The Democrats under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were long on soaring rhetoric, and short on substance. Many Americans wanted more “change” and less “hope”. Democrats must advance candidates committed to real policy change, not just rhetorical masters on hope.
The Donald Trump fiasco was enabled by the Democrats’ rejection of their New Deal coalition. Selecting Hillary Clinton to head their presidential ticket created an opening for a Molotov/Ribbentrop Pact between the “deplorables” and those who could not stomach more establishment politics delivering ever more gains for Wall Street, with only more pain for the working and middle class.
We all know the Republicans proved obstructionist at every turn. Yet, at key moments the Democrats caved even when the opportunity opened to enact New Deal style reforms. Case in point was when President Obama held Congressional majorities his first 2 years. In his first half-year in office the GOP was cowed and Obama could have readily run the table on policy change. He could have pushed through a “public option” for healthcare reform. Instead, he and David Axelrod advanced a new politics of conciliation that would herald a new era of cooperation. This Age of Aquarius might have been realisable in the context of an acrimonious academic department or small community in need of healing. Yet, we live in a rough and tumble world of politics where egocentric, sociopathic alpha personalities representing billionaire interests position their tools in political office with the expressed purpose to turn policy in their direction by any means necessary. In short, Obama and Axelrod’s represented a combination of good intentions and vanity that could only end badly in the real world of interest-based politics. The rhetoric of hope would not “trump” interests.
Meanwhile, the Clintons bent on every point of principle. They learned from their re-election defeat after Bill’s two years in office as Governor of Arkansas. Politicians recalibrate after political losses and accommodate to either the conservative impulses of the electorate, or the demands of powerful special interests. Yet, the Clintons became too comfortable with this accommodation. They morphed into centre-right democrats and failed to pivot to progressive policies when political openings presented themselves for change: an example being Hillary’s rejection of single-payer healthcare in 1993 when the electorate briefly favoured it. They no longer merely represented the establishment. By the 1990s, they became part of it.
Jeffrey Sommers is Professor of Political Economy & Public and Senior Fellow, Institute of World Affairs of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Visiting Professor at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga.