Sunday, December 23, 2007


In today's New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai devotes 6,911 words to a portrait of Clintonism as compromised, amoral, and alienating to true progressives -- and it's hard to tell where, in Bai's mind, one of those ends and the others begin:

Some Democrats, though, and especially those who are apt to call themselves "progressives," offer a more complicated and less charitable explanation. In their view, Clinton failed to seize his moment and create a more enduring, more progressive legacy -- not just because of the personal travails and Republican attacks that hobbled his presidency, but because his centrist, "third way" political strategy, his strategy of "triangulating" to find some middle point in every argument, sapped the party of its core principles.

... a combination of events -- first the collapse of Hillary Clinton's health-care plan, then the Republican Congressional takeover of 1994 and later, of course, the debilitating sex scandal that led to his impeachment -- seemed to drain the administration of its capital and ambition. Clinton's presidency seemed, at least from the outside, to devolve into an exercise in deflection and survival, a string of near-death experiences that left little space or energy for whatever sweeping agenda Clinton (and his wife) envisioned back in 1992. As the transformational governing vision of earlier years receded, bland, poll-tested rhetoric and endless scandals rushed in to fill the void -- and became, in the minds of many Democrats, the hallmarks of Clintonism.

And then, after those 6,911 words, Bai hits us with this sentence:

The plain fact is that, for all their condemnation of Bill Clinton's governing philosophy, both Obama and Edwards -- and just about every other Democratic candidate in the field, with the possible exception of Dennis Kucinich, who seems to have been teleported straight from 1972 -- spend a fair amount of time imitating him.

So after portraying Clintonism overwhelmingly in the negative words of its Democratic critics, we learn what Bai actually thinks of those Democratic critics: that they're are just a bunch of hippie freaks.

(And don't you love the way he twists the knife by using the space-cadet verb "teleport"?)

Bai seems prepared to end his article by saying that Clintonism is actually a pretty good thing:

Perhaps it's true that Clinton's presidency will be remembered as a series of lost opportunities -- "the Great Squandering," as the historian David Kennedy recently described it to me. But it's also possible that history will record Bill Clinton as the first president of the 21st century, the man who synthesized the economic and international challenges of the next American moment, even if he didn't make a world of progress in solving them.

But -- heaven forfend -- he can't leave it at that. He's just said that the current Democratic Party is Clintonian, and that Clintonism is sensible -- and if you put two and two together, you might actually think Clintonism is the way forward, and want to vote for a Democrat in '08.

He can't have that. He can't leave you thinking that throwing in your lot with Democrats going forward is a good idea. So he makes this bizarre argument about the Democratic front-runner, Bill Clinton's wife:

This may be the defining difference between the candidacies of Bill Clinton and his wife, between Clintonism and Hillaryism, if such a thing can be said to exist. Like most successful outsiders, Bill Clinton directly challenged the status quo of both his party and the country, arguing that such a tumultuous moment demanded more than two stark ideologies better suited to the past. By contrast, Hillary Clinton's campaign to this point has been mostly about restoring an old status quo; she holds herself up as the best chance Democrats have to end eight years of Bush's "radical experiment" and to return to the point where her husband left off.... That might be a shrewd primary strategy, but winning a general election could well require a more inspiring rationale. Nonincumbents who go on to win the White House almost always take some greater risk along the way, promising changes more profound -- if potentially more divisive -- than a return to normalcy. The reformer runs great danger. The more cautious candidate merely runs.

In other words, Hillary is a feckless coward because she won't run against the record of her own husband -- and, in effect (because she was a big part of her husband's administration) of herself. "Come on, Hillary, you wuss!" Bai is saying. "Show us you've got what it takes! Bash yourself!"

(And he's implicitly attacking Obama and Edwards the same way, since he's described them as Clintonists as well.)

Even if you don't like Clintonism -- and I have very mixed feelings about it -- you have to admit that argument is bizarre.


One more bizarre argument in the Bai article. He writes:

Near the end of his speech in Gorham, [New Hampshire, Bill Clinton] went off on an engaging tangent, as he sometimes does, about the trees he saw from his car window that morning, and how at one time New Hampshire was almost devoid of trees, and how Teddy Roosevelt led a national effort to replenish the forests. "But Theodore Roosevelt proposed a lot of ideas that fell flat on their face until Franklin Roosevelt passed them," Clinton went on. "The important thing for us to do is to fight for the right thing and keep fighting for it until we finally get it done." I had heard Clinton compare himself with T.R. before, but this was the first time I heard him do so publicly, and it struck me as an aside that would have made his wife's advisers wince, if they noticed it. He seemed to be suggesting that Hillary's job as president would be to cement his own unfinished legacy....

Er, Matt? He's comparing her to FDR. You think that's insulting? You think that should make her advisers wince?

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