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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Moving Past the Clintons

Senator Barack Obama's historic victory Tuesday ushers in a new era of post partisan and potential post racial politics throughout much of America. Obama's sweeping victory and uplifting campaign stands in direct contrast to the most recent Democrat to occupy the White House, whose wife Obama defeated to win the Democratic nomination. This also creates a new opportunity for the Democratic Party to create a Governing majority. The fact that this comes so quickly after the Party's fortunes had ebbed to its lowest point since before the New Deal and talk of a long term GOP domination of electoral politics outside the Northeast was prevalent is all the more remarkable.

Regardless of what Democratic activists may claim the emergence of Bill and Hillary Clinton on the national stage was a near fatal blow for the Democrats as a national majority party. During Bill Clinton's tenure as President, the Democrats lost over 65 House seats, 10 Senate seats and 15 Governor's chairs. Only in 2006, with the election of many new Democratic Congressional candidates and Governors did the party begun to recover its national footing. In 2008, with Hillary Clinton safely out of the picture, American voters cast the majority of their ballots in Governors races, Congressional races, Senate races and the Presidency for Democrats for the first time since 1964. Also, for the first time since 1964, a Democratic Presidential nominee garnered more than 50.2% of the national vote last night as well.

While Clinton backers continue to claim to this day that President Clinton was not responsible for the catastrophic Democratic losses in Congress in 1994 and the subsequent failure to regain either House or Senate during the remainder of his tenure, it is very difficult to intellectually defend this view. The reality is that Democratic members of the House in particular and to a lesser extent the Senate had made themselves immune to the whims of voters in Presidential Politics. When Nixon routed McGovern in 1972 the Democrats lost seats but continued to hold a comfortable Congressional majority. In 1984 when Reagan defeated Monday by 20 points, the Democrats actually picked up a Senate seat and continued to hold a comfortable House majority.

This all changed with President Bill Clinton. His partisanship knew no bounds the first two years in office and the new President's inability to even deal with his own party's leadership in Congress delivered disastrous results. The first GOP Congressional majorities in forty years were ushered into power not as a reaction to Congress but as a reaction to the ideological bent and governing ineptitude of President Clinton.

Instead of taking the fight to the GOP Congress, President Clinton felt compelled to defend his relevance to the Washington Press Corps, declaring one famous March 1995 afternoon that "the constitution makes me relevant." Hardly the sort of statement you would expect from the leader of the free world. Eventually Clinton picked small battles with the GOP but on big ticket items like welfare reform, Free Trade and the GOP Budget he made deals with the new Congressional leadership, often times far to the right of the Democratic mainstream.

This left Democrats completely rudderless and in many ways devoid of an identifying set of principles to run elections on. Clinton's desire for self promotion and self preservation made it appear to many media observers at the time that he was running in tandem with the GOP leadership. So complete was Clinton's shift away from Democratic principles that Minority Leader Richard Gephardt gave the closing speech on the House floor against the Presidents 1997 Budget. Clinton's over indulgence in illegal campaign fund raising in 1996 also had the affect of denying the part an opportunity to retake the House just when the generic congressional polls had broken in favor of a Democratic takeover.

After impeachment Clinton continued his previous pattern or deal cutting and ideological meandering that left his Vice President, Al Gore searching for a new set of ideas to run on in 2000. Critics have claimed Gore's campaign lacked focus and a clear message: while I agree with that assessment I cannot help but place a good amount of the blame on President Clinton himself. Congressional Democrats had the same problem and until the unifying posture of opposition to the Iraq War became a rallying cry in 2006, the Democrats were often times fighting battles on the turf where Clinton had taken them. These battles often served as virtual re-enactments of Custer's last stand.

Barack Obama's victory not only gives hope to millions of American citizens. It gives hope to longtime Democratic operatives like myself that the Clinton era is officially and finally dead in party politics.

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I am the host of the Major League Soccer Talk and EPL Talk Podcasts and am frequent guest on other (world) football shows. I am also the publisher of various other websites including this one. I work in public/government relations in addition to my soccer work and have a keen interest in history, politics, aviation, travel,and the world around us.