Jewish World Review June 2, 2003 / 2 Sivan, 5763
John H. Fund
Clinton the Hoover: Bill, Hillary and the Dems' political vacuum
The Clintons are back--but then they never really left. More than two years after Bill and Hillary departed the White House with controversies about presidential pardons and missing furniture swirling about them, they still occupy front-row seats in American politics. The former president does not seem to let a week pass without criticizing his successor. His former finance chairman, Terry McAuliffe, remains at the helm of the Democratic National Committee, despite the party's rout in last November's election. Simon & Schuster will be hawking Mrs. Clinton's memoirs next month, and she's considered the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2008 should President Bush be re-elected.
But not all Democrats are happy that the Clintons remain their party's most prominent national figures. Two weeks ago Susan Estrich, Michael Dukakis's 1988 campaign manager, wrote a column giving voice to many liberals' misgivings about the couple who came to the (Democratic) party and wouldn't leave. She argues that the Clintons' domination means that the nominee next year won't be able to put his own stamp on the party.
There is also a more practical reason for Ms. Estrich's frustration. "Hillary Clinton is never going to be president," she writes. "There is no more divisive figure in the Democratic Party, much less the country, than the former first lady. And I like her. But many women do not. Even Democratic women. Even working women." She concludes that while Mrs. Clinton is a hardworking and effective senator, she only helps Republicans raise money and stir up their troops whenever talk turns to her running for president.
As for Hillary's husband, Ms. Estrich maintains that while he is a brilliant man, "the more attention he gets, the more the Democrats of the future suffer. He would be the first to say this, if it were not about him." She concludes: "Enough with the Clintons. Please. Not for the sake of the Republicans. But for the Democrats."
Ms. Estrich is reflecting the private feelings of many Democrats I have spoken with, but most of them won't say it in public. The Clintons and their defenders have long memories, and they are proven survivors. How else to explain Terry McAuliffe staying on as chairman of the DNC, after his party managed to defy history and lose both House and Senate seats last year?
In many ways, the Clinton years were not good ones for the Democrats. In 1992, after Mr. Clinton won his first term with 43% of the vote, the party held substantial majorities of both houses of Congress and a clear majority of the nation's governorships and state legislatures. Mr. Clinton was almost able to muster a popular-vote majority in his re-election four years later, but already his party was out of power in both houses, had a minority of the nation's governors. For the first time in 50 years, they do not control a majority of state legislatures.
Democratic pollsters concede that the Clinton impeachment scandals eroded much of the party's support with blue-collar women and religious voters. Like a battered spouse, Democrats struggle to justify hanging on to the Clintons. "He is a good provider," Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat, told me a few years ago, referring to the millions the Clintons raise for Democratic candidates.
But that money won't do the party any good if it can't win elections, and Ms. Estrich's point is that the Clintons stand in the way of that goal. Two-thirds of the country cannot name a single Democratic candidate for president in a field that includes Joe Lieberman, a former vice presidential candidate, and Dick Gephardt, a former House minority leader. The Clintons are so big there is no room for anyone else in people's minds when they think of the Democratic Party.
Most former presidents have not tried to dominate their party's affairs after leaving office the way the Clintons have. Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan were in their 70s when they left the White House and uninterested in anything other than the role of an elder statesman. Jimmy Carter suffered such a crushing defeat in the 1980 election that his party tried to forget him. George Bush père suffered a similarly crushing defeat in 1992 and poured his political energies into promoting the gubernatorial ambitions of his sons, George W. and Jeb. As important as the Bush family is in the GOP of today, no one believes it is crowding out or inhibiting the development of the party's future national candidates. Indeed, its political success is creating exciting new potential candidates, such as National Security Adviser Condi Rice.
The publication of Hillary's memoirs next month, followed by her husband's just before the presidential election next year, will create a lot of buzz and may even sell a fair number of books. But the attention will benefit the Clintons, not the party whose ideals they claim to champion.
As the Clintons continue to suck the oxygen out of the political atmosphere, more and more Democrats are going to find themselves yearning to breathe free.
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©2001, John H. Fund