The return of the Clinton Democrats (not really)

Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes is running for U.S. Senate in the great state of Kentucky. She is a woman of conviction, of substance, of principle. “I’m not an empty dress,” she insists, “I’m not a rubber stamp, and I am not a cheerleader! I am a Clinton Democrat.”


I’m old enough to remember when “Clinton Democrat” had a fairly specific meaning. Back when Bill Clinton first ran for president, he did so as “new kind of Democrat.” He decried the “brain-dead policies of both parties.” He was so determined to dispel the image of the Democrats as being soft on crime, he took time off from the campaign trail to approve the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a man so mentally disabled that when he ate his last meal, he left some of his pecan pie on his plate and told guards he was saving it “for later.”

Clinton broke with his party’s racial politics by deliberately picking a fight with the deservedly forgotten rapper Sister Souljah. He vowed to reform welfare (though it took a Republican Congress to get him to follow through) and end the era of “something for nothing” government handouts.

The Clinton Democrats were spawns of the Democratic Leadership Council a proudly centrist, pro-business and hawkish (by liberal standards) outfit within the Democratic Party, which is why left-wing Democrats often distrusted and occasionally despised it. Jesse Jackson said DLC stood for “Democrats for the Leisure Class” and ridiculed it as a “Southern white boys club.”

The DLC closed up shop in 2011, in large part because the Democratic Party has moved so far to the left (a fact repeatedly confirmed by Pew and Gallup surveys showing that Democrats favor activist government more than they used to and are much more comfortable calling themselves liberals than they were even a decade ago).

So it’s interesting that Grimes, and a number of other Democrats, are calling themselves “Clinton Democrats.” Grimes goes so far as to insist, “I’m not Barack Obama.” She won’t even say whether she voted for Obama in 2008 or 2012, invoking her constitutional right to ballot secrecy — a right she eagerly waives to tell people she supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries.

Now it’s obviously true that Bill Clinton did not like empty dresses, unless he was the one emptying them, but I don’t think that’s what Grimes means by “Clinton Democrat.” So what does she mean? When asked, she said that being a Clinton Democrat involves “growing the middle class the right way.”

“As we saw under President Clinton’s tenure,” she explained, “especially when you increase the minimum wage, you actually help to expand the middle class.” On another occasion, she said, “We all know what being a Clinton Democrat is all about … it’s about remembering what President Clinton said in his campaign in 1992 — it’s the economy, stupid!”

The only serious response to this has to be, “Huh?”

While it’s true that Clinton raised the minimum wage, few economists would argue it had much to do with the booming economy of the 1990s. More to the point: Obama has been campaigning relentlessly to increase the minimum wage. (I’d also note that “the economy, stupid” was James Carville’s phrase, not Clinton’s).

In fact, when Obama recently declared that his policies were “on the ballot” in November, he was explicitly referring to a minimum-wage hike.

In other words, Grimes is running against Obama’s policies while supporting Obama’s policies. She just doesn’t want to say so because Obama is unpopular and Hillary Clinton is popular.

And that raises another intriguing question: Is Hillary Clinton a Clinton Democrat? Left-wing writer Joshua Micah Marshall concluded in 2001 that she wasn’t when Clinton was in the Senate. Clinton opposed the DLC agenda on almost every front. And as first lady, it was widely believed that she wasn’t a centrist but a voice for the left in her husband’s administration.

Indeed, most histories suggest that Bill only reclaimed the center in the mid-’90s because Hillary’s health-care scheme (the precursor to Obamacare) was seen as too left-wing. This lent weight to the theory that Bill himself wasn’t so much a principled centrist as a shrewd opportunist who went wherever the polls took him. (This was the man, after all, who consulted polls to decide where he would go on vacation.)

So maybe Grimes really is a Clinton Democrat.

(Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO.)

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