Era of Bill Clinton is Over
November 11, 2002
By Mike McArdle
Remember Bill Clinton in shades playing "Heartbreak Hotel"
on his sax on the old Arsenio Hall show? It was an enduring
image and one of the things that helped make him President.
The clip was replayed over and over in the ensuing days and
it helped to humanize and introduce the as yet little known
Clinton to the American voter. In a country with a weak economy
where the voters had begun to feel that their leadership was
out of touch with their problems the charming amateur musician
was able to convince enough Americans that he could relate
to their problems and just might be able to turn things around.
Bill Clinton was a political genius in a lot of ways. But
his brilliance was not in framing issues or governing or formulating
policy; he had advisors for those things. Billís genius was
in positioning himself in the public's eye. His dazzling personal
skills gave him the ability to make a member of any audience
feel that he speaking directly to them, that he was one of
them. Kennedy, Reagan, and Roosevelt to varying degrees had
the same qualities but only Kennedy was a more finely finished
political package than Clinton. A charming, reassuring presence
that can represent many things to many people is a powerful
lure to the largely apolitical swing voters who decide most
elections. The fact that these political figures are powered
by personality and not policy makes them at once untouchable
and infuriating to their opponents. Years after the fact conservatives
still railed in fury at Kennedy and FDR as liberals did at
Reagan. And hating Bill Clinton remains a highly profitable
But genius is not transferable. Clintonís gifts were innate.
He probably didnít know how he did what he did. His political
success came so easily to him that he never had to bother
himself with the details and intricacies of the craft of politics.
During the Clinton years he did well but the Democratic Party
didnít do all that well. And to this day the party is suffering
from a Clinton hangover. And that morphed into a full-scale
migraine on November 5.
Bill Clintonís hands were all over this election. The Democrats
campaigned the way Bill campaigned - position yourself; donít
take positions. Thatís fine when you have a personality that
can make the wavering voter think youíre on their side no
matter what you say but a party needs an identity and the
Democrats didnít have one this fall.
It was Bill Clinton, by all accounts, who pushed Andrew Cuomo
into the New York governors race and then abruptly pushed
him out in favor of Carl McCall. McCall was no better a candidate
than Cuomo and the resulting New York campaign was a disaster.
And wasnít Bill front and center at the ill-conceived Wellstone
Memorial that may just have swung enough votes to cost the
Democrats a Senate seat in Minnesota?
And wasnít it Bill who picked bag-man Terry McAuliffe to
head the DNC as he left the White House in early 2001? McAuliffe,
a fund raiser with the persona of a reptilian telemarketer
unfortunately became the public face of the party. Even more
unfortunately the opposition wound up with a serious fund
raising advantage this year.
And for all Bill's political skills he doesnít seem to be
of much benefit to those who are associated with him. Cuomo,
Erskine Bowles, Robert Reich, and Janet Reno all bombed as
candidates this year. Mrs. Clinton has become a successful
Senator but remains politically radioactive and polarizing.
Her prospects to ever achieve a higher office are very questionable.
But perhaps no one has suffered more from his association
with Bill Clinton than Al Gore. Alís 2000 campaign was tortured
by a need to identify with the good Billís peace and prosperity
and a equally compelling desire to run from the bad Bill's
envelope pushing fund raising and sex scandals. Lacking Clinton's
Houdini-like ability to extricate himself from trouble, Gore
had to resort to awkward, embarrassing statements about ďcontrolling
legal authoritiesĒ and bladder-busting iced tea binges to
explain his role in some of Bills high profile controversies.
A man who was either 600 Florida votes or one Supreme Court
vote away from the White House two years ago is today a political
basket case, giving speeches that have no impact and very
few even hear. The only real attention he gets is about his
girth or his beard or whether he tried to get free Springsteen
The Democratic Party needs a new direction and itís going
to have to find its new direction without the guidance of
yesterdayís hero. Itís time for Bill Clinton to ease into
elder statesman status, to write his memoirs and live the
comfortable life of an ex-president. He can make speeches
for staggering sums, travel the world and best of all hire
a new crop of interns every year.
But the political era of Bill Clinton is over.
Elvis has left the building.