For a Presidential candidate to be successful, the candidate must have a message which fits the times, and must have developed an ideological direction that is both palatable to the base and not hostile to the General Election constituency. This year, presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton had a tougher than expected primary challenge because her message was more compatible with another era than with the present. By contrast, Bill Clinton in 1992 had a message that the base grudgingly accepted, and that also struck a resonant chord with a General Election contingent.
When Bill Clinton announced his candidacy for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1991, the party was on the heels of losing in two consecutive landslide Presidential elections. In 1984, the party's nominee, Walter Mondale, won the Democratic nomination by running as a traditional liberal with the support of most Democratic special interest groups. His strongest opponent, U.S. Senator Gary Hart (D-CO), countered by running as the moderate alternative, critical of the power of labor unions and the "special interest government in Washington." During the General Election, Mondale injudiciously declared that Republican President Ronald Reagan: "Will raise your taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did." The American electorate did not want a traditional liberal. Mondale lost 49 states.
Four years later, in 1988, two Democratic Presidential candidates, Al Gore and Bruce Babbitt, ran as moderates. Gore presented himself as a Southern centrist and bragged about the tobacco he grew on his family farm. He excoriated one of his Democratic opponents, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, for being soft on crime. In addition, Gore was a hawk on foreign policy. In fact, he was the only Democratic candidate to support the conservative Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, in his refusal to negotiate a "land for peace" deal with the Palestinians.
Babbitt failed to muster any electoral traction when he tried to convince Democratic voters that fiscal necessity required the nation to means test Social Security and Medicare. Rather than pander to the party's liberal base, Babbitt called his ideological mindset "radical centrism."
The party nominated Dukakis. Ironically, Dukakis had enraged many liberals in his home state by cutting the Commonwealth's budget. When he ran for re-election as Governor in 1978, some liberals supported Dukakis' liberal primary challenger Barbara Ackerman. Then State Representative Barney Frank was one of Ackerman's devotees. A reporter asked Frank if he had a problem with Dukakis riding the subway from his Brookline home to his office at the Massachusetts State House. Frank replied: "No, I don't object that he rides the subway. I merely object that he gets off at the State House."
Still, Dukakis could not shed the imprimatur Republican Presidential nominee George H.W. Bush stamped on his as: "that liberal Governor from Massachusetts." In addition, Bush asserted that the Governor's "foreign policy views born in Harvard Yard's boutique would cut the muscle of defense." The electorate feared a Liberal assuming the Presidency, and Dukakis lost 44 states.
By 1992, many Democratic Party voters were sick of nominating candidates who the Republicans could defeat by portraying them as too liberal. They were willing to accept at least a modicum of recreance to liberal orthodoxy in their nominee in return for winning the brass ring. This was the perfect electoral environment for Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. He had flirted with running in 1987, but wisely chose not to run.
Clinton had worked to inoculate himself from the traditional charges that he was just another liberal Democrat. He was Governor of a conservative state where Bush defeated Dukakis by more than 14 points. As Governor, Clinton, with the help of his wife Hillary, implemented an education reform plan which required teacher competency testing. In addition, Clinton was a past chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, which advocated a more moderate approach to governing. Clinton called himself a "New Democrat." He advocated expanded markets, "ending welfare as we know it," and said he wanted "to be tough on crime and good on civil rights."
In addition, Clinton lambasted the "brain-dead politics of both parties" and praised Republican President Bush's handling of the Persian Gulf War. Just before the New Hampshire Presidential Primary, Clinton left the campaign trail to go home to preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, who had killed two people. Rector had essentially lobotomized himself in an attempted suicide with a handgun.
As President, Clinton emphasized fostering economic growth over redistribution of wealth, deficit reduction over social works programs, and free trade over protecting domestic special interests. Abroad, Clinton exercised an interventionist bicep, sending U.S. troops to Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. In addition, he enforced a no-fly zone over Iraq and supported ongoing economic sanctions against Iraq.
Clinton reformed the image of the Democratic Party, and even Democrats running in liberal states like 1994 Massachusetts Gubernatorial nominee Mark Roosevelt, labeled themselves as "New Democrats." Even U.S. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO), who became the champion of the populist wing of the party, admitted in 1997: "we are all New Democrats now."
Though her voting record in the U.S. Senate was to the left of many Democrats, Hillary Clinton carved out an image as a centrist in the vain of her husband. She voted for the 2003 resolution to authorize the use of force in Iraq, and did not apologize for her vote until 2015. In addition, Clinton inflamed liberals, such as then Harvard University Law Professor Elizabeth Warren, by voting in favor of legislation to overhaul the nation's bankruptcy system. The legislation was supported by the financial services industry, and Warren warned that the bill: "would permit credit card companies to compete with women after bankruptcy for their ex-husbands' limited income."
As U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary advocated a troop surge in Afghanistan of 40,000 troops as part of a counterinsurgency mission. In addition, she spearheaded the administration's effort to remove Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi from the reigns of power, and advocated aiding the insurrectionists in Syria.
Furthermore, while the left forgave her husband for accepting Wall Street contributions, since "The Great Recession" the financial services industry is held in lower esteem. Her chief primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, was able to capitalize on that by asserting: "She has not one, but several super-PACs and has raised tens of millions of dollars from Wall Street and other special interests. You can't take their money and take them on."
The donations to Bill Clinton in 1992 from the financial industry were of minor importance to a Democratic Party focused with laser beam intensity on victory. His administration included Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, a Goldman Sachs Alumni who was heralded for his stewardship of the economy. Some Democrats even wanted Rubin to be the Vice Presidential runningmate to the party's 2000 nominee Al Gore.
However, in 2016 Rubin is seen as a villain on the left, and many chastise Bill Clinton for his leadership in deregulating parts of the banking industry. In addition, many on the left, particularly millennials, are cynical toward Hillary for the large contributions she accrued from the likes of City Group, JP Morgan Chase and Company, and the despised Goldman Sachs.
In 1992, Bill Clinton was able to use his hawkishness as a political advantage, and inoculated himself from traditional charges made against Democrats for being soft of defense. Today, in the wake of the unpopular invasions of Iraq and Libya, and the perpetual troop presence in Afghanistan, the American people are wary of foreign intervention.
Hillary is in a similar predicament as another Democrat who has a message which would have resonated with a prior Democrat electorate, but that has became antiquated. From the end of WWll in 1945, until the Vietnam War became unpopular with "the new left" in the mid 1960's, the Democratic Party won elections by emphasizing a munificent social services regime coupled with a muscular approach abroad.
By 1968, when the party nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey for President (He won with the support of the party's high command, having not won a single primary), that message did not resonate with the party. The Democrats wanted an indignant critic of the status quo. Humphrey supported the U.S. role in Vietnam, and trumpeted: "the politics of joy." His exclamation of being "pleased as punch" was alien to the new Democratic electorate. Subsequently, though he softened his stance on Vietnam, Humphrey could not galvanize enough liberal voters to win the Presidency.
For Bill Clinton, the political stars were aligned perfectly in his favor in 1992. The Democratic Party and the country were ready to gravitate to a centrist who would challenge traditional liberal orthodoxy. Contrariwise, Hillary is swimming against the political tide. Like Humphrey, voters see her as a tribune of the status quo, at a time when the electorate is tired of establishment politicians and hungry for transformational change. Many progressives, especially millennials who supported her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, are looking for a change agent, and see Hillary as a handmaiden of financial interests and an interventionist on foreign policy. She has a Herculean challenge in convincing progressives not to defect to Republican Donald Trump or to a third party candidate, or to write in Sanders name on the ballot.