Op-ed: The end of the Clinton coalition

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Wednesday, June 10, 2015 6:37pm
  • Opinion

Every time Hillary Clinton makes a left-wing policy pronouncement, it is, in effect, another eulogy marking the death of the coalition and style of politics that twice made her husband president.

Bill Clinton got elected by peeling off working-class whites and suburbanites from the Republican Party, while holding traditional Democratic voters. He made significant geographic inroads, winning a handful of Southern states both in 1992 and in his 1996 re-election, when he narrowly won the popular vote in the region as a whole.

This is all very interesting, but we might as well be talking about Grover Cleveland’s path to the presidency in 1884. The Clinton coalition is rusty and up on blocks in some overgrown backyard like the El Camino pickup he once boasted about. And Hillary knows it.

Who is pushing Hillary to the left? Hillary is. It’s not the memory of what Barack Obama did to her in the 2008 primaries. It’s not fear of Elizabeth Warren. It’s not worry over the primary threats from Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. It’s sheer electoral necessity.

As Sean Trende of the website RealClearPolitics puts it, President Obama has narrowed but deepened the Clinton coalition.

He blew the doors off it among base Democratic voters. As Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner points out, Democrats had won the 18- to 24-year-old vote by 11.5 points on average and the 25- to 29-year-olds by about 7 points on average from 1992 to 2004. Obama won those groups by more than 30 points in 2008 and 20 points in 2012.

He outdid himself among minorities, liberals and upper-class suburbanites. Obama, Klein notes, amped up not just his margin among African-American voters, but their turnout.

Elsewhere in the former Clinton coalition, though, his support collapsed, with older and blue-collar whites continuing to flee the Democrats. The change was especially pronounced in Appalachia.

“He was the first Democrat since Lewis Cass in 1848 not to carry Floyd County, Kentucky, and the first ever to lose Knott County,” Sean Trende writes of Obama in his book, “The Lost Majority.” “For perspective, in 1996 Clinton carried Floyd County by 45 points and Knott County by 55 points. Even George McGovern carried these counties by double digits.”

Even if Hillary wanted to try to recapture those kinds of voters, it’s not clear that she could, and the effort would risk alienating the Obama supporters she needs if she’s going to win a national election.

So the question for Hillary is whether a 67-year-old candidate who’s not a racial minority or particularly exciting can re-energize the electoral coalition defined by a youthful African-American who rose to prominence on rhetorical flights of fancy about hope and change.

She’s certainly not going to do it by recapitulating the politics of Bill. He hewed to the political center. He played defense on cultural issues. He balanced the budget (at the insistence of a Republican Congress). He touted, at least after his first two years, small-scale government programs of symbolic significance. He was tough on crime and relatively hawkish.

Everything indicates she’s going to do and be the opposite. Hillary will make herself a paladin of the left, and hope to energize and frighten the constituent parts of the Democratic base enough to walk the treacherously narrow electoral path of President Obama.

This is the price of victory Obama-style. Despite his rhetoric of unity, Obama depends on a politics that writes off much of the country and depends on turning out voters already inclined to support him. It is less a politics of persuasion than of mobilization.

For Hillary, this means the centrism and practicality of her husband have to be jettisoned, so what remains from the Clintonism of yore is mostly the shady dealings and shameless insincerity. But she really has no choice. It’s go left or go home.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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