Thursday

September 21st, 2017

Insight

Tale of two Clintons

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published August 1, 2016

She is private; he is public. She studies bulging policy briefing books to look prepared; he studies them to look spontaneous. She has the gift of iron discipline; he has the gift of gab. Hillary Rodham Clinton regards a crowded auditorium as hostile territory; Bill Clinton regards it as his sweet Arkansas home.

“Bill is a big-picture guy but isn’t as disciplined as she is,” says former Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, a onetime Democratic National Committee chairman who has observed both at close range. “He’s incredibly bright and a very fast learner, but she’s more detail-oriented.”

For the third time in a quarter-century, the Democrats are gathering to nominate a Clinton for president. But the Clinton who now begins her general-election campaign is seeking the White House in a different century and, in many ways, in a different country from the one her husband governed.

This third Clinton campaign comes in an age when the Democrats have virtually abandoned the free trade Mr. Clinton espoused, when their constituent groups are rethinking his views on crime and welfare, when they are re-examining the Wall Street ties that in the 1990s were refreshing symbols of a new approach to business.

This Clinton campaign, coming after a grueling struggle against Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has elements — the student-loan crisis, income disparity, global warming— not even on the table during Bill Clinton’s administration. Moreover, the political atmosphere is completely different.

The surge of Donald Trump and the persistence of Mr. Sanders speak to the appeal of a populism Mr. Clinton seldom expressed and an anger incongruous with his optimism. And because it targets the blue-collar workers who blame the very trade and immigration policies the Clintons used to champion, Ms. Clinton is especially vulnerable in a campaign that seems — from the couple’s longstanding cozy relationship with Wall Street to her use of a private email server — to underline her vulnerabilities.

Principals in the most significant American marriage since Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, perhaps since Abigail and John Adams, the Clintons have long shared a creed and a confetti-speckled destiny. But this campaign has created an unusual dynamic, offering the husband as a model for the wife even as it provides the wife with a chance to get right what the husband got wrong.

“I feel confident about Bill and our ability to express our views,” Mrs. Clinton told me in an interview in 1991, weeks before her husband declared for president and 16 months before he was elected. She spoke in the second-person plural then and she is living in the second-person plural now.

Yet the two Clinton campaigns are being conducted in parallel universes. Mr. Clinton had the advantage in 1992 of being the sentinel of a new generation, packed with potential, while Ms. Clinton in 2016 has the disadvantage of being the symbol of a tired generation, pockmarked by familiarity, even failure. The verities of the 1990s, especially on international commerce, crime and national security, seem antiquarian: hoary artifacts from another age.

Against this background the Clinton creed — which, like scores of Broadway shows, had its debut in New Haven, in this case in the whispery study carrels of Yale Law, where the couple met — is being polished for a revival.

And though Ms. Clinton is more a figure of admiration than adulation, as opposed to her husband, who was bathed in adulation but was not always admired, they share the view that opportunity is the principal American idea, that government with a light touch rather than a heavy hand can offer an outstretched arm to the poor and striving, and that the United States is, as Mr. Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, put it in a much-maligned phrase, “the indispensable nation” in world affairs.

Both believe in the ennobling power of personal tolerance and national diversity. Mr. Clinton said America didn’t have a person to waste. In an unmistakable jab at Mr. Trump but an immutable statement of the Clinton creed, Ms. Clinton often says she prefers tearing down barriers to building walls.

Yet what was right for the Bill Clinton years of 1993 to 2001 no longer seems so right.

Mr. Clinton saw the North American Free Trade Agreement as a model trade pact. In today’s environment, Nafta is regarded as more a burden than a boon to the American economy.

While her husband weaved between the two parties with what was known as ‘‘triangulation’’ — the political equivalent of the old halfback plunge into a hole in the middle of the line — Ms. Clinton has had to adopt a political spread formation, ranging both to the left (to accommodate the Sanders partisans) and the right (to address voters vulnerable to Mr. Trump’s entreaties).

“Her proposed policies would do little to change [the wealth gap], compared with Bernie Sanders’ proposals,” said Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, who endorsed Mr. Sanders but who knew Hillary Rodham as a college student. “And she won’t reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act, tax financial transactions or break up the biggest banks at this stage.”

Both Clintons have been forced by their black allies to revisit the 1994 crime bill, which was explicitly supported by Ms. Clinton as first lady and which lengthened mandatory sentences and sent more Americans, particularly minorities, to prison, often for nonviolent drug crimes.

What endures in 2016 is a centrist impulse befitting a 1964 “Goldwater Girl” who, in a remarkable undergraduate Wellesley commencement speech, made it clear that she had inhaled the liberal if not radical air of the college campus of 1969. Today, she has settled in to a sensible-shoes middle ground, leaving some Democrats unsettled but perhaps appealing to GOP moderates uncomfortable with Mr. Trump.

Yet Ms. Clinton enters the 2016 campaign with advantages her husband didn’t possess in 1992.

Mr. Clinton ran as a wunderkind governor of tucked-away Arkansas — Republicans sought to dismiss him as “the failed governor of a small state” — while Ms. Clinton runs as a former senator from New York (tied with Ohio for being home to the most presidents) and a former secretary of state (a launching pad for six presidents, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe).

But any candidate like Ms. Clinton who speaks, or lives, in the first-person plural has to speak to, and live with, not only the plural achievements but also the plural burdens produced by the first person in the family to win the presidency.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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