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Bill Clinton is still a star, but today’s Democrats are dramatically more liberal than his party

Bill Clinton (Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA — Bill Clinton has attended every Democratic National Convention since 1972. He’s been a heavily featured speaker at every single one since his 1988 keynote address.

He was a symbol of party unity in 2008, and he brought the house down as the "explainer in chief" in 2012 who defended the nitty-gritty of Barack Obama’s policies even better than the president himself.

The former president is a genuine star in the Democratic Party — first as a symbol of youth, then of power, then simply of charisma and political success, and then of unity.

This year, of course, a featured speaking role was inevitable — not only is Bill Clinton a popular former president, but he is the nominee’s spouse.

But in the years since he left office, the party has left him behind. In many ways, he’s become as obsolete ideologically as Jimmy Carter was in 1992. The electoral base and ideology his wife has embraced signals  a very different Democratic Party — one that has changed profoundly in the past quarter-century.

The party of Clinton is very much not the party of Clinton in ways that would be easier to see were they not still named Clinton.

The old New South

Back in 1992 (with an assist from Ross Perot), Bill Clinton carried Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia while losing Florida and Virginia. In 1996, he added Florida but lost Colorado.

This wasn't the old days before the great realignment. Democratic Party wins in the South were grounded in the African-American community, and most whites voted Republican. But Democrats ran well enough to win in those states where incomes were the lowest, bringing along downscale whites for whom multigenerational political allegiances still meant something.

But this allegiance also meant something to the Clinton-era national party. Bill was a Southerner, and so was Al Gore. And the party’s values had at least one foot in the cultural norms of the white South. Unlike his two Yankee predecessors as Democratic nominee, Clinton backed the death penalty. He backed school uniforms. He backed the V-chip, an ultimately doomed effort to keep salacious television programming away from children. He signed the Defense of Marriage Act, and he was aloof to labor unions.

This was the politics of what was called, at the time, the New South. Not politically dominated by white supremacy anymore. Forward-looking and interested in economic development. But still in some fundamental ways conservative. Churchy. Patriotic. Skeptical of radicals and agitators and the political left.

Bill’s legacy became a millstone for Hillary

To a striking extent, almost everything that was distinctive about Bill’s approach to being a Democrat — the lack of enthusiasm for unions, the opposition to marriage equality, the tough-on-crime and tough-on-defense postures, welfare reform — became a millstone around Clinton’s neck in the course of the 2016 primary campaign.

Bernie Sanders, a self-marginalizing figure who'd been way out on the left fringe of the party in the 1990s, suddenly emerged with political positions that were near the party’s center of gravity.

Abolishing cash assistance pushed deep poverty too high. Mass incarceration was out of control. Americans should get over their religious objections to LGBTQ equality. Abortion should be available without apology. Stand with labor against corporate-driven trade deals.

Hillary Clinton won the primary. But the platform she ended up embracing was a lot closer to where Sanders was in 1996 than to where Bill was.

Bill Clinton helped Democrats transcend Clintonism

The irony is that Bill Clinton himself deserves an enormous amount of credit (or, if you prefer, blame) for crafting the new Democratic Party that would leave him behind.

Part of this is a matter of changing context. Some of Clinton's positions on race and LGBTQ matters appear retrograde today. But at the time he was the first president in American history to appear personally comfortable with black people and to have African Americans in his inner circle. He was the first president to ever recognize LGBTQ people as such, and to court them politically or do anything for them on their issues.

If Clinton’s approach appears outdated today, it's because he field-tested the idea of a racially integrated, gay-friendly party and showed it could work.

But beyond those specifics, it was Bill Clinton who showed that Democrats could govern. Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson both declined opportunities to run for reelection because they mired the country in unpopular wars that destroyed their political standing. Jimmy Carter lost reelection in a landslide amid high unemployment and ruinous inflation.

Clinton, by contrast, presided over an eight-year run of peace and prosperity. He proved, for the first time in generations, that Democrats could govern at the highest level. That laid the groundwork for the more ambitious Democratic Party of the Obama era, and for the even more ambitious one that Hillary Clinton is leading this week.

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