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Bill Clinton attends a Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) event in 2002. The DLC—co-founded by Clinton in 1985 to counter the Party's liberal wing—is no more, but its spirit lives on at the Progressive Policy Institute (Photo by Manny Ceneta/Getty Images)

A Slip of the Tongue?

Bill Clinton’s praise for Romney’s business career signals what’s to come in 2016.

BY Joel Bleifuss

When former President Bill Clinton said Mitt Romney, the co-founder of the private equity firm Bain Capital, “had a sterling business career,” folks were flummoxed.

What was his agenda? Why was he defending private equity bankers—the people Texas Gov. Rick Perry once called “vulture capitalists”?

“He’s laying the groundwork for Hillary Clinton running for president in 2016,” Ralph Nader told the right-wing news magazine The Daily Caller. “He wants to appear with Hillary as very friendly to business. He operates out of New York City. He doesn’t want to alienate Wall Street.”

Clinton learned long ago not to defecate where he eats.

In 1980, 34-year-old populist Gov. Bill Clinton battled Arkansas Power and Light Co. and other business interests. That year, he lost his bid for re-election to Frank White, an investment banker backed by Arkansas’ corporate establishment. Michael Kelly wrote in the July 31, 1994 New York Times Magazine that this experience taught Clinton that “to be successful, a politician had to appear hugely concerned with bettering the lives of ordinary citizens but had to be careful to avoid acting on those concerns so aggressively that they threatened the interests of the business elite.”

In 1985, Gov. Clinton (he was re-elected in 1982) institutionalized that lesson by co-founding the Democratic Leadership Council, a corporate-funded party-within-a-party established to counter the Democrats' liberal wing. In 1990 and 1991 the governor served as the group’s chairman. In 1996, now-President Clinton addressed a DLC gala and praised “the truly stunning array of business leaders who are here today,” who “fought for the life and future of the Democratic Party.”

The DLC is no more, but its spirit lives on at the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI). This former DLC-affiliated think tank bills itself as “The Place for Pragmatic Progressives.” It has also been called “Bill Clinton’s idea mill.” PPI defines itself this way: “Unlike some on the left, who look to European social democracy for inspiration, we favor a homegrown progressivism steeped in the classically liberal precepts of the American creed: individualism; social egalitarianism; equal opportunity, not results, within a system of competitive enterprise.”

At PPI’s helm is Will Marshall, another DLC co-founder. On the subject of François Hollande, the new French president, Marshall wrote, “As Reds go, Hollande is not especially menacing … Sen. Bernie Sanders, the gruff socialist from Vermont, is scarier.”

Scary? You bet. Following the Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, Sanders said that “the real solution to America’s health care crisis is a Medicare-for-all, single-payer system.”

And so, before the 2012 election is over, the 2016 election has begun.

The lines are drawn.

On one side are the “New Democrats” of the PPI, determined to retain their stranglehold on the Democratic establishment. On the other, true progressives, like our friend Ralph Nader, who was dead on when he said: “Former Gov. Romney is a human being running as a corporation for president. So we’ve really got a corporation running for the Republican Party, and if the Democrats can’t expose him for what he and his party are, then they basically have nothing left in terms of their party heritage.”

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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