Updated Nov. 14, 2016 7:22 p.m. ET
Blame Monica Lewinsky.
More precisely, for Democrats wondering how their party ended up in the ditch, Bill Clinton’s sexual dalliance with a then-22-year-old intern is an excellent place to start. Because it’s clear in retrospect that the most significant aftermath of l’affaire Lewinskywas not the subsequent impeachment of President Clinton but the death of the New Democrat movement that was until then driving his administration.
Now, there’s always been more than a little mythmaking about Mr. Clinton’s political moderation. Notwithstanding some campaign rhetoric and a stint as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council when he was governor, there wasn’t much sign of the New Democrat in President Clinton until Newt Gingrich and his fellow Republicans gave him a drubbing in 1994. Before Republicans took the House and reset the national agenda with their “Contract with America,” the “moderate” President Clinton had reneged on his promise of a middle-class tax cut and tried to push through the unpopular HillaryCare bill.
But give the Big Dawg his due. When the Republicans took Congress, he had the wit to recognize he’d been too far in front of the American people. So instead of fighting the GOP agenda he tried to co-opt it, especially on the economy.
The result? With the exception of the North American Free Trade Agreement signed in 1993, the achievements of the Bill Clinton presidency date mostly from after the Republican revolution and include welfare reform and repeal of the Glass-Steagall restrictions separating commercial from investment banking. As Mr. Clinton himself put it in the 1996 State of the Union, “the era of big government is over.”
So what happened? In a word, Monica.
When the Lewinsky scandal broke, it was the New Democrats such as Connecticut Sen.Joe Lieberman who were Mr. Clinton’s chief critics within the party. By contrast, the Democrats who came to Mr. Clinton’s rescue were liberal stalwarts such as Reps. Barney Frank and John Conyers.
Democrats have been tacking left ever since. Yes, Barack Obama in 2008 campaigned as a moderate, but he never governed that way. What marks this year’s Democratic primary was how antediluvian it all was: a battle between Mrs. Clinton and an aging socialist, each trying to outdo the other in how much he/she would tax, spend and redistribute.
Now Mrs. Clinton has lost to an outsider many on both sides confidently declared could never be elected—and the recriminations are starting. This is standard fare for a party after an unsuccessful presidential campaign, and the GOP would be doing the same had Mr. Trump lost.
But a full accounting of the Democratic Party’s failed bid for the White House must also reckon with the party’s even more profound collapse at the state level. Notwithstanding the idea that the Obama coalition represents America’s future, the political reality is that over the Obama years Republicans more than doubled the number of state legislatures they control and now boast more governors than they’ve had in almost a century.
With Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders holding the heart of the party, the room for the type of New Democrat rethink of the early 1990s seems small. Still, for Democrats the defeat of the Clintons should be liberating. Ever since the Monica scandals, Democrats have found themselves excusing the inexcusable on everything from sex in the Oval Office (his) to private email servers in the Chappaqua basement (hers).
When Mr. Clinton won the presidency in 1992, it helped that he was a governor from Arkansas and not a Washington fixture. Since then, however, the party has become much more Beltway oriented. At a time when the top two concerns of the American people are keeping us safe from attack and fixing a sluggish economy that has left record numbers of Americans out of work, the Democratic Party is preoccupied with overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and upholding the Planned Parenthood view of abortion right up to the minute of birth. Outside a New York or D.C. newsroom, it turns out that these aren’t nearly as popular as Democrats and their allies in the newsrooms think.
The good news for Democrats is that the Clinton hold is now broken. For the next year or two, this will mean a spell in the wilderness where everyone points fingers. Even so, one day there will be a new campaign. And the departure of the Clintons opens the door for other Democrats, including Democratic governors not yet in office, who would never have had a prayer so long as Bill and Hillary dominated the show.
The challenge for the Democratic Party is this: Mrs. Clinton lost an election in good part because she repudiated the compromises with Republicans that accounted for her husband’s greatest achievements as president—but she never would have been nominated if she hadn’t.
Write to McGurn@wsj.com.
Tags: Bernie Sanders, Bill Clinton’s sexual dalliance, Contract with America, Democratic Party, Democrats, Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, Hillary Clinton's emails, Hillary Clinton's private server, Monica Lewinsky, President Clinton had reneged on his promise of a middle-class tax cut, Republicans