Why '90s-era Bill Clinton would fail to win the 2016 Democratic nomination

Hillary Clinton is running on her husband's legacy. But the Democratic Party's progressive base is highly critical of that centrist record.

Vintage Bill.
(Image credit: TIM CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

During Bill Clinton's presidency, the U.S. economy grew at a blazing 4 percent annually and created 23 million new jobs. Incomes grew rapidly, and not just for the rich. That impressive record helped make Clinton the first elected, two-term Democratic president since FDR.

And yet, when it comes to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, talking up old-school Clintonomics is more of a general election strategy than something that will send a tingle up the legs of the Democratic Party's progressive base. In that sense, it's small wonder that it's only now that Hillary Clinton is offering a "repeated embrace of [President Bill Clinton's] economic successes" — because only now does she have "growing confidence in her position in the Democratic primary," as The New York Times puts it.

As the Times notes, Bill Clinton's "record does not evoke nostalgia for many liberal Democrats." During last weekend's presidential debate, rivals Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley attacked the Clinton-era repeal of the barrier between commercial and investment banks. Previously, O'Malley said Clintonomics architects Robert Rubin and Larry Summers would have no place on his White House economic council. And when Sanders again critiqued the past few decades as ones of middle-class stagnation and rising inequality, he offered no dispensation for the Clinton years.

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Democrats often say the modern GOP has lurched so far right that a time-traveling Ronald Reagan couldn't win the party's presidential nomination today. What Democrats fail to say is this: '90s-era Bill Clinton would have an equally difficult challenge if he could somehow run for a third term today.

Even Slick Willie at his best probably couldn't talk his way to the nomination. Not only did he deregulate Wall Street, he also cut investment taxes for the rich, and signed the North American Free Trade Agreement. Income inequality soared. Imagine the negative ads Sanders would run against him using Clinton's famous State of the Union quote: "The era of big government is over." If the Democratic debates had "a kiddie table" like the GOP debates do, Bill Clinton might be stuck there like Rick Santorum and George Pataki.

All this puts Hillary Clinton in the weird position of saying she's a student of "the Clinton school of economics" while also disavowing its main lessons. She has come out against the big Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, would sharply raise investment taxes, and has proposed a broad expansion of government power — from jacking up the minimum wage to novel new taxes on Wall Street to universal preschool.

But even all those lefty policies still leave Clinton a rather conservative Democrat today — at least when compared to Sanders, who seems to have the party's heart although not its votes to take on the Republicans next November. Clinton doesn't want to break up the big banks, evolve ObamaCare into a single-payer plan, or give free college to all. Nor does she muse like Sanders does about raising top tax rates to 90 percent, or the marvels of Denmark's welfare state. Even if in her heart Clinton really did feel the Bern, she knows that's not where most Americans are.

And that's the point. Sure, the Democrats control the White House and are odds-on favorites to win again in 2016. But as many analysts have noted, the party has collapsed pretty much everywhere else. Maybe one reason why is that voters think Democrats have developed an unhealthy obsession with inequality and redistribution in a time of economic stagnation. Maybe it seems to many that Democrats are too close to how Margaret Thatcher famously critiqued the Labour Party, that it would rather have the poor poorer as long as the rich were less rich.

Should it really mar the Bill Clinton presidency that inequality rose even though almost every demographic group saw large and steady income gains? Of course not. But try telling that to the Democratic Party's fervently progressive base.

If Hillary won't campaign as a true, pro-growth Clinton Democrat, maybe there's room in 2016 for a Clinton Republican.

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