American Enterprise Online | 3.23.05
By Alan W. Dowd
Government Executive, the bimonthly, nonpartisan magazine for federal managers and administrators, is tracking an interesting trend--what it calls the "dismal record at the polls" of veterans of the Clinton administration.
The magazine notes that in 2002, after Vice President Al Gore's popular vote victory and Electoral College defeat, President Bill Clinton's HUD secretary (Andrew Cuomo), labor secretary (Robert Reich), attorney general (Janet Reno), and White House counselor (Bill Curry) all ran for gubernatorial posts and lost. Likewise, President Clinton's chief of staff (Erskine Bowles) and one of his appointees at the FCC (Gloria Tristani) lost in 2002 Senate bids. Bowles lost again in a 2004 Senate race.
But it's not just a matter of President Clinton's coattails--or a lack thereof. Although he can deliver the campaign cash, Clinton is not delivering W's on the campaign scorecard. (That's "W" as in "win"--not Dubya as in the current occupant of the White House.) The redoubtable Robert Novak reminds us that Clinton campaigned for six Democratic governor candidates in 2002, with five of them losing on Election Day: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in Maryland, Bill McBride in Florida, Jimmie Lou Fisher in Arkansas, Shannon O'Brien in Massachusetts, and the aforementioned Bill Curry in Connecticut. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan was the only gubernatorial candidate that survived the ex-President's Midas touch.
Two years later, Senator John Kerry turned to President Clinton to power his campaign across the finish line in the final days of the 2004 election. Clinton appeared with Kerry for a splashy national event in Philadelphia, and then campaigned for the Kerry-Edwards ticket in Arkansas and Florida. Although he took Pennsylvania, Kerry would lose Florida by 400,000 votes, Arkansas by 100,000 votes, and the national poll by nearly 4 million votes.
Government Executive is quick to note that Clinton can claim some victories. Foremost among them is Hillary Clinton's election to the Senate in 2000. In addition, former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson was elected governor of New Mexico in 2002, and presidential advisor Rahm Emmanuel won a House seat in 2002. All three enjoy widespread support among their constituencies.
But the overall record of President Clinton and his disciples, at least since the end of his administration, is not good. "Since Bill Clinton hasn't been on a ballot since 1996," Government Executive's Charles Mahtesian concludes, "there's no way to quantify his effect in any of these races. Yet one conclusion is inescapable: His political popularity was nontransferable."
So why does this matter in March 2005, with the election of 2004 behind us and the election of 2008 still years away?
First and foremost, Democrats should stop pinning their hopes on the Man from Hope. He has his strengths, but his downside is always equal to his upside: Unlike most ex-presidents of recent vintage (Bush, Ford, even Carter), President Clinton elicits a gut-level reaction from the American people. They either love him or hate him. And since he never earned the kind of landslide support that Ronald Reagan enjoyed (recall that President Clinton won in 1992 with 43 percent of the popular vote and in 1996 with 49 percent), it stands to reason that fewer people love him.
Even so, he draws crowds and cameras and cash. But he also draws attention away from everything else--and he never lets it go. It's just not in his nature to be out of the spotlight. This was exquisitely evident during his recent visit to the White House, when he and Bush 41 delivered their tsunami report to Bush 43. After making a brief statement, Bush 43 exited the room, leaving his predecessors to chat with reporters. The elder Bush was eager to escape, but President Clinton simply could not stop talking. They almost had to drag him out of the room, as he turned back, stopped, and walked backwards before finally surrendering the spotlight.
If he's that way around presidents, imagine how he is around candidates for statewide office. Wherever he goes, he is the center of attention--he and the baggage he carries around with him. The sooner his party figures that out, the better off it will be.
There's also a lesson here for Republicans. The younger Bush and his immediate predecessor are different in many ways, but both elicit a strong, emotional reaction from friend and foe alike. Both won narrow election victories, and as a consequence a large chunk of America will always dislike both of them.
Unlike President Clinton, President Bush has had his share of coattails in recent years, expanding his party's majorities in Congress, ousting obstructionist legislators, and carving in to old Democratic strongholds. But as the 2006 midterms loom and the 2008 pre-election season creeps closer, Republicans must resist the temptation to depend on those coattails. In politics, ideas are more important than individuals. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 1830s, great political parties "are those which cling to principles rather than to their consequences; to general and not to special cases; to ideas and not to men."
Both of America's major parties have met that definition--and fallen short of it from time to time.
For his part, President Bush would seem to agree with Tocqueville. After all, this is a man who wants to stamp out tyranny and terrorism, spread democracy into every nation on earth, and revamp Social Security. Love him or hate him, those are some audacious ideas, with major consequences. As the Wall Street Journal observed of the younger Bush, "He means to accomplish big things."
Perhaps he knows that just as great parties cling to principles and ideas, voters cling to great parties.