Democrats' past on repeat: 2015 has echoes of 1991

Washington Post
Democrats' past on repeat: 2015 has echoes of 1991

History never repeats, but sometimes things circle back in intriguing ways. How else to explain parallels between 1992 and 2016, with a pair of candidates named Clinton, at the start of their presidential campaigns, shadowed by liberal icons of the Democratic Party?

For Bill Clinton, it was Mario Cuomo, the three-term governor of New York, who died on New Year's Day this year. For Hillary Rodham Clinton, it is Elizabeth Warren, the first-term senator from Massachusetts. The two pairings speak to ever-present tensions within the Democratic Party. But they also highlight some important differences between then and now.

As Bill Clinton began his run for the White House in the fall of 1991, Cuomo loomed large. Most of the Democrats' heavyweights had already passed on the 1992 race. Then-president George H.W. Bush had started 1991 with a victory in the Persian Gulf War that took his approval rating to about 89 percent in the Gallup poll. At that point he looked unbeatable to risk-averse Democrats.

Clinton was among those who sensed an opportunity. He had come close to running in 1988 but chose to stay out. In the intervening four years, he had used his standing as the chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council to accelerate the process of trying to redefine his party, seeking to move it off its traditional liberal moorings toward a new centrist identification.

He was anything but a dominant front-runner in the fall of 1991, just one of a number of Democrats with hopes and dreams. Although he had served as governor of Arkansas almost continuously since 1978 (he lost his first bid for re-election in 1980) and had a network of friends that extended far beyond the borders of his home state, he knew he would have to prove himself to become the party's presidential nominee.

Cuomo, meanwhile, was a major figure, if a rather reluctant presidential candidate. He was the leading liberal in the Democratic Party, a politician of intellectual depth and rhetorical virtuosity. Through the 1980s, he was a counterweight to the philosophy of President Ronald Reagan and the rising conservative sentiment in the country. To the delight of his party's liberal base, Cuomo offered a vigorous defensive of an expansive role for government, with an emphasis on aiding the poor, the homeless and the downtrodden.

By the late fall of 1991, as Clinton began his rise, Cuomo suddenly appeared as a potentially serious obstacle when he announced that he would consider entering the race. Clinton was both wary of, and ready for, a Cuomo challenge — wary due to the New York governor's national prominence and political heft; ready because he had been honing his arguments for years about the need for the Democrats to change if they hoped to recapture the White House.

Their differences were substantial. Cuomo's governmental philosophy, though he once called it "progressive pragmatism," was the embodiment of New Deal and Great Society ideas and values. After seeing Democrats defeated in three consecutive presidential elections, Clinton recognized that public faith in Great Society programs had waned, that constituency politics had its limits and that the cultural liberalism of the Democrats had created roadblocks with many voters whose support the party needed to win again nationally.

Clinton also knew at the time that there were doubts about him among party liberals. At a forum in Chicago in November 1991, he was asked a planted question about fears that he was a Republican posing as a Democrat. His answer showed his political agility to be a New Democrat rooted in old Democrat symbols. "My granddaddy thought when he died, he was going to Roosevelt," he said.

Throughout December of that year, Cuomo dithered until it was too late. On the day of the deadline for filing papers to enter the New Hampshire primary, there were chartered planes waiting on a tarmac in Albany to fly him to New Hampshire, a lectern set up outside the state capitol in Concord and throngs of reporters in each place awaiting what most thought would be a positive announcement.

In the end, Cuomo chose not to run, earning him the nickname "Hamlet on the Hudson." Mike Pride, the former editor of the Concord Monitor, tweeted the other day that, at the moment Cuomo said no, "Clinton exhaled."

Democrats and the country were denied what might have been an epic confrontation between old and new Democratic philosophies, offered by two of the party's brightest minds and political talents. We can only speculate how history might have been changed had that clash occurred.

Clinton was ready for a fight that never came. Instead he faced weaker opposition — and his own scarred past — in the nomination campaign. He moved his party to the right with relative ease.

Now, more than two decades later, the dynamics of the Democratic nomination contest are different. Now it is the liberal wing calling for the party to change. Hillary Clinton is cast as the status quo candidate, a politician rooted in Democratic centrism, defending an older order ushered in by her husband.

Many in the progressive wing of the party — just how many isn't yet clear — are suspicious of the former secretary of state. They see the party as far too tied to corporate and moneyed interests. Fairly or unfairly, they blame the Clintons for much this. Although Democrats under President Barack Obama have moved left in some areas, progressives pointing to 2016 are restless and looking for someone to shake things up. In Warren they see the ideal candidate.

Whenever a story appears about divisions within the Democratic Party, there are objections raised by those who contend that Democrats across the spectrum are mostly in agreement on policy matters — economic and social. They argue that what Clinton wrought with his presidency has taken root within the party, that the differences are manufactured.

Progressives believe otherwise. They say there are substantial differences. Trade issues divided Democrats when Clinton ran in 1992 and still do today. Warren advocates increasing Social Security benefits at a time when some other Democrats believe they will need to be squeezed. But the gaps between those who see Warren as a champion and those rallying around Clinton appear far narrower than the differences that existed between Bill Clinton and Mario Cuomo.

The differences today are both issue-based and stylistic. Progressives are pushing for a sharper, more populist edge to the Democratic message, with more attention aimed at working- and middle-class families who haven't enjoyed the fruits of the economic recovery. Warren has that populist edge. Clinton so far does not.

Two decades ago, Bill Clinton was ready to take on Cuomo and his philosophy — although his approach never involved a repudiation of the Democratic past. He always found a way to blend old and new. But today, the question is how much Hillary Clinton will feel the need to accommodate those who yearn for a Warren candidacy. How much will she move left, while remaining largely rooted where she is?

In the end, Hillary Clinton could end up as her husband did, without the party's contemporary liberal icon in the presidential field. Warren appears as or more reluctant than Cuomo did in 1991. Although she couches her denials in present tense — "I am not running for president" — she is doing nothing yet to suggest preparations for a serious campaign. Perhaps that will change.

In 1992, Cuomo ended up delivering the nominating speech for Bill Clinton at the Democratic convention in New York. He offered a robust, fulsome embrace of the young New Democrat. If Warren stays out of the 2016 race, and if Hillary Clinton runs and wins the nomination, could we see the Massachusetts senator in the role of Mario Cuomo at the next Democratic convention?

 

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