The Republican View: Presidents Clinton and Obama, same island, different beaches

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By Mike Sigler

 

The first and only time I met President Bill Clinton was on a press line while interning for CNBC. He was just starting his run for the Democratic nomination. He later spoke at my Northeastern University Commencement in Boston Garden, less than six months after he took office.

The dot-com boom would propel the 90s to some of the best economic gains ever. President Clinton knew enough not to get in the way of the largest economic expansion since the industrial revolution with over-regulation and new taxes on the fledgling Internet.

I’m camping on Martha’s Vineyard as I write this and at the same time, President Clinton is preparing his remarks for a talk on the island tonight. I’m told Barack Obama is here too. Two men, Clinton and Obama, so opposite personally, but also policy-wise.

Clinton came to the middle on policy, finding common ground with Republicans on a host of primarily spending and taxing issues. He was a champion of the middle class. After eight years of President Obama and a loss of the White House, fighting for the middle-class blue-collar worker is a hard mantel for Democrats to claim.

Locally we have an Assemblywoman and many elected Democrats in Ithaca and beyond pushing to close the Cargill salt mine. Two hundred workers whose jobs, while important to them, their communities, the state, and for keeping our roads safe, just aren’t that important to these New Democrats.

These same Democrats also want to see the Lansing power-plant shuttered. Never mind they heat their homes with gas and get their electric from gas-fired turbines in Pennsylvania like the one that rolled through Ithaca last year. These are high paying jobs. Build a pipeline? No, they say. Forget that the pipelines are laid by union pipefitters. Now amplify these local sentiments and put them in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania. It’s really no surprise someone whose personal behavior may be on par with President Clinton, found those voters who sided with President Clinton, but not Hillary Clinton. She didn’t share her husband’s policies or President Obama’s personal traits.

I look back at our presidents who are consistently ranked the best presidents. John F. Kennedy had enormous personal failings, and yet, the Cuban missile crisis was deescalated and 10 years after he pledged the US to go to the moon, we did.

Lyndon B. Johnson was a womanizer too and yet, even though much of what he did remains questionable at making for a “great society” it passed Congress and was lasting. I can’t say he wasn’t effective and he was able to get civil rights legislation passed with a greater percentage of Republicans voting for it than Democrats.

Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was able to secure passage of Social Security and put us on a path to winning World War II, had at least one affair.

I look to Ronald Reagan for a personal story and policy story that is complete. President George H.W Bush was of a similar mold. His son was never afforded the respect on the personal as his policy decisions, at least by the press and Democratic Party, could never be endorsed despite his biggest decision, to enter the Iraq war, being supported by a majority of Democrats including Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.

The break from the past for the Democratic Party is a stark one. Who would have thought Bernie Sanders, someone not even in the party, could be a real challenge to the party leaders’ favorite.

Looking back at the eight years before President Trump, I kept hoping President Obama would move to the center like Clinton. I hoped Hillary Clinton would too in her run for President. Neither could. The era of centrist Clinton policy and Obama’s personal likability in the Democratic Party seems gone, replaced now by the policies of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, future democratic socialist congresswoman from Queens, and personalities like Keith Ellison, congressman and possibly future attorney general for Minnesota.

Some will argue “where do Republicans come to the middle.” There’s been no time in the last 40 years that prison reform has been so high on the national agenda. The increase in job opportunities is helping every demographic and young people are now finding opportunities that have been scarce for them for the past 20 years. The tax bill could be seen as partisan and yet revenues are at record highs while most Americans are seeing a tax break and a simplified way to file. Maybe we need to redefine what the middle is.

For me, a start is keeping the worker first. That’s not done by promising retraining as you work to close their industries, raise their energy prices by cutting natural gas supplies, or “fighting for 15” as if that first job is a career instead of a stepping stone to something greater. The middle expects more than ever before and the only way to meet those expectations is through economic growth and policies friendly to that growth.

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