It is with mixed feelings that I look forward to tonight's keynote DNC speech by Bill Clinton, considering that Clinton was my first president.
And by "first president" I don't just mean the first winning presidential candidate for whom I voted, but also the first winning presidential candidate whose election I supported going back to the very first presidential election of which I was even vaguely aware. Nixon vs. Humphrey, Nixon vs. McGovern, Carter vs. Ford (yes, really), Reagan vs. Carter, Reagan vs. Mondale, and Bush vs. Dukakis... I was on quite a presidential losing streak heading into the 1992 election.
So it was an unfamiliar joy I felt that Election Night in 1992 as the networks called the race for Clinton, and the room raucously erupted into an ironic chant of "tax and spend!" My presidential candidate finally won. But in a way, Clinton was never my presidential candidate.
Clinton was a DLCer, the party faction that argued Democrats must move toward the right and away from economic populism in order to win national elections. It was an ideological compromise I found distasteful and a political strategy I mistrusted, but Clinton did indeed win the White House campaigning on his "third way," so I was willing to give him and his cohorts a chance to prove themselves. And Clinton governed as promised—NAFTA, welfare reform, DADT, bank deregulation—these were all signature "accomplishments" of the Clinton administration.
As was the Gingrich Revolution.
To be fair, I mostly approved of Clinton's cautious foreign policy that satisfied itself with containing Saddam Hussein, while resorting to limited military interventions on supposedly humanitarian grounds. And it's hard to argue with the fiscal performance of a president who ended his tenure with a booming economy and a budget surplus.
But Clinton's more "centrist" policies ultimately pulled the party and the nation permanently to the right, while his accommodationist approach only provoked Republicans to up their attacks, leaving the Democratic Party weaker than he found it, structurally, ideologically, and rhetorically. Indeed, the very fact that we now look to a DLCer like Clinton to deliver a progressive stemwinder of a convention speech is a testament to the way he helped lower our collective political expectations.
So yeah, I have mixed feelings approaching tonight's Clinton speech. I expect it will be great. I presume it will provide President Obama the kind of electoral lift no Republican speaker could offer Mitt Romney in Tampa.
But I won't be cheering Clinton the way I did in 1992.