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Sunday, October 02, 2005

2008: HRC Missed Bridge to 21st Century

Posted by Bob Brigham

I've written about this before (here and here), but now that Matt Bai has a major story in the Sunday NYT Magazine, I think the issue of HRC's political positioning needs revisiting. The article is aptly titled, "Mrs. Triangulation"

You can hardly pry up a floorboard in the basement of Democratic politics without finding some sign of the Clinton operation churning underneath.

The chief benefit of this network is that it spans the ideological divide in the party, from far left to far center. The problem is that labels like "left" and "center" seem to have lost much of their meaning in the party, and the divisions in Democratic politics no longer seem to run along traditional lines. Gone are the days when Hubert Humphrey waged war against Strom Thurmond on civil rights, when George McGovern's protesters clashed with Scoop Jackson's hard-liners. In the era after Bill Clinton, the vast majority of Democrats, whether they once considered themselves liberals or centrists, mouth allegiance to the same set of often tepid principles on issues like trade, terrorism and gun control - positions that they will often cite as evidence of hard-won unity but which in truth represent the absence of the real intellectual discussion that once defined (and sometimes doomed) the party. As a result, aside from a few subtle disputes - whether troops should be withdrawn from Iraq now, for instance, or next year - the philosophical differences between liberals and centrists have never been more obscure. Nothing better illustrated the passing of the party's long ideological debate better than the explosive presidential campaign of Howard Dean (now the party's chairman), whose record as a pro-gun, pro-Democratic Leadership Council governor did nothing to prevent him from seamlessly assuming the role of chief spokesman for those liberal voters who had always embodied the so-called Democratic left.

What Dean's candidacy brought into the open, however, was another kind of growing and powerful tension in Democratic politics that had little to do with ideology. Activists often describe this divide as being between "insiders" and "outsiders," but the best description I've heard came from Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic operative who runs the advocacy group N.D.N. (formerly New Democrat Network), which sprang from Clintonian centrism of the early 1990's. As Rosenberg explained it, the party is currently riven between its "governing class" and its "activist class." The former includes the establishment types who populate Washington - politicians, interest groups, consultants and policy makers. The second comprises "Net roots" Democrats on the local level; that is, grass-roots Democrats, many of whom were inspired by Dean and who connect to politics primarily online, through blogs or Web-based activist groups like MoveOn.org. The argument between the camps isn't about policy so much as about tactics, and a lot of Democrats in Washington don't even seem to know it's happening.

The activist class believes, essentially, that Democrats in Washington have damaged the party by trying to negotiate and compromise with Republicans - in short, by trying to govern. The "Net roots" believe that an effective minority party should disengage from the governing process and eschew new proposals or big ideas. Instead, the party should dedicate itself to winning local elections and killing each new Republican proposal that comes down the track. To the activist class, trying to cut deals with Republicans is tantamount to appeasement. In fact, Rosenberg, an emerging champion of the activist class, told me, pointing to my notebook: "You have to use the word 'appease.' You have to use it. Because this is like Neville Chamberlain."

This is an ominous development for Hillary Clinton, because the activists' attack on the party hierarchy is a direct and long-simmering reaction to the Clintonism of the 90's and the "third way" instinct of the D.L.C.

My thoughts after the jump.

This article seems to back up those of us who have questioned Hillary's political instincts. As far as internal Democratic Party politics go, it appears Hillary is trying to bridge old divides that no longer exist and in the way she is going about doing so, has put herself on what will inevitably be the losing side of the current debate going on in the Democratic Party.

I firmly believe the new divide is between the establishment and the base; the bosses and the netroots; the past and the future.

Under these conditions, is the following helpful?

The pollster Mark Penn and the ad-maker Mandy Grunwald, both of whom worked for Bill Clinton and are among Hillary's closest advisers, have longstanding ties to the centrist, pro-business Democratic Leadership Council, while two other Clinton confidants, the operatives Ann Lewis and Harold Ickes, remain close to women's groups and Big Labor, respectively. The trusted aides Howard Wolfson and Patti Solis Doyle have been associated with the Glover Park Group, one of the most influential consulting firms among Democratic interest groups.

Hillary's attempt to staff up to bridge the old divides only cement her position on the side of the tired old Democratic establishment that is currently in a tug-of-war with the base.

By failing to understand the current realities in the Democratic Party, Hillary has embraced a misdiagnosis that has compromised her political standing and exposed the out-of-touch advice that she is receiving. The fact that HRC appears unable to grasp the current dynamics within the Democratic Party actually lends credibility to the activists in the netroots and grassroots who think that many Washington DC Democrats have lost touch.

Additionally, Clinton's ties to Al From's DLC could tether her presidential ambitions:

"I think people are looking for leadership from Hillary Clinton, and she's not showing any leadership on anything," says Markos Moulitsas of Dailykos.com, one of the new movement's leading blogs. Even in Hollywood, where the Clintons have been royalty for more than a decade, patience for bipartisanship is running low. Last month in Beverly Hills, I talked about Clinton with Norman Lear, the television and film producer who founded the liberal organization People for the American Way. "I love her," he told me. "But as terrific as I think she is, my concern is that we need someone who will tell the truth as they see it all of the time. She, like all of them, is not somebody who does that."

That Clinton doesn't fully understand the depth of this resentment seemed painfully apparent in July, when, at the D.L.C.'s annual gathering in Columbus, she accepted the assignment of fashioning a new agenda for the group and publicly called for a truce between factions on the left and center. Her aides thought she was actually delivering a mild rebuke to the D.L.C. for criticizing Dean and the bloggers; what they didn't understand was that her presence at the D.L.C. event itself was enough to infuriate the "Net roots," and the suggestion that the two sides should work together made it only worse. The response from the blogosphere was swift and bilious. "It's truly disappointing" that this is the garbage "Hillary has signed on to," Moulitsas wrote on Dailykos.com, provoking the blog's devotees to write hundreds of passionate and often profane diatribes in agreement. In a strikingly blunt appraisal, John Podesta told The Washington Post that Clinton had "walked into a cross-fire maybe she should have realized was out there." ("I didn't get any carnations for that one," Podesta told me later, laughing.)

In fact, Clinton's advisers disagreed about whether a bunch of 20-something bloggers really mattered. In a conversation last month, Mark Penn scoffed at my suggestion that there might be a strong backlash in the party against the ethos of Clintonism. "Strong backlash?" Penn said. "Former President Clinton is at a 70 percent approval rating, stronger than even during his presidency. More people would like to see him president than President Bush. In this environment, that is a notion I would have to laugh at." It's true that most Democratic voters are probably too busy working and raising kids to spend a lot of time debating political tactics online, and the importance of the "Net roots" can be overstated. And yet, the blogosphere is bound to be an important organizing force in 2008, and some other candidate will almost certainly rise to fill the space that Dean once occupied. If nothing else, this would make it harder for Hillary Clinton, the heir to her husband's legacy, to run the unity campaign her advisers envision.

After I spoke with Penn, I repeated his assessment of the backlash to Podesta, whose reach into all aspects of the progressive world - from bloggers to members of Congress - makes him as knowledgeable about the party's crosscurrents as anyone in Washington. "The D.L.C. incident is over, and it isn't particularly meaningful," Podesta told me. "But in the long run, if you believe what Mark believes, it will get you in trouble."

Clinton is chair of the DLC's "American Dream Initiative, which has already been marked DOA. If Clinton wanted her DLC membership to be good for more than negative articles in major newspapers, she would immediately call for Al From to be fired. But for that to happen, she would have to understand the where the Democratic Party is headed, which she doesn't. In part, because she hangs out in DC with the likes of Al From and the other dinosaurs who have failed to cross the bridge into the 21st century. In fact, every single move the DLC has made this millennium has been a disaster. Every single move.

The Clintons may have allowed us to go to where we are, but they didn't join us. And we aren't waiting for them to catch up, because we are too busy following their example and pushing on.

Posted at 02:01 PM in 2008 President - Democrats, Democrats, Netroots, Scandals | Technorati

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Ok explain something to me. Didn't Hillary used to be "the darling of the left" & the "rock star of our party"? What happened to make the left angry at her I love her to death and can't wait for her to be president. Let's face it the nomination is her's to lose & the only person who can beat her in the general election is McCain & maybe Rudy. Both of them can't win their parties nomination so why is everybody scared of her running for president. Can somebody please explain this to me?

Posted by: CrazyLiberal [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 2, 2005 08:53 PM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment

Mrs. Clinton is smart enought to kow she has to move towards the middle in the general election. I don't hold it agaist her.

Posted by: Tal East [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 3, 2005 11:36 AM | Permalink | Edit Comment | Delete Comment