Politics 101: What would Clinton do?

December 14th, 2010

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Elvis was back in the building.

Bill Clinton appeared in the White House press room Friday afternoon to pull President Barack Obama’s fat out of the fire. If Obama had met with Clinton a week earlier, he might have avoided a political disaster.

Clinton, the master politico, knows how to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. He did it the night of the 1992 New Hampshire primary. Clinton had been caught up in a storm of controversy over his relationship with Gennifer Flowers. Clinton actually lost that New Hampshire primary to Sen. Paul Tsongas. So what? As soon as the results were in, Clinton rushed out to proclaim himself “the comeback kid.” Many people believed he had won. Actually, he became the first candidate to win the presidency after losing the New Hampshire primary. (Obama was the second.)

Now Obama has made a deal with Republicans to preserve the Bush tax cuts for two years. The question is, WWCHD? What would Clinton have done? Clinton gave his answer: “If I was in office now, I would have done what the president has done.”

But Clinton would have done it with more political shrewdness. He would have declared the deal a great victory. “I don’t believe there is a better deal out there,” Clinton said Friday.

WDOD? What did Obama do? He conceded that he made the deal out of weakness. He said at his Tuesday press conference, “The issue is, how do I persuade the Republicans in the Senate? … I have not been able to budge them.” Obama said he would not “keep fighting a political fight, which I can’t win in the Senate.” That’s called snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

WWCHD? Clinton would have proclaimed the deal a second, badly needed economic stimulus, even bigger than the first one in 2009.

WDOD? He said, “This is not as significant a boost to the economy as the Recovery Act was.” Very odd to hear a president declare that the deal he just made is small potatoes.

WWCHD? He would never have acknowledged that he was negotiating with hostage takers. WDOD? He said, “I think it’s tempting not to negotiate with hostage takers unless the hostage gets harmed. … In this case, the hostage was the American people, and I was not willing to see them get harmed.”

WWCHD? He would have touted his victory on unemployment compensation and the payroll tax cut as huge concessions by his opponents. WDOD? He declared the deal only a tactical victory: “And so temporarily, they are willing to go along with that, presumably because they think they can beat me on that over the course of the next two years.”

WWCHD? He would have refrained from criticizing his fellow Democrats as sanctimonious purists. WDOD? Obama denounced those who have “a purist position” and feel “sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are.”

So what did House Democrats do? They kicked sand in Obama’s face. Obama had to call on his big brother to stand up to the bullies. “In my opinion,” Clinton said, “this is a good bill and I hope that my fellow Democrats will support it.”

Clinton defended the idea of “principled compromise” — “The one thing that has always happened when you have divided government is that people no longer see principled compromise as weakness.”

Obama also defended the necessity of compromise. But he used a disturbing analogy. “This country was founded on compromise,” Obama said Tuesday. “I couldn’t go through the front door at this country’s founding. And if we’re really thinking about ideal positions, we wouldn’t have a union.”

The framers of the Constitution accepted a compromise on human slavery in order to form the union. Is the president willing to defend that kind of compromise?

Bill Schneider is the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst professor of public policy at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.