Thursday, December 9, 2010

Obama the Triangulator?

You know how it goes because we've seen this movie starring Bill Clinton before: Behind the screen credits, we see him running for the presidency in 1992 as a New Democrat who learned the painful lesson in the Arkansas Governor’s mansion that the McGovernite liberalism he’d grown up with is self-defeating both politically and as public policy. But when he first gets to the White House, he forgets himself and surrenders to the centripetal forces generated by a Washington Democratic establishment that hadn’t yet learned that lesson. Clinton pays for his forgetfulness when his party loses control of Congress two years into his first term.

But, just when we're losing hope, we begin to see that the “comeback kid” still knows how to mount a comeback. Clinton revives his presidency in the movie's invigorating second half by casting himself as the referee in the ideological prize fight between the Democratic base and the Gingrich Republicans. He calls on a figure from his past, a cantankerous Dick Morris, to help him relearn and perfect the art of political triangulation.

Things don’t go smoothly at first; the Democratic base reacts to welfare reform in roughly the same way it’s reacting to Obama’s tax deal now. But Clinton's record of unspectacular but steady achievement, and the fact that Gingrich scares liberals half to death, wins the Democratic base back.  (Clinton's having the foresight to get himself impeached didn't make it into the movie’s final cut.)

Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what remains of the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party is hoping that the tax cut deal Obama negotiated with Republicans is the preview of a sequel to the Bill Clinton Story. (All Democrats fear that we're seeing a sequel to the Jimmy Carter Story.)  Time will tell. But Dick Morris is still around (via Ben Smith) to remind us of a crucial change in the pre-production script for Clinton-2 (emphasis in the original):
“Clinton never embraced policies he opposed. He supported welfare reform, the balanced budget, anticrime measures like guaranteed sentences. His agreements with the GOP were all designed to achieve what he wanted as part of his agenda.

“Obama is embracing centrist positions he opposes (no tax hike on the wealthy) as a result of not being able to make his positions work in the Senate. There is a big difference between moving to the center and fleeing to the center.
As I’ve remarked before, Obama’s political career has never obliged him to learn lessons Clinton committed to memory back in Arkansas.  Moreover, I've yet to see any sign that Obama acknowledges that he stands in need of Clintonian instruction.  Unless and until he does, his triangulations will be a pale imitation of Clinton’s.  You can decide for yourself whether that's a good or a bad thing.


Anonymous said...

Clinton had a distinctive understanding of what it means to be a liberal today. You might agree or disagree with his approach, but he had a long and substantial enough public record for liberals to figure out what it was. The only thing we ever knew about Obama was what he decided to tell us during his presidential campaign and what you can infer from his passive-aggressive presidential style. It's impossible to know whether he's a pragmatist, a liberal ideologue or just an opportunist.

Anon said...

All the signs point to him being worse than Jimmy Carter.