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Identity Problems

How Obama can avoid the failures of Clinton’s early presidency.

Ever since Election Night, the specter of 1994 has loomed over the Democratic Party. Would the Democrats “overreach”? Would this bright new dawn of liberalism come crashing down as rapidly as the last one had?

The 1993-1994 period took place long enough ago that the feeling it engendered has been forgotten, and the causes of the Democrats’ failure have mostly receded into myth. But the whole experience returned to me with a jolt when I read a Politico story reporting “intense backlash from women’s groups may have pushed former Clinton Treasury Secretary Larry Summers off the short-list to lead Treasury.” Ah, now I remember--that’s what it feels like to watch the Democratic Party self-destruct.

The lesson Democrats have taken from that sour time is that they erred in their “hubris”: moving too far, too fast, especially in their zeal to reform health care. House Majority Whip James Clyburn told The Wall Street Journal that, in the paper’s words, he “advises a pragmatic approach to governance that would begin with items that have proven bipartisan support before tackling ambitious elements such as universal health care.” As Clyburn put it himself, “We moved fast in the 103rd [Congress], and what did it get us?”

Of all Clinton’s missteps, moving too fast on health care was clearly not among them. Clinton actually moved very slowly on health care, failing to take it up until his second year, when his post-inaugural glow had disappeared. The way that the administration--and, even more so, Congress--approached health care was deeply flawed, but the fact that they tried to take it on was not the problem. Health care was and is the gaping hole in the welfare state, a vast sinkhole of national wealth that inconveniences or ruins millions of lives. (Read Jonathan Cohn’s terrific, heart-wrenching book.) Given the importance of the issue and its centrality in Clinton’s platform, they had no choice but to attempt reform.

So what did kill the Democrats? Aside from structural forces--the slow recovery from the 1991 recession, the realignment of the South combined with large-scale Democratic retirements in the South--the primary mistake was to allow social issues to dominate the agenda. The most vividly remembered mistake was Clinton’s walking into a trap on gays in the military. But the pattern stretched through the entire first two years.

Clinton promised to appoint a cabinet that “looked like America.” In practice this manifested itself as an embrace of quotas and set-asides, with interest groups loudly complaining that they had not received their due. The quest to find an Attorney General was a particular embarrassment when it emerged that the position had been reserved for a woman. The appointment of Lani Guinier--who had written in praise of racial proportional representation--was another humiliation, and the squawking of her allies that followed her withdrawal another still.

By the summer of 1994, Clinton had turned to a crime bill, which would reestablish his standing as a cultural moderate. But the bill devolved into a fight over gun control--an issue whose lethality the Democrats had not yet recognized--and “midnight basketball,” which Republicans deftly turned into a racial wedge issue. By Election Day 1994, every conservative social hot button issue had been pressed. Clinton had won the presidency by relating to the economic frustration of the white working- and middle-class. But the first two years of his presidency looked to those voters as the fulfillment of the post-materialist concerns of the 1960s generation.

Which brings us back to Obama, another Democratic president who won office by focusing on the economy and sidestepping the minefields of identity politics. His rumored leading candidate for Treasury, Summers, is opposed by numerous feminist groups and aggrieved former Hillary Clinton supporters. Most of them are too embarrassed to say outright that Summers’ stray musing (which he quickly and abjectly retracted) that differences between male and female brains may play some role in the dearth of women at the very high end of the science field ought to by itself disqualify him from a job making economic policy. One member, Nancy Hopkins, told Politico, “We just want the best Treasury secretary at this moment in time,” but, alas, Summers “couldn’t run Harvard.” How meritocratic!

Of course, even if you buy the notion that Summers couldn’t run Harvard--and I think he was a successful innovator in areas like financial aid for middle-class students and forcing faculty members to concentrate on teaching--there’s something in his background that’s a bit more relevant to his ability to serve as Treasury Secretary than his Harvard tenure: He already was a well-regarded Treasury Secretary.

Another stated concern, according to Politico, is “a sense among some Clinton supporters that picking Summers would reopen wounds from the contentious presidential primaries.” Well, sure, if you’re the one who’s reopening the wounds. Likewise, there’s a sense among some racketeers that a failure to pay protection money could lead to a shop undergoing property damage.

What’s especially egregious about the case against Summers is that there’s probably no more vital appointment Obama can make. Summers is not the only good choice, but he is the most clearly qualified. He commands respect from across the political spectrum--even right-wing loon Lawrence Kudlow had praise for him. Even better, Summers is in accord with liberals on inequality, regulation, and Keynesian fiscal stimulus. If Obama is going to enact the transformative change liberals want, he has no better asset than a former Treasury Secretary who presided over a boom and commands bipartisan respect to sell that change for him.

I’d say that for the vast majority of women and minorities in this country, repairing the economy and the health care system is about a million times more important than the race or gender of the top layer of the Executive Branch. Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee memorably mocked the notion that feminists would support Sarah Palin because, though she’s Hillary Clinton’s ideological opposite, “she’s her gynecological twin.” Very, very few of Clinton’s supporters were actually tunnel-visioned enough to think this way. But can you blame the McCain campaign for thinking they might be?

To the identity politics left, diversity at the top is not just a bonus but the central point of politics. On Wednesday, U.S. News blogger Bonnie Erbe complained that Obama’s appointments are not sufficiently diverse: “His first cabinet selection, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, is, of course, a white man. I'm not liking what I'm seeing,” she wrote. “Obama owes it to women and women of color, whose votes he secured in historic proportions, to put them in cabinet posts they've not yet held, such as Treasury and Defense.” If Obama’s bid to remake American government dies, that will be the voice of the murderer.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.