Clinton’s political triangulation

In January 1999, Bill Clinton’s presidency hung in the balance. He was fighting off an impeachment, and after failing at reforming healthcare in his first term, he was still struggling to build a legacy.

His State of the Union speech, crafted with the help of Robert Shrum, was designed to win back his Democratic base, and reach out to moderate Republicans. It needed to make him look like a man who could still lead the country. It worked. From Shrum’s book, No Excuses

As we worked it over, the speech was becoming a consciously strategic document that transcended triangulation: while the target audience remained as always the broader public, for the first time in years, the imperative was to reach out to congressional Democrats. In short, Clinton had to prove to the country that he could be president and he had to hold his base. So, the first substantive section of the address celebrated “the first balanced budget in 30 years” – and swiftly moved to an used that moved Democrats: the surplus should be set aside, “100 percent of the surplus… every penny… [to] save Social Security first.” We had to get Democrats on their feet early, and embarrass as many Republicans as possible into joining them in a visual validation of the Clinton presidency. This imperative also led to a call near the top of the speech calculated to rouse Democrats again – a proposal to “raise the minimum wage.” We broke our prep format and had a brief free-for-all to argue the idea. One economic advisor worried that this wasn’t central to the president’s domestic agenda and shouldn’t be a lead-off item. I said what was central to the speech was getting all the Democrats on our side as soon and as often as possible. Americans had to see a president who was leading, in charge, validated by the reaction in the House chamber. Clinton said leave the minimum wage right were it is – right after Social Security.

The appeal on Social Security, the minimum wage, and then education was cast in a thematic framework that subtly but clearly backed off the claim of 1996 that “era of big government is over.” The phrase never sat well with a lot of Democrats; they saw it as a repudiation of progressive politics. Clinton told me that he had been misinterpreted. He now redefined his position in a way that was music to Democratic ears but still stole the Republicans’ clothes: “We have moved past the sterile debate between those who say government is the enemy and those who say government is the answer. My fellow Americans, we have found a third way” – this phrase, borrowed from the British Labour Party, was a particular favorite of Blumenthal’s. “We have the smallest government in 35 years, but a more progressive one.”

The rest was history. Clinton received an amazing reception and was eventually acquitted of the impeachment proceedings.

Here is a video with the highlights of the speech…

Later in the chapter, Shrum muses that had the impeachment been successful, Al Gore would have very likely won the 2000 election, and history would be very different indeed…

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