This coming weekend, I’ll be joining alumni from the two Bill Clinton presidential campaigns who will gather in Little Rock, Arkansas, on the 20th anniversary of Mr. Clinton’s declaration for the presidency on October 3, 1991.
It was in that announcement speech that Mr. Clinton articulated that he intended to follow a different path than traditional Democratic Party liberal orthodoxy, appealing to the middle class, political moderates, and independents. “The change we must make isn’t liberal or conservative,” he said. “It’s both, and it’s different….People don’t care about the idle rhetoric of ‘left’ and ‘right’ and ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’
It was in that announcement speech that Bill Clinton set forth the three themes that would be the hallmark of his two terms as president, setting out a “third way,” a “New Democrat” approach to governance.
He called for commitment to a “new covenant” for a “new generation of Democrats,” founded by three values or goals of government: “more opportunity… more responsibility…[and] a greater sense of community for this great country.”
On “opportunity,” he called for more choices in public schools, standards and accountability in the classroom, reforming health care to control costs, and “making our cities and our streets safe from crime and drugs.”
No liberal orthodoxy there.
With opportunity, he reminded us, must come responsibility. His first example – printed in all italics in the text of the speech made available to reporters – was his promise to end welfare. “We should insist that people move off welfare rolls and onto work rolls. We should give people on welfare the skills they need to succeed, but we should demand that everybody who can work and become a productive member of society.”
And he promised a new kind of unity based not on enforced conformity but on encouraging a “spirit of community, a sense that we are all in this together….And we will rise or fall together…[with] a greater sense of common purpose.”
The political results? Prior to 1992, Democrats had lost five out of six previous presidential elections by landslides. But Bill Clinton rewrote the electoral map and made the Democratic Party a national party for the first time in more than two decades – winning states long written off by Democrats – in the Deep South, Border States, the Sun Belt, and western and Rocky Mountain States.
In the final analysis, perhaps Bill Clinton’s greatest historic legacy – ironic given the political polarization and hyper-partisan congressional Republicans that marked his last two years as president – may have been his ability to bring us together.
I remember being lucky to share a magical moment in the White House on a sunny morning in the East Room in June 2004. President and Mrs. Clinton had returned to the White House for the unveiling of the official presidential and First Lady Portraits. President Bush said some gracious words about Bill and Hillary Clinton, thanking them for “filling this house with joy and energy.”
Then Bill Clinton took the podium and thanked President Bush for his “generous words to Hillary and me.”
Looking directly at President Bush, he continued: “The President, by his generous words to Hillary and me today, has proved once again that, in the end, we are held together by this grand system of ours that permits us to debate and struggle and fight for what we believe is right…And I hope that I’ll live long enough to see American politics return to vigorous debates where we argue who’s right and wrong, not who’s good and bad.”
The room filled with Clinton friends and supporters roared its approval with a standing ovation. President Bush stood and applauded too – pointing at President Clinton, a gesture of affirmation. Mr. Clinton pointed back. You could see a special bond occurring between the two at that moment that, I believe, continues to this day.
The memory of that moment gives me hope that it should still be possible to disagree agreeably; to debate the great issues facing our country without demonizing the opposition.
Let’s hope our presidential candidates in 2012 will carry forward that most important part of Bill Clinton’s legacy.
Lanny Davis is a regular weekly columnist for The Hill. In 1996-98, Davis served as special counsel to President Bill Clinton. He attended Yale Law School with Hillary Clinton in 1969-70 and has remained friends with her ever since. He is the author of the book, "Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping With Crises in Business, Politics, and Life," (Simon & Schuster March 2013). Follow him on Twitter at @LannyDavis.