Party Like It’s 1994

Over at Open Left, discussing the failures of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Paul Rosenberg writes:

What Carter and Clinton lacked, rather, was a simplistic grounding in strongly articulated values repeatedly labeled as Democratic and progressive.  Clinton, for example, had campaigned on “putting people first,” and making America work for people who “worked hard and played by the rules.”  He repeated these phrases countless times, and he talked about things this would mean-including a massive overhaul of the health care system to provide universal coverage.  But by failing to package his message properly-failing to dwell on values, derive principles, and connect them to specific policies-he left an enormous opening for being defined by his enemies-not just in the GOP, but from powerful special interests as well.

Now I agree with most of what Rosenberg says in that post, namely that the notion that Republicans were ever “the party of ideas,” or at least popular ideas they intended to enact, is just a farce. But this seems like a really wrong, very naive way of looking back at the early failures of, at least, the Clinton administration. To be sure Carter lacked quite a bit of progresivism in his day, and has drifted quite a bit leftward in his post-Presidency, but Clinton came to Washington with very real progressive goals. His problem, in a nutshell, was that Washington completely rolled him, mainly because he had no idea how Washington worked, and no one in his senior staff did either. The failure of healthcare wasn’t branding, branding only goes so far in persuading people who aren’t inclined to agree with you, and if you can win a legislative battle on nothing but branding, you’ve probably got something that any idiot could pass on your hands. Rather, the failure of healthcare was a matter of process. Rather than involving Congress on the crafting of the package, the Clinton administration cut them out entirely, a fatal mistake given the high concentration of conservative, largely Southern, Democrats still in the caucus. Instead of handing the legislative portfolio to someone with a lot of experience working with Congress and moving legislation, Clinton handed it to Hillary and Ira Magaziner, neither of whom had any sort of experience in passing federal legislation, nor knew much at all about Senate processes. The public relations campaign might have been the best thing Clinton managed during the debacle, and that makes a lot of sense. After all, not very many people have ever accused Bill Clinton of being a bad politician. But ultimately healthcare reform failed in 1994 not because the Clintons weren’t progressive enough, or that they didn’t havea sufficient grassroots campaign building public support for the package (even if they did get beat by the insurance lobby on this front), they lost simply because they handled the politics poorly in Washington, and Congressional Democrats were unhappy about being shut out of the process of crafting the bill. No one on the hill felt invested in the success of the package, no Senator had a huge stake in the bill, and as a result the opposition was simply much more invested than the supporters. Hopefully Obama doesn’t make the same mistakes, and it appears he intends not to, but going back and trying to argue that every failure of 1993-94 stems from a lack of committment to progressivism on the part of Bill Clinton smacks of the “never conservative enough” sentiments that permeates the conservative movement every time they incur a loss. Which is fine from a movement stand point on some level, but it’s not really helpful in actually learning from past mistakes, and attempting not to repeat them.