The End of the Clinton Era?

Bill Clinton SpeaksFinally, Bill did the right thing. He gave a speech which was unequivocally supportive of Barack: I breathed a sigh of relief. It was also gratifying that Bill managed to surpass his wife: while she said all the right words in her address on Tuesday, it was done in such a way that one couldn’t help but think her intent was opposite to the text. For example, when she stated pride in supporting Obama, my face automatically contorted into a cynical smile. It’s a skepticism that has deep roots: the first thing that sprang to mind when I heard a gaggle of meth-heads were arrested for threatening to kill Barack was “Hillary!”. After all, she had cited the assassination of Robert Kennedy as a precedent and a reason for keeping her campaign going long after it was reasonable to do so.

I am admittedly approaching this situation from a bias: I’m one of those who has been left completely cold by the Clinton “phenomenon”. I simply do not understand the wild passion that her supporters have for her. She strikes me as emotionless, overly ambitious and crushingly condescending. Hearing her speak is akin to enduring fingernails being clawed down a blackboard: I obviously lack the gene to be able to warm to someone who believes that insulting the intelligence of the American people is something that should be rewarded. I was born without the capacity to find such behaviour worthy of any enthusiasm whatsoever.

The same applies to Bill. I never warmed to him either, because I constantly felt like he was lying to everyone around him. I only had marginal difficulty with him carrying on with extramarital affairs; that issue properly lay in within the bounds of private life. However, I did have a problem with him carrying on with a government employee, during government hours in a government office. The disparity of power relationships alone should have made feminists scream; it certainly did on this side of the Atlantic. I also had difficulty with the fact that when caught, he should have simply told the truth and had done with it. Had he done so, Kenneth Starr, Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky would all be minor footnotes by now, rather than names written into Presidential legend. I believe Bill was bright enough to realise this, which made the situation doubly perplexing: why lie if you know it won’t make anything easier or better? The only answer suggests a pathology at work.

Worse, when it comes right down to it, it’s difficult to name too much either of them did that didn’t adhere to a purely “pragmatic” agenda. Clinton balanced the budget, some will say: whoopee, this was probably helped by the tension between what a Republican Congress wanted to spend money on, and what a Democrat President deemed worthy of largesse. Revisions to health care provision did not get anywhere; this was due in part to the complexity of Ira Magaziner’s proposal, otherwise Hillary’s lack of political salesmanship was to blame. The environment did not noticeably improve; if anything, rampant consumption galloped away. Even radical, interesting appointments to high office like Lani Guinier fell at the first hurdle. In the Clintons efforts to remain politically “viable”, improvements were limited to tinkerings at the micro-level; as such, any nostalgia for this era seems misplaced. Eric Lott, a professor at the University of Virginia, summed up Clinton Era trends with his work, “The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual”; he stated that there was an overwhelming movement for those on the Left to shun more radical ideas and groups in order to make themselves more “palatable” to a public that had accepted the conservative paradigm. Furthermore, I believe, a new thesis was adopted that emphasised “managerial competence” over a gripping contest of visions. One would have thought that the credit crunch and the rapidly degrading state of the environment would have burst this particular bubble of whimsy. Things as they are, or things only changed a little, is definitely not the answer: a continual test of ideas is much more likely to create innovation.

Yet, the Democratic Party, for better or for worse, is still tied to the Clintons, even though they have conclusively proven that they only have a one note song to sing: “me me me me me me me me me”. This lingering, malignant affection possibly extends from the heat of battle: had impeachment not been such a partisan affair, abandoning the Clintons for some would probably seem less like a betrayal. Or it may simply extend from gratitude associated with victory: after such a long interregnum, Democrats were glad to get anything they wanted, even if it was only getting someone with a “D” next to their name elected to the White House.

As a result, I don’t envy the balancing act that Barack has had to maintain: he has had to assert control yet at the same time mollify the Clintons. If he does too much of the former, he switches off a portion of the electorate that he needs. If he does too much of the latter, he appears weak, and provides an opening for Republican attack. There is no clear and obvious way, at least to me, that he can wash away the curse that the Clintons bring to any election. Worse, he cannot fully abandon the Clintons’ centrist agenda; while I think he has the inclination to be more radical (one would have to be made of stone to not be affected by working as a community organiser in the poorest part of Chicago), his street smarts probably tell him to keep these aspirations under the radar.

But Barack has to overcome, and to triumph; it’s the only way that the Clinton legacy can be dispatched. If Barack wins, then Hillary is out of the game; that said, the increasing prominence of Chelsea Clinton indicates that Bill and Hillary are getting ready to pass the torch to the next generation. If Barack loses, then the misery of 2012 will be tragic to behold: the economy will probably not have recovered, the environment will not be in any better shape, and Hillary will likely be running again. The worst aspects of the Clinton political machine could be enshrined as the only method by which victory can be ensured, and the Democrats will have completed the transformation from the party of the people into the party of opportunism and power.

It may be a forlorn hope, but with luck, Bill’s swan song last night signifies the end. As I watched him, he reminded me of a faded, once-popular crooner, who found himself twenty years past his prime singing to retirees in old-fashioned Catskills resorts. He should know that there comes a time in the life of any performer to hang up the microphone, pack the tatty leather showman’s trunk for the last time, and to bid the stage a final adieu. A graceful departure of this kind would be welcome; it is time to move on, and perhaps by being generous to the Clintons, Barack is easing their exit.

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