Princeton historian Sean Wilentz writes some worthy books (especially The Rise of American Democracy: From Jefferson to Lincoln) and articles (such as his long essay on Lincoln in The New Republic two years ago), but is a reliable partisan ideologue for the most part.
He has an article up now at The New Republic that is curious for its obvious omission. “20 Years Later: How Bill Clinton Saved Liberalism from Itself” is ostensibly a reflection on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Clinton’s announcement of his candidacy for president in 1991. But its notable omission of any mention of what lessons Obama might take from Clinton’s success suggests he is up to some mischief, and is deeply worried about the damage Obama is inflicting on liberalism.
Wilentz offers a brief history of the divisions inside the Democratic Party starting in the 1960s and 1970s, and acknowledges while subtly downplaying the rise of—and damage to
the party from—the radical left in those years. Wilentz portrays Clinton as successfully
facing down Republicans through his embrace of welfare reform and showing that Democrats could be trusted to govern the country sensibly. It’s a game try, but Wilentz affirms esoterically what he denies exoterically: that Clinton faced down the left inside his own party as much as he faced down Republicans. It was called “triangulation” at the time; Wilentz today calls it returning to the legacy of FDR.
What’s remarkable is how closely the article tracks what Norman Podhoretz wrote in National Review in 1999: “How Bill Clinton Saved the Democrats.” In a phrase, Clinton de-McGovernized the Democratic Party to a large extent: “Clinton most assuredly stood to the right of where his party had been since 1972. If I were a liberal Democrat who had cut his teeth on the McGovern campaign, I would regard him as a traitor to the cause.”
I doubt Wilentz ever wished to find himself aligned even slightly with Norman Podhoretz, but there it is. Wilentz left unsaid one key part of Clinton’s success that Podhoretz noted prominently: Clinton’s adaptation to the Republican landslide of 1994, which was a direct rebuke to Clinton’s McGovernite ways his first two years in office. Wilentz’s silence on Obama’s lack of adaptation to the 2010 election result is telling.
Except that Wilentz has not been entirely silent on this—only in this latest piece. Right after the election last November, Wilentz did take note of Obama’s political prospects in The New Republic:
The Democrats’ heavy losses in the midterm elections may now force a reassessment and overhaul of the Barack Obama political experiment. Whether the president has the dexterity and fortitude to navigate through the harsher Washington political environment of the next two years will determine his survival. Clearly, the hopes and dreams that propelled Obama to the White House are in disarray. The social movement politics that some of his most fervent followers ascribed to him—the idea of electing a “post-partisan” president as the leader not of a nation or even of a political party but of a personalized social movement—has failed.
Wilentz went on to make some harsh criticism of the whole “social movement” theory of the original Obama 2008 campaign that has carried over into his conduct of the presidency, along the way settling some scores on behalf of Hillary Clinton. And he concluded: “It could well be that Obama’s survival as an effective political force for the next two years and his prospect for reelection—and any viable future for social movements—will require engaging cleverly and doggedly in what his movement theorists derided as “status quo” politics.”
Wilentz clearly thinks that Obama’s failure to shed his social movement/community organizer mode of his presidency is an epic mistake. Obama has failed to adapt in any way like Clinton did in 1995 and 1996. Hmmm. Is Wilentz’s new TNR piece ostensibly celebrating Bill Clinton’s achievement really a dog whistle shout-out to Hillary to save the Democrats from Obama, sort of written in code to avoid a beatdown by the imperial storm troopers of the Center for American Progress?