The Clinton-Obama progressive center: returning to the winning formula

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
Font Size:

President Obama’s poll numbers last week in a variety of polls were portrayed by the media as foretelling a potential debacle for the Democrats in the November elections. Yet one positive data point was overlooked by most commentators:  the president’s job approval rating was 49% and disapproval 48% — a statistical dead-heat.  In other words, despite everything, Mr. Obama is just about where he was when he won the presidential election in 2008 with 53% of the vote and about half of Americans approve of the job he has done. Amazing.

Why is this? My only good guess is – shocking – the American people are sensible and balanced in their collective wisdom. They know that President Obama inherited a pretty tough deck of cards.  And, while they are angry at continuing high unemployment and the apparent inability of government to solve the country’s most important problems, they give the president credit for trying.

So why don’t congressional Democrats, along with President Obama, get more credit for trying too – passing the Stimulus Bill, the national health insurance bill, and recently the Financial Services bill in just 18 months of a new administration?

I think the reason is that Democrats have allowed themselves to be portrayed as an anti-business, big spending, big deficits, and big government party – the same portrait that resulted in losing five-out-of-six presidential elections from 1968 to 1992.

That is contrary to the message in the 2006 and 2008 elections.  Then many moderate Democratic candidates won in marginal Red States and congressional districts by running as pro-growth, small government, pro-business Democrats who also supported traditional progressive Democratic social programs. They saw no inconsistency in those positions. Nor do I.

It’s time to hit the reset button – and return to the message that worked not just in 2006 and 2008 but beginning in 1992, when Bill Clinton was first elected to the first of two terms as president.

It should be recalled that President Bill Clinton ran on a “New Democrat” platform that uniquely combined progressive social programs, moderate cultural positions, conservative fiscal policies, and a pro-growth, pro-entrepreneurial economic policy that emphasized individual responsibility.   He left his two terms as president with welfare reform, a trillion dollar budget surplus, “re-invented” government with less federal workers than when he began, and a 65% approval rating.

Mr. Obama in 2008 arguably added to Mr. Clinton’s “New Democrat” platform a “New Politics” dimension:  his own inspirational quality that promised to transcend the usual left vs. right lines – as he famously said at his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speech, appealing to “not a Red State America or a Blue State America but a United States of America.” Many voters feel that, despite his efforts to reach out to Republicans, some congressional Democrats beholden to the “base” were too often responsible for preventing him from truly acting in a bipartisan manner.

So it is possible, consistent with the facts, to reframe the Democratic record to take to the voters in November and get back to the Clinton-Obama progressive center message:  The Stimulus Bill was temporary – now it is time to return to fiscal discipline. The Health Insurance Bill was necessary – now it is time to focus on cost cutting and entitlement reform.  The Financial Services bill was long overdue — but now it is time to reach out to the business community and to consult with them about private market solutions that can create new jobs and economic growth in the long term.

If this means angering the hard, ideological purist left of the Democratic Party, then so be it. These are the same people who tried to defeat Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln even though she supported the Stimulus Bill, the Health Care Bill, and led the toughest version of the Financial Services Bill. By doing so, they proved that they prefer defeat and their version of the “perfect” over victory and the good.

Such a pivot and return to a progressive center message is the only hope for Democrats to minimize the usual mid-term losses this November. That message is where most voters are. Returning to the pragmatic “solutions business” – whether coming from the left, right, or a third way – is what most Americans need and want, now more than ever.

Editor’s Note: This piece appears today, July 22, 2010, in Mr. Davis’s regular weekly column in The Hill “Purple Nation.”

Mr. Davis is the founder of the Washington D.C. law firm, Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in litigation, legal crisis management, and legislative and public policy strategies. He served as Special Counsel to President Clinton in 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.  He is the author of “Scandal:  How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2006).