The Return of Centrism
For the past few months, many Dems have complained about the Kerry campaign's failure to develop a coherant campaign message. I don't know how much thought the Kerry brain trust put into it, but we finally have a clue as to Kerry's MO from now until November: Clintonism redux.
His message, in part, is a return to the promise of Clintonian centrism: reducing the deficit, spurring economic growth, trying to ease "the squeeze on middle-class America," as Mr. Kerry puts it, from things like the cost of health insurance and college tuition.
Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council and a longtime Clinton aide, fretted openly during the heyday of Howard Dean last year that the party was moving to the left. Today, Mr. Reed describes Mr. Kerry approvingly as "a pragmatic centrist in the Clinton mode."
Familiar faces from the Clinton years, like the economic adviser Gene Sperling, are now at Mr. Kerry's side; James P. Rubin, a State Department spokesman in the Clinton years who advised Gen. Wesley K. Clark during the primaries, is now traveling with Mr. Kerry full time.
While this strategy will reassure folks like Al From and Ruy Teixeira, I seriously doubt whether it can help sustain a long-term Democratic majority founded on progressive values.
First, let me say a word about Clinton. Given the political climate of the late 80s/early 90s, I don't fault Clinton for running a centrist campaign in 1992, which brought us Sister Souljah, Ricky Ray Rector, and other, um, highlights. In all honesty, this was the only way a Democrat could be elected president during that time period. However, the problem I have with Clinton's "triangulation" strategy is that, although it was a useful short-term salve, Clinton did nothing to lay the groundwork for a sustained Democratic majority. Indeed, as the party establishment (and the chase for campaign contributions) became firmly entrenched in DC, the grassroots infrastructure on the state and local level atrophied tremendously (just think about the continuing difficulties the Dems have had recruiting quality candidates in many states).
In this regard, Clinton was the Democratic equivalent of Eisenhower (as this NYT article alludes to). Like Clinton, Ike was able to wrest control of the White House away from the opposition after several years in the wilderness. However, as with Clinton, Eisenhower's 8 years in office brought little if any long-term benefits to his party. Now, Ike may have had a reason for failing to wade into the partisan muck, given his war hero appeal (indeed, both parties vigorously courted him in 1952 to be their presidential candidate). Alas, Clinton had no such excuse.
Now, it certainly isn't surprising that Kerry is returning to the well that Clinton and the party's DC establishment drew from throughout the 90s. Indeed, I'm sure it will serve him well in November. But if Kerry is elected, I sincerely hope that he departs from the Clinton-DLC-Dick Morris script. For one, the country is significantly more liberal now than it was in 1992, which would give Kerry the leeway to take greater risks. More importantly, a return to the Clinton Model--that is, a centrist, top-down operation based in DC that is more concerned with hoovering up campaign contributions than with building the party on the grassroots level--will likely lead to electoral disasters for the party a la 1994 and 2002. However, with people like Steve, Kos, and Jerome Armstrong playing an increasingly assertive role within the party, I think/hope that the base (including all of you) won't let this happen...right?