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Flashback: When Bill Clinton Was A Populist

While I was hunting down video links for my item about vice presidential candidates and their great moments in campaign debates, I stumbled across the clip below, which is from the 1992 campaign.

It doesn't feature the veep candidates, though. It showcases Bill Clinton going up against George H.W. Bush in what would become an iconic moment of that campaign.

For those who don't remember, this was second of the three presidential debates that year. It was a town hall-style event, with audience members asking questions. At one point, a woman queried, "How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives?" It was a slightly odd question; most likely, she wanted to know how the candidates were personally affected by the economy as a whole. (Remember, the country was in the grip of recession.) Bush answered by by giving a fairly bland recitation of his policy proposals for the economy. That gave Clinton his opening: 

The answer won Clinton rave reviews, partly--ok, mostly--because Clinton showed so much ability to connect with average Americans. (It helped, too, that Bush was so utterly lacking in the same ability.) But the answer was also a hit because it made a persuasive case on substance--one that would actually work pretty well today, right down to Clinton's suggestion that simply reducing national debt isn't a strategy for recovery. It takes investment, he says, and controlling health care costs.

We tend to remember the Clinton presidency for its largely centrist pattern of governance--the focus on balanced budgets, enthusiastic promotion of free trade, and so on. But that was a reaction (and, I'd argue, a mostly necessary reaction) to the political circumstances Clinton faced once in office. Back in 1992, even as he was promoting himself as a New Democrat who was tough on crime and demanded work from welfare recipients, he was still a pretty unabashed populist. He championed the need for public investment to create jobs and universal health care, giving them more priority than adopting a crash course towards balanced budgets.

The pitch worked then and, I imagine, it would work now--only this time, with any luck, a new Democratic president could actually pursue those policies after getting elected.

--Jonathan Cohn