It is not just their mortifyingly under-attended speaking tours. It is not even their ethical demotion in the light of MeToo. “The fall of the House of Clinton” — the headline recurs through the years — is the fall of nothing less than the moderate left itself. Progressives have come around to Christopher Hitchens’s once-lonely view of Bill Clinton’s presidency as a round of half-measures, cavalier only in the jailing of minorities and the dispossession of the poor.
When Clinton’s Treasury secretary worries aloud about the cost of pandemic relief, he is scolded for Oldthink. When a Clinton-era strategist warns the party off “wokeness”, he does so almost alone. A Democratic right that once commanded the US — and through its sister movements the west — now struggles for a hearing.
It has just one prize to hang on to by way of consolation. That happens to be a decisive say in the running of the country.
America’s vaunted turn to the left is plainly stalling. President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan is said to have been haggled down to less than half of its original $2.3tn value. Legislation on voting reform and wage discrimination are unlikely to pass in their current form. At the same time, the president is softening on corporate tax increases to fund his new Jerusalem. So far, then, the legislative basis for the Biden-as-Franklin-Roosevelt trope is a pandemic relief bill of mostly transient measures. And this is before the midterm elections that have routed the last two Democratic presidents.
At this point, it is natural to blame the obstinacy of Republican senators. They even used the filibuster, which is only broken with a three-fifths vote in that chamber, to quash a probe of the Capitol siege. But the president is not just failing to meet that supermajority. He has ever more trouble reaching a majority at all. And it is conservative-minded colleagues, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, who constitute the blockage.
The Democratic right finds itself in a peculiar fix. It has rarely had less cachet and goodwill. At the same time, it is the casting vote in the administration. As something like the ideological midpoint of a split Senate, Manchin has more effective power than all but a handful of individuals in the US. Invoking the old Republican master of the Senate, one of the “Squad” of leftwing Representatives describes him as the “new Mitch McConnell”. With subtler menace, if not strict accuracy, Biden himself refers to “two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends”.
The regression to the Clintonian mean goes beyond them, though, and beyond the domestic realm. Biden has defied liberal calls to excommunicate Saudi Arabia for its dark ventures abroad. His no less controversial meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia next week evokes Hillary Clinton’s “re-set” as secretary of state. As for vice-president Kamala Harris, she had a curt line for would-be migrants in Guatemala this week. “Do not come.” A generation ago, we would have called that triangulation.
If a wry smile plays on the lips of the Clintons, it is only half-merited. Today’s Democratic right are distinct at least in style from their technocratic forebears. Sinema is a former Mormon and social worker. Manchin’s state is an (unfair) byword for backwardness. Like Senator Bob Menendez, another of their number, both were elected in a post-millennium world of terrorism and economic insecurity. It is hard to picture their wing of the party bonding with, say, President Emmanuel Macron of France as the Clintons once did with European leaders of a modern bent.
Often enough, though, their influence comes down to the same thing. In substance, it is a wariness of higher taxes and a mild social conservatism. In tactics, it is a lack of appetite for partisan confrontation. As a block on, say, voting reform, the Democratic right is maddening and perhaps unconscionable. But a party without them would lack broad enough appeal to govern at all.
Among the weirder things I have lived through is the reframing of the era of my youth as “neoliberal”. You would not know that Clinton passed the last comprehensive increase in federal taxes. Or that Tony Blair was still running a fiscal deficit in 2007, Britain’s 15th year of economic growth, so lavish was he.
Whether through amnesia or bad faith, the Third Way is slandered among those old enough to know better as a craven sop to the 1980s. In truth, it was a generous correction of them. The cautious, unideological left has a deceptive power to achieve reform. If it survives, it is not just the Clintonian ego that stands to gain.
This article has been amended since publication to correct the proportion of votes needed to break a filibuster.