At this point, the worlds of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are so deeply interlocked that for all intents and purposes they constitute a single unified Democratic Party establishment. But it wasn't always that way.
Even though Clinton served at a high level of Obama's first administration, for much of that time the senior ranks of the party were still riven by the 2008 primary campaign — a battle in which the candidates differed only modestly on policy issues other than Iraq, but which featured a lot of angry skirmishes that engendered deep ill will among high level players.
These dynamics — both the personal bitterness and the relatively modest actual policy disagreements — are brilliantly highlighted by an email thread contained in the latest dump of emails from Clinton's server.
The core document here contains a joke that Center for American Progress president John Podesta made at the expense of Obama's senior adviser David Axelrod, which Cheryl Mills, Clinton's chief of staff, forwarded to the secretary of state. The joke was about an interview Axelrod gave to the Huffington Post in which he said that Obama would accede to congressional Republicans' demands for an extension of the Bush tax cuts. Mills does not comment on Podesta's quip but pretty clearly feels that Clinton will enjoy it:
This is a very short note, but there's a lot to unpack.
The policy context
The underlying issue here is that way back in 2001, the Bush administration wanted to enact a large across-the-board cut in income tax rates, and wanted to do it through the budget reconciliation process, which would avoid a filibuster. Because of something called the Byrd Rule, to qualify for reconciliation the cuts had to be scheduled to expire within 10 years.
In 2008, Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency on a platform calling for most of those tax cuts to be extended permanently but for the top marginal tax rate to revert, as scheduled, to Clinton-era levels.
To prevent this tax increase on high-income families from happening, throughout 2010 Senate Republicans adopted one of the more daring legislative gambits of our era. They said they would filibuster any Democratic efforts to extend only some of the Bush tax cuts, forcing Democrats to choose between an across-the-board tax increase and an across-the-board extension of the Bush tax cuts.
To many people, including most of the staff of the Center for American Progress (where, full disclosure, I was working at the time) this seemed like an obviously hollow threat. If Obama refused to compromise in 2010 and let all the tax cuts expire, then he could return in 2011 with a brand new proposal for "Obama tax cuts" that would benefit both middle-class and wealthy families by reducing the tax rates on lower brackets. Would Republicans really refuse to vote for a tax bill that cut taxes for almost everyone solely on the grounds that it didn't cut taxes for rich people enough? Would even rich people want them to do that, given that they would receive some benefits from the Obama tax cut?
But in the wake of a disastrous performance in the 2010 midterms, Obama agreed to extend the full Bush tax cuts, in exchange for more stimulus spending.
Clinton veterans were sick of Obama's knocks on the 1990s
Podesta emailed the crack about Axelrod "totally caving in to right-wing economics" to Neera Tanden (a longtime Clinton aide who did a brief stint in the Obama White House before returning to work for, and ultimately succeed, Podesta at CAP), Cheryl Mills (Clinton's chief of staff in the State Department), and Doug Band (a former bodyman in Bill Clinton's White House who emerged as a key architect of the Clinton post-presidency) — essentially a tight group of Clinton loyalists.
The derisive reference to school uniforms is itself an allusion to a frequent derisive reference made by Obama and his loyalists. At a key point during the legislative fight over the Affordable Care Act, Obama himself bucked up key staff to continue the fight by saying, "I wasn't sent here to do school uniforms."
And in October 2010, with defeat in the midterms looming, Obama's key advisers were still citing school uniforms as the fate to be avoided:
As a senior adviser put it, "There’s going to be very little incentive for big things over the next two years unless there’s some sort of crisis." Yet Obama and his aides still scorn Bill Clinton’s small-bore approach. "It’s fair to assume you’re not going to see school uniforms play a big role in the next two years," [David] Plouffe told me. "His view is you can’t spend two years playing four-corners." Before he left, Emanuel told me: "I’m not of the view that you do nothing. I think you’ve got to have an agenda."
The Obamanians are referencing the idea that following Democratic losses in the 1994 midterm elections, the Clinton White House essentially gave up on progressive ambitions and instead promoted small-bore, non-ideological causes like school uniforms as its key to victory.
Podesta's argument, implicitly, is that Clinton's approach of responding to political adversity by shifting the debate away from the core issues in American politics makes a lot more sense than making large substantive concessions on those core issues the way Obama was prepared to do.
The "school uniforms" knock on Clinton was unfair
The "school uniforms" knock on the Clinton administration was always a bit unfair on completely separate grounds.
The notion that "if it means that teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear school uniforms" was only one element of the education policy agenda outlined in Clinton's 1996 State of the Union address, and education was only one of six main pillars of the speech. The education pillar included several very substantive and consequential ideas, including national standards, accountability for schools and teachers who don't deliver educational results, and charter schools — in other words, the Obama administration's K-12 education agenda. Meanwhile, academic research indicates that requiring school uniforms has small but real educational benefits.
If you are looking for a bad policy idea from the education section of the 1996 State of the Union address, you really ought to consider Clinton's proposal to "make up to $10,000 a year of college tuition tax-deductible" — a laughably regressive proposal that would do nothing to boost college completion.
Podesta's knock on Obama was also unfair
In the immediate aftermath of the Bush tax-cut extension, many progressives were eager to lambaste Obama's weakness. But in retrospect, the 2010 tax deal was a triumph of savvy dealmaking.
When all was said and done, Obama formally got:
- A two-year extension of middle-class tax cuts
- Extended unemployment insurance benefits
- A stimulative payroll tax holiday
Informally, by clearing the legislative agenda so the lame-duck Senate could consider other measures, he also achieved:
- Repeal of the military's "don't ask don't tell" policy
- Ratification of the New START arms control treaty
In exchange, he had to give up a two-year extension of the high-end Bush tax cuts. But the two years in question were a time when the depressed economy made large budget deficits a non-problem. The basic extension conflict would simply recur in 2012, with nothing lost by Obama (though even in retrospect I don't understand why Obama and Senate Democrats played their hand so weakly in that conflict).
These are small differences
Beneath the snark, it is striking that there is no real policy disagreement here. The Obama White House has never sought to undo the Clinton-era push for school uniforms. And the Clinton and Obama camps didn't disagree about the substance of tax policy. Indeed, as a presidential candidate (whose campaign is chaired by Podesta), Hillary Clinton has embraced the same pledge against middle-class tax increases that was the centerpiece of Obama's tax politics.
In the world of professional political tacticians, arguments about political tactics carry a lot of weight and, when mixed with interpersonal rivalries, can fuel a great deal of bitterness. But on a fundamental level, the nature of this dispute serves as a reminder that even at its most vicious the Clinton-Obama rivalry did not have an enormous amount of content to it. There are some real disagreements in the Democratic Party about the overall shape of economic policy, but they are largely disagreements that place Clinton and Obama in the same camp — opposed by figures like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Sherrod Brown, who haven't come close to running a Democratic White House in decades.