This won’t be a discussion about what happened to Republicans’ national aspirations in this election. With well 1,450+ days until Election Day 2016, there’s plenty of time for talk of how to put Humpty back together.
Meanwhile, imagine what it was to be Bill Clinton on the morning after Election Night.
On the one hand, you woke up to the reality that the man who deep, deep down you maybe don’t like because took the job your wife covets, kept it – thanks in part to your campaigning in swing starts, plus whatever advice you offered on the golf course. Small wonder the re-elected president placed a phone call to you after the results were official – even if he didn’t mention your name in his acceptance speech (oops).
But by winning re-election, Clinton also woke to a grimmer reality (from his standpoint): Barack Obama may have killed Hillary Clinton’s presidential prospects, whatever they are.
Figure it this way: five times, since 1920, America has voted on what to do next after an eight-year presidency (this excludes Coolidge, Truman, Johnson, Ford who stepped in due to death or resignation). Only once, in 1988, did Americans “stay the course” with the same party. The other four times – 2008, 2000, 1960, 1920 – they changed course by switching party control. That’s not a good omen for Hillaryistas.
The one argument against this: deeper American history.
Five times, in the course of the 19th Century, two-term presidencies came to end. All five times – 1808, 1816, 1824, 1836 and 1876 – Americans stayed the course. If Obama completes his second term, it’s the first time in 192 years the nation’s had three consecutive eight-years presidencies. Hillary’s hope: change her name to Madison or Monroe and hope that 21st Century is in fact a retro 19thCentury America longing for Democratic-Republicans.
Here’s some solace for the former president: Obama owes him more than a phone call. For without Clinton’s effect on the political landscape over the last 20 years, it might have been a different outcome.
Four reasons why:
1) The Road to 270. Clinton received 370 electoral votes in 1992 and 379 in 1992. The previous two new Democratic presidents – Jimmy Carter and John F. Kennedy – received but 297 and 303, respectively. In 2008, Obama received 365 electoral votes. How’d he do it? By doing what Clinton did in 1992. In that election, Clinton turned a great chunk of the west from red to blue (Ronald Reagan’s backyard of California, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado all going Democratic). Clinton restored his party’s relationship with Reagan Democrats in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. And he made inroads into the South (Georgia in 1992; Florida and Louisiana in 1996). In 2012, Obama’s “firewall” of Ohio, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada was the offspring of what began in 1992. Credit Clinton for laying the foundation for Republicans now at an electoral disadvantage.
2) Youth Again Was Served. In the 11 “Cold War” presidential elections (1948-1988), Republicans scored seven wins, four losses. In the four elections since the Berlin Wall fell and communism crumbled, Republicans have two wins, four losses. Theories abound (including Condoleezza Rice’s) as to why Republicans come up short. Here’s one of mine: age and generational appeal. Five of the last six GOP nominees were 64 or older; dating back to 1968, only one non-incumbent Democratic nominee (John Kerry) has been older than 52. Clinton, in 1992, was something Americans hadn’t seen since JFK – and in other respects something novel: a 40something governor, career wife, pre-teen daughter. Barack Obama in 2008: 40something senator, career wife, two pre-teen daughters. Mitt Romney, though a youthful 65, was more pater familiasthan a read-to-my-daughter father. His five sons now adults, he couldn’t talk about such parental concerns as Facebook and dating. Republicans can talk family values; but does the edge now lie with a candidate actually in the process of raising a family (this would bode well for the likes of Chris Christie, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio). Perhaps the Clinton model in 1992 is the new paradigm for successful candidates – younger in age, easier to relate to the everyday concerns modern families.
3) The Presidency as People Magazine. Something else Clinton did in 1992 that previous candidates didn’t: he stretched himself out on the coach, and went off the beaten media path. As America’s first Boomer ticket, Clinton-Gore didn’t spare us from their dreams and desires, as well as their fears and phobias – i.e., the psychological insight (and, some would say, psychobabble) that Cold Warriors purposely avoided. Obama fully embraced this concept in 2008 and has never let go of it. As for Romney, at times he talked about his faith and personal life – confessing his love of low-fat chocolate milk and brown-sugar Chex bites to Parade magazine. But he didn’t throw himself into the pop-culture mosh pit that People and Entertainment Tonight, morning radio shows and a host of other media avails that are about coming across as personable, not presidential. The surest sign that he has maybe the most marriage in America: he left to his wife to go it alone on The View. It’s a disturbing thought – the presidency as a contest of congeniality and ability to cry on cue – but Clinton opened this Pandora’s box of pop culture and pop psychology. Obama learned to reap its rewards.
4) Throwing the First Punch. Something Clinton did 1996 than Obama embraced in 2012: painting a negative portrait of your opponent before he does the same (in hockey terms: think of it as pulling the other guy’s sweater over head, then pounding him senselessly). Clinton did it to Bob Dole in the lead-up to his re-elect campaign: suggesting Dole would lay waste to Medicare. Obama did it to Romney in the lead-up to the general election: turning his opponent’s record of job-creation at Bain Capital from an asset to a liability. While Clinton isn’t the first politician to come up with this concept – the 1988 Bush campaign did a stellar job of convincing voters Michael Dukakis was the worst thing to hit Massachusetts since the guy who sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees – it’s that 1996 experience that served as a model for 2012: faced with an awkward record to explain, deflect attention by making the race a verdict on the challenger’s character and credibility.
Add it up: Obama gets to stay in office, but his re-election was a reflection of Bill Clinton’s style and tactics – and the former president’s influence on the modern presidency.
Though, ironically, his wife may not benefit.
Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen