The last breath of Clintonism


If you watched this month’s extraordinary set of party conventions carefully, you may have had a rare glimpse of an unusual American phenomenon: the actual adjustment of the plate tectonics of politics.

The remarkable thing about this shift is that this movement was set in motion not by Barack Obama, who made history by becoming the first black president, nor by Hillary Clinton, who hopes to become the first female president.

Instead the overheated forces that are remaking the surface of American politics are a 73-year-old activist with the accent of a Catskills vaudevillian and roots in democratic socialism and a 70-year old tycoon until recently best known for flamboyant real-estate deals and gaudy casinos.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Manhattan businessman Donald Trump have changed the entire architecture of American politics — at least for this year, perhaps for the remainder of the decade, maybe even for a generation.

Not since Franklin Roosevelt reshaped the face of the Democratic Party in 1932 and Ronald Reagan changed the character of the Republican Party in 1980 has so dramatic a shift occurred. The 32nd president and the 40th set these transformations in motion over the course of a half century. Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump repeated the trick in less than two weeks’ time.

All this was on display this week, especially the eclipse of the Bill Clinton viewpoint that was so intoxicating in the 1990s and so irrelevant in the second decade of the 21st century.

The nomination of his wife was almost certainly the last breath of Clintonism, and even her version of the creed stands in repudiation of his, on trade, crime, and immigration. Mr. Clinton showed Tuesday night he still has the capacity to make the rafters ring but it was impossible to repress the notion that he was appearing as yesterday’s champ.

It was Mr. Sanders who rendered the old Clintonism irrelevant. He made student loans, global warming and opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership the centerpieces of Democratic politics, and then he watched in wonder, and his youthful warriors watched in horror, as Ms. Clinton, reluctantly and awkwardly, adopted his positions.

Today’s Democratic Party bears almost no resemblance to the one Mr. Clinton transformed in 1992, and indeed in today’s light, which shines disapprovingly on Wall Street and the bond market that Mr. Clinton embraced and the trade deals that Mr. Clinton won, both Mr. Clinton and the profile of his 1990s party have the musty look of antiques — beloved old artifacts, to be sure, but moldy reminders of faded glories and long-ago triumphs.

The transformation that Mr. Trump set in motion in the venerable old Republican Party is even more dramatic. Only a quarter-century ago the GOP was the stage for a struggle between party regulars and the religious conservatives whose quiet dedication and spiritual fervor threatened to take over the party. Only few a years ago it was the stage for a different struggle, between those same elitists, now regarded as political mastodons, and a new breed of conservatism advancing into uncharted waters on the right.

Now all that is gone. There was hardly a groan from religious conservatives in Cleveland and the old elitists were elsewhere, at the shore or at the club, nursing a bitter cocktail of despair and remorse, humming romantic torch songs of days long gone.

The ideological discipline in our politics, which created a conservative party that called itself Republicans, and a liberal party that called itself Democrats, is endangered. The Democrats still lean left — only more so. But there is a new breath and breadth in the GOP, now a modern analogue of the old Democrats, who were a balky but robust coalition of Southern conservatives and Northern liberals.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders have much in common. They both moved millions — and the tectonic plates of politics.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.