Celebrating the Pragmatic Politics of Bill Clinton

A Model for Cooperation Rather than Conflict

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Former President Bill Clinton speaking at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. (Democratic National Committee)

September 06, 2012 | Matthew Nisbet

Commentators are calling Wednesday night's speech perhaps the best of Bill Clinton's illustrious political career, and even Republicans cede the genius of the former president's performance.  Yet apart from his southern charm and skilled delivery, at the core of Clinton's widespread appeal is his ability to remind America of a different kind of politics, a heterodox approach that blends liberal and conservative ideas in pursuit of a pragmatic center -- and that in the process positions today's Republican leaders as radically out-of-touch.

"When times are tough, constant conflict may be good politics but in the real world, cooperation works better," Clinton told viewers.  Remarking on the work of his Foundation, he said: "I work with Democrats, Republicans and Independents who are focused on solving problems and seizing opportunities, not fighting each other."  And though he often disagrees with Republicans, Clinton said he has never learned to hate them.

As Clinton told viewers "One of the main reasons America should re-elect President Obama is that he is still committed to cooperation," citing in particular his appointment of Republicans to his Cabinet and his efforts to work across the aisle with Republicans in Congress.  He said that Obama's success on foreign policy, reflected Obama's "preference for inclusion and partnership over partisanship." On energy policy, Clinton pointed to Obama's success in reaching a new mileage fuel standard and his "all of the above" strategy which has boosted natural gas production and investment in renewable energy sources.

The morning after Clinton's defining speech, liberals look back with strong nostalgia -- even deep yearning -- for Clinton's brand of politics.  Yet as we detail in The Polarization Paradox, much of the infrastructure and resources of the liberal movement in the years since Clinton left office have been devoted to making a break with his emphasis on cooperation.  Instead, liberals embraced a Bush-style politics that defines sharp ideological differences between the political parties while relentlessly attacking and demonizing the other side.  And until this week's convention, Obama's own campaign has relied primarily on a Rove-style strategy, following a playbook that almost precisely reflects the 2004 Bush campaign which defines Mitt Romney -- like John Kerry -- as elite, out-of-touch, and as a flip flopper who doesn't know what he believes and who has things to hide about his career.

So in the afterglow and adulation of Clinton's speech, it is important to remember what makes Clinton not just a special orator but also an extremely successful political leader.  As I wrote yesterday, many of Clinton's strategies have been pursued by Obama, but to strong criticism from his liberal base.  If Obama is re-elected and able to govern successfully with the GOP controlling the House and perhaps even the Senate, we would all be served well to understand how Clinton was able to re-invent his presidency following the 1994 Midterm election and achieve Democratic policy goals while Republicans controlled the legislature.

As journalists Mark Halperin and John Harris write in their 2006 book The Way to Win, Clinton-style politics was anchored in a belief that regardless of their partisanship, most Americans wanted practical solutions to major problems.  The “goal of Clinton Politics is not to clarify differences but to blur and ultimately bridge them,” striving in the process for politics to be “polite, civil, and compromise-minded.”  The Clinton model represented the politics of the center, with Clinton serving as a “national synthesizer,” selecting “the best ideas from all parts of the ideological spectrum,” and assembling them in ways that served the needs of an electorate motivated by results, rather than by ideology.

Newsweek's Joe Klein adds additional insight in his 2002 book The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton.  As Klein details, Clinton represented the efforts of a new generation of moderate Democrats to re-center their party, focusing on a “third way” political strategy that emphasized themes of opportunity, responsibility, and community.  Despite a Republican controlled Congress for most of his presidency and a polarized country, Clinton managed to balance the budget, reduce the size of government, while also increasing government benefits and programs to core Democratic constituencies.  The Clinton team did so by applying conservative values and ideas to achieve Democratic ends.  Examples include the Earned Income Tax Credit (a backdoor to raising the minimum wage), welfare reform (combining conservative values of “responsibility” with increased government spending), and Americorps (combining bi-partisan values of community and responsibility with government support for social services.)

If Obama is re-elected, on climate and energy policy this approach to governing will better serve Democratic goals than ideological confrontation.  Already, for example, there are talks among conservative groups and policy analysts of the merits and possibility of a carbon tax, possibly packaged as part of a deal on tax reform.  Romney in a statement on science policy yesterday says that he opposes a carbon tax, but recognizes the science of climate change and believes that there needs to be strong investment in energy innovation.  

A Clinton-style approach to brokering and passing a climate and energy bill would synthesize together these positions, looking for a policy framework that offers something for both sides, though recognizing that the ideological base of either side is unlikely to be happy.  A formulation could include a descrease in the income tax rate with a consumption tax making up for lost revenue, and an energy innovation strategy that involves not only renewables but also carbon capture and nuclear.  If this is going to happen, however, the committment to conflict and demonization demonstrated by both sides in the climate and energy debate will have to give way to a willingness to cooperate and compromise.

 

 


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    By Mike on 2012 09 10

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    By Jorian on 2012 10 07

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  • Clinton’s speech “positions today’s Republican leaders as radically out-of-touch.” Maybe so from the point of view of pragmatists. But what about the Democrats? Why is it that you think they are any different? Do most Americans really want practical solutions to problems? If so, when why do they routinely support ideologues on both sides? Where is the great power center behind pragmatism? Who are the great centrists who wield power?

    I don’t think most Americans really want pragmatism because that makes them face reality for what it is. My experience says most people are just not ready for harsh reality and cold logic. Given the clear and irrefutable record of failure by the democratic and republican parties, why would compromise between them look promising to anyone? Compromise probably is the only way forward practically speaking. But, what do you get when you compromise between two distorted views of reality backed by flawed ideologies and self-serving, wealthy special interests? You get flawed compromises and lousy policies. At least, that’s what logic says you should get most or all the time.

    I hope I am wrong about this, but I think this bus is going right over the cliff, compromise or not. Once that happens, Americans will have no choice but to be pragmatic because they will be broke and out of options. Until then, we live in the fairy tale world of democratic and republican ideological nonsense and distorted realities.

    By Anonymous on 2012 10 21

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  • Distorted pragmatism confuses correlation and cause, and interprets and expresses reality’s cause and effect with an arrogance that promotes profound ignorance ... such is the “the pragmatism” of Bill Clinton - ideology in pragmatist clothing.

    By Todd Wolf on 2012 11 08

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About Matthew Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication at American University, Washington, DC. You can read about his research and various studies at the Climate Shift Project and at Google Scholar, or find out more about his courses at American University, including those on Communication, Culture and the EnvironmentMedia, Technology and Democracy; and the Civic Science Lab, a short course for scientists. Follow him on Twitter @MCNisbet.

Click here to view his recent articles.