States, as measured by economic performance, foreign policy achievements, and national security. Eight of those years have been under a Republican president (six of those with a Republican Congress), and six years have been under a Democratic President. Such a long time without any bright spots can drive a country to Havisham-style moral paralysis, and that seems to be what’s happening under Clinton’s long shadow. That Bill Clinton’s long-suffering wife — an exceedingly mediocre politician with no real successes to brag about — is the all-but-confirmed 2016 presidential candidate for one of the two major parties attests to his vast zone of influence.

Finally — and I want to make clear that I’m not wishing harm on anybody — it’s a problem that Bill Clinton is still alive. It’s bad enough to live in the shadow of a dead person. (As artists from James Joyce to Paul McCartney have shown, you always lose when you compete with the memory of the dead.) But to be under the shadow of a living figure is to be vulnerable to that person’s whims — and Bill Clinton’s whims are more problematic than most. He is just as devious and troublemaking as he ever was, and his endorsement can only be a poisoned gift.

This is already evident in Bill’s pro-Hillary stumping, which, like his crowd-pleasing 2012 speech on Obama’s behalf, has as its first goal the promotion of Bill Clinton. Any benefits to Hillary are far down the list of priorities. Last month, while ostensibly thumping the tub for his wife, Clinton managed to take a potshot at Benjamin Netanyahu, leaving it to the Hillary campaign to clean up after him. I’m going to take a wild guess that this will not be the first such left-handed “help” the left-handed former president gives his wife. There are few things less pleasant to think about than the intra-family relations of the Clintons, but I predict Bill will find ways to undermine Hillary’s presidential hopes so Machiavellian we will need to invent new words for them. And he’ll do it for the purest of reasons: because deep down, he hates her.

If Hillary Clinton could stand on her own two feet, that might not be a fatal problem. She can’t. In addition to being one of the least likeable people in America, Hillary lacks the Napoleonic leadership quality Bill had in overplus: She is unlucky. Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state was certainly dogged by the fecklessness of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, but she failed in every instance to put the best face on it. And while it can be argued that Republicans are trying to milk the Benghazi disaster for more than it can yield, it is inarguable that Benghazi was a failure so total even the Clintons can’t polish it up. (They did try, with many Hillary supporters cheering her infamous “What difference . . . does it make” Senate testimony as an example of a righteous woman standing up to “mansplaining.”) Maybe that terrible episode could be balanced out by Clinton’s foreign policy successes. But she doesn’t have any.

A few successful elections have gotten the Democrats out of the habit of honest self-assessment. (And believe me, I’m not claiming Republicans, who chose the man who invented Obamacare and lost the 2008 GOP primary as their 2012 candidate, are any better on that front.) The feature that makes Hillary Clinton the inevitable Democratic 2016 nominee is the same feature that is plaguing the Democratic Party as a whole — her married name. The Clintons, like The Fantasticks and the Great Recession, are a show that keeps running long after the audience has lost interest, a complex of spite and personal pathologies that still seems compelling only thanks to a vague sense that things were better in the nineties. But the Clinton economy is no more likely to come back than Netscape Navigator. The world has moved on. The Democrats should do the same.

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him onTwitter and Facebook.

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