Did Bill Clinton wipe out a generation of Democratic leaders?

The elderly bent of Democratic Party leaders (presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is 68, her chief rival Bernie Sanders is 74, Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid is 75, House leader Nancy Pelosi is also 75 and California Governor Jerry Brown is 77) has been something of a puzzle, given that the party does better with younger voters. Writing in The New York Times, Mark Schmitt has a theory for the “lost generation” of Democrats: Bill Clinton and his ilk scared it off with the very tactics of cautious incrementalism and “triangulation” credited with saving the party after three landslide losses in presidential elections.

Mr. Schmitt writes of the 1990s,

...even liberals learned to be wary of grand progressive ambitions, like President Bill Clinton’s health reform proposal, lest they invite backlash from an electorate we had been taught to identify as ‘Reagan Democrats’: culturally conservative, wary of change, but still expecting support from government. Our generation—the triangulation generation—devised anti-crime policies and welfare reform, got nervous at the mere mention of same-sex marriage, was taught that government should work through market mechanisms, rather than act as a countervailing force, and learned to govern through inoffensive gestures like tax credits.

This was a weak-tea agenda—President Clinton’s endorsement of student uniforms in public schools also comes to mind—that probably didn’t inspire many bright young passionate people to think of a career running for public office as a Democrat. Perhaps some of the progressive wunderkinds of the time went into journalism instead (leading to the media as the “the ultimate super PAC” for Democrats that Marco Rubio has complained about). Some liberal activists, like 51-year-old Brad Pitt or 44-year-old Sarah Silverman, may have decided that they would make more of a difference getting famous in show business and then sneaking political opinions into interviews. Others may have plunged into the high-tech and dot.com booms, earning money that now goes to Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders’s presidential campaigns.

Mr. Schmitt writes that while the Democratic Party was “not ideologically coherent” and “had little meaning” for those deciding their career paths in the 90s, young Republicans found a more inspiring environment: they “spent their youth in the sunshine of the Reagan era, sometimes like Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton character, surprising their boomer parents with their right-wing views. Their early adulthood was shaped by the galvanizing backlash politics of Newt Gingrich, a mode that the candidates and their congressional counterparts are now taking to absurd extremes.”

The result is that the Republicans are on the offensive in public policy and now have several presidential candidates who can promise a new generation of leadership, including 44-year-old senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. The “lost generation” of Democratic politicians may also be a factor in the Democratic Party’s abysmal showings in state and local elections over the past decade or so.

There’s no need to cry for the Democratic Party; there are enough talented people with large egos to fill its candidate slates. And as Mr. Schmitt points out, there seem to be plenty of millennials involved in Democratic politics, following the efforts of people like Howard Dean to make a sharper distinction with Republicans (though the polarization between the two parties, and the lack of opportunities for moderate candidates, may be alienating a different set of young people from politics). If his theory is correct, however, it shows that there’s a price to be paid when a party becomes scared of its own shadow.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

An employee wrapped in a blanket talks to a police officer after she was evacuated at a FedEx distribution center where a package exploded on March 20, 2018, in Schertz, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
In their joint statement, the Texas bishops echoed Chief Manley’s appeal to the community. “We ask all people in our dioceses to remain vigilant, and to pray and work for peace,” the bishops said.
Paul StinsonMarch 20, 2018
The challenge of finding families for homeless youth and for those in group shelters is creating the latest flashpoint over competing civil rights claims. (iStock/bodnarchuk)
Catholic Social Services refuses to place foster children in homes headed by same-sex couples; the city of Philadelphia says this policy violates a nondiscrimination law.
My approach to the mystery of A.L.S. is a bit different than that of the famed physicist.
Elise ItalianoMarch 20, 2018
A pro-life advocate holds a sign during a March 20 rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters). 
Justices seemed skeptical about a law that requires pro-life pregnancy centers to visibly display information about abortions.