At a weekend campaign stop in the state of Kentucky, Hillary Clinton made the implicit explicit. If elected president, the candidate told supporters, she would ensure that her husband would be put “in charge of revitalizing the economy.”
“Bill Clinton,” Hillary explained, has “got more ideas a minute than anybody I know.” If America is going to “put people back to work and make it happen,” she concluded, a return role for our 42nd president will be necessary.
To the better-attuned political observer it might have seemed a little strange to hear the would-be First Female President of the United States promising that to pick her is to give her husband control of the tiller. In strictly political terms, though, this is a comprehensible play. Bill Clinton remains popular among the voting public, and the era during which he was president is remembered as a time of American prosperity, harmony, and confidence.
In an ideal world, Hillary would not need to invoke the past in order to sell herself. And yet, if Quinnipiac is to be believed, her passport to that ideal world is lost somewhere in the mail. Per recent polling, voters in states such as Ohio and Florida simply do not believe that Mrs. Clinton would do a good job “handling the economy” — a deficiency that will become a serious liability for her if this election becomes a referendum on unemployment.
And so, in an attempt to square the circle, she has hit upon the obvious play: “Vote for me,” she vows, “and you’ll get the guy who was in the hotseat the last time that things really roared.”There are no lone saviors in the free political world; no Wizards of Oz without deceitful curtains of their own.Whether this ruse will work come election day remains to be seen.
Either way, that it is being tried in earnest is telling indeed. Forget partisanship and ideology for a brief moment and consider how peculiar it is that, 16 long years into the 21st century, we’re still looking to the past century in search of useful knights.
“Make America Great Again,” one candidate declares. “Remember when life was simple?” asks another. “We can party like it’s 1999,” chirps a sentimental third. For a typically forward-looking country, America hasn’t half been a hive of nostalgia of late.This tendency is now proudly ecumenical. For years, Republicans mocked Democrats for speaking of President Obama as if he were less a politician and more the chief harbinger of the coming of the Age of Aquarius.
Now, alas, millions upon millions of Republicans have placed a similar faith in their own budding redeemer. In time, their hopes will be dashed too.
Cloying messianism aside, our daily politics is dominated by remorse. On the left, Bernie Sanders seems genuinely to believe that the 1950s boomed because the tax rates were high and the union rules were strict, not because most of the world had been destroyed in the most appalling war in human history.
On the right, Republican aspirants insist endlessly that to pick up Ronald Reagan’s platform would be immediately to replicate Ronald Reagan’s successes, as if a quick disinterral followed by a trip to Dr. Frankenstein’s could recreate a country in which the GOP swept New York. Psychologically, these instincts can be sensible; of course Hillary Clinton wants to attach herself to her husband’s éclat.
Culturally, however, such impulses are disastrous. The troubles that the United States is facing at present are the product of tricky secular trends, of hard-solved public-policy deficiencies, and of wholesale global mutations that no indignation can arrest. They are not the result of our wanting for the correct talisman.
Which is to say that, as smart as he may be, Bill Clinton benefited greatly from a number of crucial exogenous factors — the conclusion of the Cold War, the explosion of the IT sector, the imposition of concrete political gridlock — and that they both cannot and will not be recreated in 2017. Should she so wish, Hillary Clinton can blame the malaise that many Americans are feeling on the recalcitrance and enormity of the Republican party, and she can insinuate that a vote for her is a vote for the return of conditions that are more favorable to American gain.
But she cannot make this so, and neither can anyone else who endeavors to use his ballot as a means by which to change the scenery. There are no lone saviors in the free political world; no Wizards of Oz without deceitful curtains of their own. All told, Bill Clinton was a fine president, but he is not in possession of magical or unique “ideas” that will “put people back to work,” and his mere presence as a White House phylactery will not be sufficient to turn the clock back to happier times.
Republics being what they are, change outside wartime can be slow, unpredictable, and subject to the capricious wrath of the gods. Every four years, we meet to inveigh against this reality and to offer in lieu our contrived campaign slogans, our Hail Mary promises, and our ever-present insistence that, if we could just find the sort of man of whom statues should be made, our Arcadian uplands would be there for the taking. For the Left and the Right, the same advice should obtain: Don’t inhale, it’s an election year.