Clinton vs. Obama

Over the weekend I stumbled upon C-SPAN’s broadcast of Bill Clinton’s 1992 speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president, and I remembered how he seemed like a “different kind of Democrat” at the time. As I started watching, I heard Clinton saying:

The most important family policy, urban policy, labor policy, minority policy, and foreign policy America can have is an expanding entrepreneurial economy of high-wage, high-skilled jobs …

Soviet communism has collapsed and our values—freedom, democracy, individual rights, free enterprise—they have triumphed all around the world.

And then he got into the meat of the “new Democrat” message:

To turn our rhetoric into reality we’ve got to change the way government does business, fundamentally. Until we do, we’ll continue to pour billions of dollars down the drain.

The Republicans have campaigned against big government for a generation, but have you noticed? They’ve run this big government for a generation and they haven’t changed a thing. They don’t want to fix government; they still want to campaign against it, and that’s all.

But, my fellow Democrats, its time for us to realize we’ve got some changing to do too. There is not a program in government for every problem, and if we want to use government to help people, we have got to make it work again….

Now, I don’t have all the answers, but I do know the old ways don’t work. Trickledown economics has sure failed. And big bureaucracies, both private and public, they’ve failed too.

That’s why we need a new approach to government, a government that offers more empowerment and less entitlement. More choices for young people in the schools they attend- in the public schools they attend. And more choices for the elderly and for people with disabilities and the long-term care they receive. A government that is leaner, not meaner; a government that expands opportunity, not bureaucracy; a government that understands that jobs must come from growth in a vibrant and vital system of free enterprise.

He made his famous promise to “end welfare as we know it.”

That’s not President Obama’s style. He’s not that kind of Democrat. He doesn’t talk about free enterprise as an American value, not even when speaking of freedom to students in China. Search for “free enterprise” on the White House website, and the first hit is to his famous “You didn’t build that” speech in Roanoke—which doesn’t include the word “enterprise,” or the word “free.” He doesn’t say that big bureaucracies have failed, or that we need more choice in education and health care.

Which presumably means Bill Clinton will have to write a different speech when he nominates President Obama for reelection on Wednesday night.

Now don’t get me wrong. There was plenty of old-fashioned Democratic liberalism in Clinton’s 1992 speech. He talked about “what all of us must give to our Nation,” which fits well with Obama’s view. He denounced outsourcing, he proclaimed that “health care is a right,” he promised billions in new federal spending and lots of programs.

He even deplored polarization and “the stereotypes that blind us,” reminding us that today’s complaints about polarization are nothing new. And I was struck by the way he delivered that complaint. He said that “for too long politicians have told the most of us that are doing all right that what’s really wrong with America is the rest of us—them.” And he elaborated:

Them, the minorities. Them, the liberals. Them, the poor. Them, the homeless. Them, the people with disabilities. Them, the gays.

All good points. Too much stereotyping. Too much polarization. Too much partisanship. Except that his list of stereotypes was very partisan. What about “Them, the conservatives”? “Them, the rich”? Aren’t those polarizing stereotypes too? You’d think a different kind of Democrat would have deplored all the stereotypes that politicians use to divide people.

David Maraniss writes in today’s Washington Post that “on most of the big issues, there is little or no space between [Clinton and Obama] as pragmatic liberals.” Maybe so, but in his campaign—and in his response to a midterm electoral rebuke—Clinton certainly gave voters the impression that he was a “different kind of Democrat,” one who appreciated the limits of government and the virtues of free enterprise. This week he’ll presumably have to give a full-throated defense of a president who never said that the era of big government is over, who increased the food stamp rolls by 14 million after Clinton reduced them by 11 million, who increased the national debt by $5 trillion compared to $1.6 trillion in the Clinton years. No doubt he’ll do a great job.