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The 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 industry.

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 tickets.

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.

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