The passing of Mario Cuomo brought bipartisan tributes appropriate to a rare political figure with a developed inner life. He was Catholic educated, and it showed. How many other politicians grappled with Thomas Aquinas? Even the loser is dignified by such a duel.
But the intensity of affection for Cuomo, especially among Democrats of a certain age, comes from his ideological clarity. In the history of American rhetoric, there are orators of national unity such as Martin Luther King Jr. There are orators of national purpose such as John F. Kennedy. Cuomo was an orator of ideological definition. His 1984 keynote at the Democratic National Convention provided progressives with the best version of themselves, as tribunes of the forgotten and excluded.
Populists must have felt similarly stirred at the Democratic convention in 1896, when William Jennings Bryan declared war on “idle capital.” Conservatives still regard a 1964 Ronald Reagan speech, “A Time for Choosing,” in much the same category. Cuomo’s “Tale of Two Cities” belongs in the company of speeches that defined a creed.
But it is worth recalling that Cuomo’s version of the liberal faith did not prevail, at least immediately. The year he gave that speech, a progressive Democratic presidential candidate lost 49 states. It was Bill Clinton’s New Democratic overhaul of liberalism that ended his party’s long slump in presidential politics.
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Democrats still debate if this was really an overhaul or more of a facelift. Like most effective party reformers, Clinton made significant shifts in tone and policy, without completely alienating his party’s base. Rhetorically, Clinton emphasized growth and opportunity over equality. Substantively, he embraced community policing, strong defense, reinventing government and welfare reform — the latter a truly dramatic deviation from progressive orthodoxy.
President Barack Obama has now effectively undone everything that Clinton and the New Democrats did in the 1980s and ’90s. Issue by issue, today’s Democratic Party is about where it was in 1979.
Obama’s initial political appeal was personal rather than ideological; he would transcend ideological debates without actually engaging them in any creative or interesting way. He ran for office in 2008 on the aesthetics of politics rather than policy or political philosophy. But he has governed as an utterly conventional, backbench Senate progressive (which, in retrospect, he was). He won re-election by motivating a fundamentally liberal coalition of minorities, young people, women and the college educated. And he has fully embraced this strategy as a cause. His second inaugural address is among the strongest assertions of a progressive vision uttered by an American president in a century.
In 2012, Obama demonstrated that the New Democrat accommodation is no longer required to win a national election — at least for him. It helped, of course, to face the CEO of Bain Capital in the aftermath of a financial crisis. It also helped that the Republican economic message was stuck in 1979 as well. But unlike a generation ago, when Obama’s liberal record would have cost him dearly, he was able to win re-election easily. We are a different nation. Middle America has shifted on some social issues, and the white portion of the electorate has steadily decreased.
Obama’s political triumph has been mainly personal. Since 2009, Democrats are down 70 seats in the House and 14 seats in the Senate. Obama’s positioning of his party has involved ceding groups and regions — particularly white voters in deep and border South — that once were coveted objects of New Democratic appeal. But Obama has demonstrated that a progressive can win a national election without making this outreach. He has proved, it seems, that Clintonism is no longer necessary.
Just as another Clinton (Hillary Rodham) has become the Democratic front-runner.
The American public regards her as nearly as liberal as Obama, while some progressive activists fear she is not. Her campaign is likely to be shaped by a series of questions: Can anyone other than Obama assemble the Obama coalition? Will she need to focus on doing better among white working-class voters in order to offset a downturn in minority voters? Would a return to New Democrat themes be helpful in places such as Florida, Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina, where moderate voters might make a difference? Can Democrats afford to write off those border states completely?
During the leftist, sectarian controversies of the 20th century, the charge was leveled: “Lovestone is a Lovestonite!” Is Clinton a Clintonite? Or have the political achievements of her husband been washed away?