Former President Nixon conferring with President Bill Clinton in the White House in 1993.
The Clintons arrived at her headquarters Tuesday night with high hopes of victory, possibly even a resounding one that would shape the American political landscape for decades to come.
They left facing the bitter reality that Trump’s electoral upset had likely rendered the Clinton dynasty, if not Clintonism in general, extinct.
In many ways, the Clinton legacy bears remarkable parallels to that of Richard Nixon – and in this case, I’m focusing entirely on Bill’s presidential legacy. Both Nixon and Clinton were gifted intellectuals, though Clinton was able to indulge his intellectual gifts publicly in a way that Nixon wasn’t, largely due to his rather impeccable elite educational credentials and the fact that he had been largely adopted into the U.S. political Establishment. Nixon, largely because of his nonelite educational and provincial Republican pedigree, was denied acceptance – a factor that fed his deep-seated and self-destructive bitterness and paranoia, but that’s another story.
Along with keen intellects, both men also possessed razor sharp, incisive political minds able to perceive and quickly seize on fleeting political opportunities. Indeed it was out of a sense of deep political necessity that both undertook moderate transformations of their respective political parties.
Both strategies were alike in the sense that they focused on winning voters in what is now known as Red State America, and the South played a particularly significant role in both efforts. In fact, both men will be remembered as architects of Southern political strategies. Likewise, both Nixon and Clinton were political moderates who reluctantly tacked their parties to the right to capitalize on the South, though Nixon was at heart far more of a centrist than Clinton, a Baby Boomer who possessed the soul of a maverick New South liberal.
In time, historians may discern interesting parallel.
Both men were unusually perceptive and astute political gamesmen and improvizers. They knew how to exploit political opportunities when they arose, even in those instances when these ran against their political temperaments.
In Nixon’s case, Sen. Barry Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 presidential campaign nevertheless opened up a major opportunity for Republican prospects in the South. And this provided Nixon, a pragmatic centrist like his predecessor and political patron, Dwight Eisenhower, with a strong incentive to capitalize on this opening by moving his party to the right. The Red State populism of George C. Wallace as well as the need for Nixon’s need to protect his right flank from an internal insurgency provided additional impetus.
In the end, though, Nixon’s pragmatic centrist vision of the GOP, leavened a bit by hardcore-sounding conservative rhetoric to appease the post-Civil Rights Southern voters, was ultimately supplanted by Reagan’s modified Goldwater model.
Likewise, Clinton’s brilliant re-tooling of the Democratic Party in the early 90’s ultimately may be superseded by a considerably more left-leaning model inspired to one degree or another by the Bernie Sanders insurgency against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries.
That is why in the end, both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton may be as brilliant strategists whose visions for their respective parties supplied valuable but only temporary solutions for their parties’ political fortunes.
To put it another way, they may be remembered as two of American history’s most gifted political strategists, though not as the architects of enduring political traditions as Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were.