Reactions to the report that Bill Clinton will place President Obama’s name into nomination at the party’s convention in September, and that he will play a more high-profile role than the vice president himself, have generally fallen into two categories: mocking Joe Biden for his party’s treatment of him, and acknowledging that Obama believes he needs Clinton to win.
Both are correct. But there is another aspect to Clinton’s role as nominating figure: passing the torch. Obama wants to make clear that this is his party now. He has never been able to fully conceal his contempt for Clinton’s “third-way” politics, which seek to, like chess players, control the center. While Obama has tried to have his cake and eat it too, by spurning Clintonian politics while taking credit for the popular aspects of some Clinton policies, he has also tried to outrun Clinton, who is more popular than Obama.
- Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); Obama campaigned on unilaterally renegotiating it and possibly withdrawing from it–even running “Buy American, Vote Obama” ads during the election–and waited years to sign other free-trade agreements that were ready for him on day one.
- Clinton signed welfare reform; Obama handed down an executive fiat to gut the very successful legislation.
- Clinton tried, and failed, to pass health care reform; Obama tossed congressional Democrats under the Tea Party bus just to have health care legislation bear his name.
Clinton’s message to Democrats in 1992 was that they could either have a very liberal party, or they could win the White House. The country would not let them have both. Even so, the Democrats took a shellacking in mid-term elections, leading to the first Republican House majority in four decades. Clinton understood that this was a partial rebuke to his more liberal first attempt at governing, and was forced to the center to keep his job.
We should not overstate Clinton’s centrism, of course. He did not craft NAFTA; he inherited it from George H.W. Bush and signed it. He did not craft, nor even like, welfare reform; it was a Republican initiative that Clinton vetoed repeatedly before accepting it.
But Clinton left office with a high approval rating and was celebrated for his move to the center: he became the first Democrat to win a second full term as president since Franklin Roosevelt. Obama wants to step out of Clinton’s shadow and win a second term as well—but it won’t be enough for him to win it on Clinton’s terms. It has to be on his own terms, with a party remade in his image. That image is becoming clearer by the day, as moderate Blue Dog Democrats disappear, as do pro-life Democrats. And this year, as Joshua Muravchik writes for COMMENTARY this month, is the last in which the Congress will have a Scoop Jackson Democrat, as Joe Lieberman is retiring.
It’s a different party, and Clinton’s role at the nominating convention will make that clear.