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Unpacking Bill Clinton’s Arguments

During the past week, former President Clinton has been granting a lot of interviews. In each of them, he is asked, in one form or another, what he would advise President Obama and Democrats to do given the current – and for them toxic – political environment.

During his interview with The News Hour, Clinton had this to offer:

What the American people need to do is to do what’s best for themselves and their family. The only things that really matter are: what are we going to do now? And once you settle on that, who is more likely to do it? If the election is about that, I think we’ll do fine.

In his interview with his former aide George Stephanopoulos, Clinton said this:

I would say, “I know a lot of people are mad, and a lot of people are tired. Apathetic. And I respect that. Because we’re not yet out of the hole we’ve got in. [Republicans] had eight years to dig the hole. They say we have 21 months, throw us out, put them back in. I just want you to understand that every election is a choice, not a referendum.  It’s a choice here.”

Clinton added:

I knew I’d done the right things in ’94. … I’d like to see him do something I didn’t do. I’d like to see him say, “Here’s what I think this election’s about. The only thing that matters is what we’re going to do now. Here are the three things I think we ought to do now.  Here’s why I think our side’s more likely to do it.  And let me tell you something, we couldn’t get out of this $3 trillion hole in 21 months.”

The options are limited for Democrats, so Clinton’s recommendation may be as good as any. And there’s a surface appeal to his “give us two more years and, if that doesn’t work out, fire us” gambit.

But here’s what’s wrong with Clinton’s recommendation. For people to have faith in what public officials promise, they have to be able to place a certain amount of credibility in them. And if they don’t trust what lawmakers have done to them in the past, they’re not likely to trust what they say about the future.

Obama and Democrats can’t simply wipe the slate clean and start over. “What are we going to do now” isn’t the only thing that matters. “What you have done to me” matters as well – and Democrats are exceedingly vulnerable in this respect. Also, the hole-was-bigger-than-we-ever-imagined excuse sounds plaintive and self-pitying, especially because the Obama administration made a series of predictions (unemployment won’t exceed 8 percent, 2010 will be the “Summer of Recovery” in which 500,000 jobs per month will be created, ObamaCare will bend the cost curve down, etc.) that were wrong and that are shattering their credibility.

A final point: it’s revealing how often Democrats reach for the formulation that every election is “a choice, not a referendum.” Actually, elections are often a combination of both, and that’s perfectly reasonable; it’s a form of accountability. When Ronald Reagan ran for reelection, it was based in large part on how much progress the country had made under his stewardship. The famous “Morning in America” ad highlighted a litany of economic statistics during the Reagan years to remind people just how much he had achieved. He wanted the 1984 election to be, in good measure, a referendum on what he had accomplished.

The fact that Democrats today are so eager to insist that the midterm election isn’t a referendum tells you everything you need to know. They don’t have a record to run on or to be proud of. They would prefer that the last two years of their legislative achievements disappear into a black hole. The problem for Democrats is that voters won’t allow that to happen.


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