Bill Clinton looks like he could use a Big Mac - and maybe a frolic with a twenty-something intern. Known for his keen political instincts and insatiable appetites, the now faithfully (well as faithful as Bill Clinton can be anyway) vegan 42nd President has lately been more apt to make news for his political missteps.
When Clinton ran for president in 1992, Democrats had lost 5 of 6 presidential elections. The “liberal” label had become so toxic that even in New York, governor Mario Cuomo would lose his re-election bid after he was tarred by his opponent as “too liberal for too long.” To avoid the fate of past Democratic losers like Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale, Clinton ran a determinedly centrist campaign. To be sure, Clinton espoused some mildly populist sentiments—for example, his campaign slogan was “People First,” and he promised to put an end to the “trickle down economics” carried out during “12 years of Reagan-Bush.” But Clinton also sought to recapture middle class suburban voters who had come to view Democrats as overly liberal on issues like welfare, crime, taxes, and the death penalty, by assuring them he was a “new kind of Democrat” willing to break with traditional liberal orthodoxy.
Clinton generally pursued these centrist policies as president, though he did attempt one major progressive initiative: a health care overhaul overseen by his wife Hillary that became known (none too affectionately) as Hillarycare. It crashed and burned, failing to even reach a vote in Congress, and this debacle helped Republicans take over Congress in 1994. Clinton spent the remainder of his presidency largely playing defense against a Newt Gingrich-led Congress and promoting small-bore, symbolic initiatives like school uniforms and v-chips.
Against an inept opponent in Bob Dole, and aided by a resurgent economy, Clinton sailed to re-election on little more than a vacuous promise to “build a bridge to the 21st century." Following his re-election victory, Clinton declared in 1997 that “the era of big government is over," much to the chagrin of liberals who were still waiting for it begin. But it was undeniable that the era of large new government initiatives was, if not over, at least on indefinite hold.
These days, Democrats are singing a different tune, and the Clintons are doing their best to sing along. But they can’t always quite hit the right notes. Bill, whose nickname is the “big dog," is more like an old dog struggling to learn some new tricks. With the Clintons' once-ascendant "New Democrat" centrism having become as hopelessly out of fashion as an old Spin Doctors record, Bill has been forced to all but disown a large part of his own presidency: welfare reform, a draconian crime bill, "don't ask don't tell," Wall Street deregulation, and the Defense of Marriage Act. And while the Clintons still like to invoke the widespread prosperity of the 90s, they are much less prone to touting actual policies Clinton pursued as president. The exception, ironically, is Hillarycare, which has been transformed by necessity from something of an embarrassment to the thin reed proving the Clintons’ progressive credentials.
On the campaign trail for his wife, Bill often seems weak, tired, frail, and well, old. Occasionally, he slips. At a recent campaign event, he made an ill-advised attempt to defend his crime bill with some 90s-type "tough on crime" rhetoric. It did not go over well.
Perhaps Bill had forgotten: the 90s were fun, but they're over. Just ask the Spin Doctors.