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The Clinton Past and Future

Former President Bill Clinton speaking at Georgetown University Wednesday.
Former President Bill Clinton speaking at Georgetown University Wednesday.

Bill Clinton cares about two things: Defending his legacy; and assisting Hillary Clinton in her quest for the presidency, should she decide to run.

The two concerns are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are intertwined, and both require the former president to position Clintonius politiicus (a singular species) slightly to the left of where he and his wife once were.

Clinton’s sensitivity about his legacy erupted in 2008 when then-candidate Barack Obama labeled Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy transformational presidents, while pointedly ignoring the husband of his primary opponent. “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon and in a way that Bill Clinton did not,” Obama said. “He put us on a fundamentally different path… I think Kennedy, 20 years earlier, moved the country in a fundamentally different direction.”

Clinton got over it, partly because Obama was right (the next president was not commenting on the policies of Reagan and Kennedy; rather, he was simply noting their historical impact) and partly to insure a Democrat in the White House. By 2012 Clinton had become an enthusiastic and tireless campaigner for Obama’s reelection.

But that “legacy” thing has not disappeared. On Wednesday, Clinton delivered a strident defense of his economic policies. “My commitment was to restore broad-based prosperity to the economy and to give Americans a chance,” he said in a speech at Georgetown University, his alma mater. With his wife in attendance, the former president detailed the affect of policies like welfare reform, the earned-income tax credit, and balancing the budget. “You know the rest,” he told his audience. The 1990s “worked out pretty well.”

As president, Clinton presided over a healthy economy in which unemployment declined and median family income increased substantially. But it is also true that Clinton was the candidate of the Democratic Leadership Council, a middle-of-the-road, centrist organization that worked assiduously to revive the Democratic Party after the Reagan years. The DLC forged a new image of Democrats as pro-business pragmatists. As president, Clinton implemented many of the policies of the DLC, which did not include addressing the issues of poverty.

But the political winds have changed, and the Democratic Party — prodded by elected officials like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — is adopting a more populist tone. Clinton is a savvy politician, which is why he presided at de Blasio’s swearing-in last January. Clinton remembers how Obama got to Hillary’s left in 2008, and his presence in New York was the opening salvo in a campaign to insure that no candidate, like Warren, does the same thing in the 2016 primaries. (To be sure, Warren has shown no interest in running, but you can’t be too careful.)

Repositioning the family on more solid populist ground is the point at which Bill’s legacy and Hillary’s ambitions merge. So, at Georgetown, he not only defended his record, but he also addressed the burning issue for today’s progressive wing of the Democratic Party: Income inequality. Calling it “a severe constraint on growth,” the former president acknowledged that growing inequality is a more serious problem today than in the 1990s.

The immediate symbol of the new populism on the left is raising the minimum wage, which Hillary Clinton advocated in a speech last week in Boston and which was defeated in the Senate by a Republican-led filibuster on the same day Bill spoke at Georgetown. Democrats believe increasing the minimum wage is a winning issue this November and in 2016. “I’m confident that if we don’t raise the minimum wage in Congress before the election,” said out-going Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, “the American people are going to speak about this at the ballot box in November.”

Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican countered, “This is all about politics. This is all about trying to make this side of the aisle look bad and hardhearted.”

Actually, Republicans are capable of doing that all by themselves.

Still, it never hurts to give the opposition a shove, which Democrats will do by raising the issue at every opportunity.

As loyal Democrats, expect the Clintons to pitch in as well. Besides, talking about income inequality and the minimum wage helps cement the Clinton legacy, past and future.

Posted May 2, 2014

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