On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, one thing is clear: it’s not your father’s Democratic Party any longer. Readers of Jay Cost’s important new book, Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, already know this. Cost gives us the analysis that shows the slow but unmistakable transformation of the once broad-based political party to a machine operation controlled by the new elites and the public sector unions, beholden not to the American public but to the narrow interests that dominate its machinery. As the publisher’s description of the book says:
No longer able to govern for the vast majority of the country, the Democratic party simply taxes Middle America to pay off its clients while hiding its true nature behind a smoke screen of idealistic rhetoric. Thus, the Obama health care, stimulus, and auto bailout health care bill were created not to help all Americans but to secure contributions and votes. Average Americans need to see that whatever the Democratic party claims it is doing for the country, it is in fact governing simply for its base.
Use that description as the guide when you watch the convention the next three days. Cost making this argument is one thing — after all, he writes for the Weekly Standard, and some will thus write him off as a conservative and simply ignore what he has to say. But Newsweek making the same argument is another thing. Following Niall Ferguson’s much-discussed cover story of two weeks ago, Tina Brown has done it again. This week features an analysis of Bill Clinton’s apparent reconciliation with Barack Obama, and the meaning of his featured prime-time speech at the DNC.
Written by Peter J. Boyer, the article is not really about Clinton, but rather is a sharp analysis of how the Democrats have changed since the era of Clinton’s presidency. Clinton may have accepted the difficult task of trying to save the Obama presidency and speaking on the president’s behalf to satisfy his large ego, but everyone knows the truth. Obama and Clinton have had what Boyer calls an “uneasy” relationship since 2008, due to the bitter primary fight with his wife that “inflicted real wounds” that in fact have not healed.
More to the point is that the party and the politics Bill Clinton represents are far removed from our current president’s lurch to the left. After Republicans gained strength and Clinton saw the handwriting on the wall, he moved to the center, reflecting his own origins as head of the moderate and centrist so-called New Democrats. They were aligned with the now defunct Democratic Leadership Council, which sought to reflect the concerns of blue-dog Democrats, centrists, and the business community. When Clinton won re-election, he worked with Republicans to institute real welfare reform, and he abandoned his ill-conceived experiment in universal health care. Earlier, he got NAFTA passed despite union opposition and with Republican votes.
So while Clinton will speak in Charlotte, as Boyer writes, “that brand of centrist New Democrat politics that helped make him the first president of his party to win reelection since FDR … will be mostly missing. Conservative and centrist Democrats, so critical to Clinton’s efforts to reform welfare, balance the budget, and erase the image of the party as being reflexively anti-business, have nearly vanished.”