Why Bill Clinton could never be the Democratic nominee today

The politics of today's average democratic voter would make Bill Clinton's policies during his two-term presidency look conservative.

Richard Graulich/AP
Former President Bill Clinton speaks to the crowd during a rally for Hillary Clinton, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, at the Port of Palm Beach in Riviera Beach, Fla., Monday, Feb. 15, 2016.

Clinton could not possibly be the Democratic nominee.

No, I am not talking about the former secretary of state.  I mean Bill Clinton, specifically the Bill Clinton who won the 1992 election and served as president for the next eight years.  A few weeks ago, James Pethokoukis of The American Enterprise Institute wrote: “Democrats often say the modern GOP has lurched so far right that a time-traveling Ronald Reagan couldn’t win the party’s presidential nomination today. What Democrats fail to say is this: ’90s-era Bill Clinton would have an equally difficult challenge if he could somehow run for a third term today.”  The data and the historical record bear out that argument.

Mr. Clinton always sought to position himself between and above the right and left.  Republican strategist Dick Morris, who crossed the partisan aisle to help him, put it this way:  “Get rid of the garbage of each position, that the people didn't believe in; take the best from each position; and move up to a third way. And that became a triangle, which was triangulation…it really is Hegelian in concept: the idea of a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis. And when we originally discussed it, we did so in terms of Hegel, which he had studied at Oxford.”

At the time, the party’s rank and file generally accepted the approach. During Clinton’s last full year in office, the Pew Research Center reports, self-identified liberals lagged behind moderates among Democrats, 27 percent to 45 percent.  But by 2015, liberals had pulled ahead, 42 percent to 38 percent.   Drawing on more specific questions, Pew has found that that share of Democrats scoring liberal on all or most value dimensions soared from 30 percent in 1994 to 56 percent twenty years later.

In 1992, Clinton ran as a tough crime fighter.  He not only backed capital punishment – in campaign ads, no less – but as governor of Arkansas, he approved the controversial execution of a brain-damaged African American named Ricky Ray Rector.  His position on the issue was popular within the party, but Democratic support for the death penalty has since plummeted, from 71 percent in 1995 to just 40 percent in 2015.

During his first presidential campaign, Clinton was generally sympathetic to gay rights, but opposed legal recognition of same-sex marriage.  He later signed the Defense of Marriage Act. In 1996, he said: “It was my position in '92. I told everybody who asked me about it, straight or gay, what my position was. I can't change my position on that; I have no intention of it.”  Around that time, only 33 percent of Democrats supported same-sex marriage.  By last year, that figure was up to 65 percent.  Many Democratic activists now regard opposition to same-sex marriage as beyond the pale of acceptable political discourse.

Journalist Clarence Page wrote that a turning point of the 1992 campaign came when Clinton faulted Jesse Jackson`s organization for giving a forum to rap artist Sister Souljah, who had seemed to endorse the idea of African Americans killing whites instead of one another.  Jackson wanted an apology, but Clinton refused, and his approval numbers went up.  It is unlikely that a “Sister Souljah moment” would succeed in the current campaign.  Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley had to apologize merely for saying that “all lives matter” – a phrase that offended that Black Lives Matter movement.

Clinton bristled when conservative critics accused him of pushing socialist policies. “Socialism is when the Government runs a health care system,” he said.  “We don't have socialized medicine in this country, and my plan is for private insurance and private doctors.”  Indeed, he proclaimed that the 20th century had marked “the victory of democracy over totalitarianism, of free enterprise over state socialism.”  But now Hillary Clinton is facing a serious threat from Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist. According to a New York Times poll, 56 percent of those Democratic primary voters said they felt positive about socialism as a governing philosophy.

Their party has moved well to the left since the 1990s. The moderate Democrats who nominated Bill Clinton have gone the way of VHS tapes and Borders Bookstores.

John J. Pitney, Jr.writes his "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

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