© 2024 KGOU
Photo of Lake Murray State Park showing Tucker Tower and the marina in the background
News and Music for Oklahoma
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Bill Clinton, Party-Builder In Chief

Former President Clinton was the one modern Democratic president who focused on building up his party, an effort he continues today.
Luke Sharrett
Getty Images
Former President Clinton was the one modern Democratic president who focused on building up his party, an effort he continues today.

President Obama may be the standard bearer of the Democratic Party, but his unpopularity in some parts of the country means there are certain places on the campaign trail where it's best for him to stay away.

Enter former President Clinton, who can go where Obama fears to tread.

The ex-president recently made his first campaign foray of the 2014 election cycle in an unlikely state — Kentucky, where Obama won just 38 percent in 2012 (but where Clinton won twice in the 1990s). Clinton appeared there last week on behalf of Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is running to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Few will be surprised to see him appear in other Republican-friendly states where Senate Democrats face tough re-election campaigns — places like his native Arkansas, North Carolina and Louisiana.

It's hard to know how much of Clinton's campaigning is aimed at improving wife Hillary Clinton's 2016 chances if she runs for president and how much it is the former president simply reveling in the art of politicking, with him at the center of attention.

But one useful lens through which to view Clinton's travels is as an extension of his longstanding party-building efforts.

Daniel Galvin, a Northwestern University political scientist who has studied presidents as party-builders, argues that modern Republican presidents have done much better at building up their party's organizational and competitive capacity than their Democratic counterparts. Clinton, however, was an exception.

In his book, Galvin compared the party-building efforts of recent presidents in six areas — among them, the financing of party operations, the recruitment of candidates and the development of human capital. Republican presidents rated far better than Democrats, who tended to be consumers — sometimes ravenously so — of party resources rather than creators.

Democratic presidents, for decades, could rely on organized labor and big-city machines and their control of Congress, Galvin says. Lacking those advantages, Republican presidents focused on building up their national and state party structures.

The one Democratic exception was Clinton during his second term. (During his first term and 1996 re-election, Clinton followed the traditional Democratic pattern of being a net consumer of party resources.)

But in the last two years of his presidency, that changed. Galvin speculates that the realization that Democrats weren't going to soon regain the House, and the Lewinsky scandal, both played a role in the repositioning.

Clinton went on a torrid money raising pace for the party. And he pushed the Democratic National Committee to create a national voter database that Democratic candidates could use in races from the federal level down to the local level.

The Clintons' recent commitment to help the DNC raise money to pay down its nearly $16 million debt — and to help expand the electorate and increase voter protections — are in keeping with that interest in long-term party-building.

The former president's current efforts are "consistent with the recognition that we saw in the Clinton White House during his second term that party organization building is one of the ways that presidents can really help their party and its competitive fortunes in the future," Galvin said. "It's important for all candidates up and down the ballot, to have a common stock of resources."

Like Clinton in his first term, Obama has also followed the Democratic pattern of being a taker, rather than a maker of party resources. That has caused years of grumbling among Democratic Party officials, dating back to 2008 even before he became president.

There are signs that could be changing in Obama's second term.

Obama's campaign organization recently moved to share the data it collected about voters and volunteers with the DNC, so that the party can help candidates across the ballot in 2014.

But it's still too early to know if Obama will ultimately match Clinton's efforts in building up the party.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
More News
Support nonprofit, public service journalism you trust. Give now.