The Washington Times

When Bill Clinton convened a meeting of former officials and staff in his Harlem offices a couple weeks ago to talk about promoting the legacy of his administration, Republicans mainly saw it as another “Big He” moment: the latest egregious exercise in self-obsession by the master of modern megalomania. And in fact, the conclusion that some of the participants in the meeting were themselves a little embarrassed by it is hard to resist, given the leaks about it to the press that could only have come from them.

But – and here’s why it made sense for those former officials and staff to go to the meeting in the first place – the question of the Clinton administration legacy is bigger than the question of the legacy of Bill Clinton himself. Mr. Clinton is mainly the property of history nowadays (though he remains also a force in politics in his own right and through his wife). The question of the administration’s legacy writ large, however, is important not only for the past but also for the future, namely, the direction the Democratic Party will take in elections to come.

Subtracting the personal Bill Clinton from the equation, the question of the policy legacy of the administration is the question of how well the centrist “New Democrat” model of governance actually performed in office. If it is judged a success within the party, then it is likely to be taken as the starting point for future Democratic aspirants to the Oval Office. If, on the other hand, it is judged a failure, then future Democratic candidates are apt to regard the “New Democrat” moment as an aberration, a point at which the party, in a fit of cynicism, foolishly turned its back on its traditional concerns.

There have long been strongly vested interests on both sides of the debate within the party. The centrist pole has its headquarters at the Democratic Leadership Council, on which the candidate Bill Clinton of 1991-92 relied heavily for policy guidance and political strategy. The left pole has no similar clearinghouse, consisting instead of an amalgamation of left-leaning interest groups and labor organizations.

The structural imbalance is itself revealing. Left to itself, the Democratic Party tendency is toward its left-labor orientation. These are the party’s default settings, so to speak, because these are the easiest terms on which to make intra-party peace. In classic coalition-politics style, I support you and your cause and you support me and mine, thereby strengthening each of our positions. And if for some reason you cannot support me, you will at least refrain from speaking out against me, and I will extend you the same courtesy should the need arise. In this way, a politics of mutual affirmation emerges.

And in the view of the centrist Democrats, that leads to two problems: The first is an excessive attachment to “old Democrat,” bureaucratic, centralized policy-making, which is reflexively hostile to the market and ideological rather than innovative and solution-oriented. The second problem, in this view, is that the result is too left-wing to command majority public support.

It’s an interesting question whether awareness of the latter, namely, concerns about electability, drove the emergence of an alternative approach to policy, or whether a view of policy came first and only then a sense of its political potential. But in any case, the reason there is a centrist headquarters at the DLC is that if the Democratic Party is going to move toward the center, it is going to have to be moved by someone. It won’t get there on its own. This requires intense, coordinated effort. Hence the DLC project.

The difference in the two approaches, to indulge a broad generalization, is the difference between a presidential campaign that looks first to solidify its base and then reaches toward the center in an attempt to find majority support, and a campaign that starts with an appeal to the center, essentially offering the various elements of the base a place at the table to the extent they are willing to accept the centrist orientation.

So, did the Clinton administration succeed? Republicans and conservatives, please hold your fire; you’ll get your chance to weigh in only after Democrats themselves have come up with an answer to this question. Was the end of the welfare entitlement a great boost for those who had been trapped in a failed system or an exercise in the demonization and shunning of those who need help the most? Was a federal budget surplus the fruit of fiscal discipline or an artifact of a centrist unwillingness to devote resources to meeting human needs? Did the administration ward off the Republican surge of 1994 or mainly capitulate to it?

This is what the meeting in Mr. Clinton’s office was ultimately about, I think. Mr. Clinton has taken more than his share of hammering. But forget about him. The question is whether the approach to governance he embraced worked – for the country and therefore for the Democratic Party. Should it be repeated or repudiated? The stakes couldn’t be higher.