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Bill Clinton's Advice: Make Friends, Not Enemies

President Clinton, with a reminder of campaigns past, on the trail for his wife in New Hampshire. (Reuters).

As the presidential campaign heats up, Bill Clinton has some governing advice for the eventual winner. Based on his eight years in the White House, Clinton believes there is actually a way to reduce the partisan tensions that have plagued both his own and George W. Bush's presidencies.

Bush is the most polarizing president in modern history. He inherited a 50-50 nation when he came to Washington in 2001 and rather than becoming the uniter he promised, made matters worse. He pursued a governing strategy that sought to enact a conservative agenda on the basis of razor-thin, partisan majorities in the Congress and an electoral strategy that accentuated his conservative base at the expense of the middle.

But rampant partisanship predated Bush's arrival in Washington. It was building long before the 2000 election, as Clinton and a Republican Congress led by Newt Gingrich staged ever-more-bitter battles, culminating in Clinton's impeachment in 1998. In ways both personal and political, the Clinton presidency set the stage for what was to follow.

This history and much more is analyzed shrewdly in "The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America," the new book written by Ronald Brownstein, formerly a reporter and columnist for the Los Angeles Times and now political director for the Atlantic Media Company.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Brownstein is a friend and colleague. A decade ago, we co-authored a book about the 1994 Republican landslide and the new shape of the GOP under Newt Gingrich. I write this, however, not out of friendship but of admiration for the new work, which is a skillful blend of history and contemporary political analysis.

Brownstein is more an admirer of Clinton's presidency than of Bush's, and as part of his reporting, he interviewed the former president at some length. Out of that came a series of provocative insights that could be helpful to whoever becomes the 44th president of the United States.

It's also clear, from things Hillary Clinton has said about the problem of polarization, that she and her husband have talked about what the next president -- particularly one named Clinton -- could face in terms of partisan resistance, and how to reduce it.

The former president believes he would have been better served by spending more time in conversation with political leaders from the opposition party. Clinton was much more inclined to seek advice -- and listen to the ideas -- of Republicans than Bush has been of Democrats.

But he told Brownstein, "If I had to do it over again, I would block out significantly greater time... to just bring these guys in and let them say whatever the hell they want to say to me... I found that people that I ordinarily, superficially, would not have that much in common with would be quite helpful."

Clinton's other proposals are more prosaic than provocative, and yet as a guide for the next president, they are worth studying. For starters, he recommends saying attuned to the opposition's ideas and critiques of White House policy. In Clinton's view, there is no particular reason to stay abreast of the continual partisan chatter or attacks. Screening those out is natural and useful. But in his estimation, when someone from the opposition -- politician, strategist or thinker -- offers an insightful criticism of what an administration is doing, the president would benefit by studying it.

Another is to build trust before launching big reforms. Clinton now regrets that after the brutal budgetary wars of his first months in office, he immediate thrust his health care reform plan on the Congress (which then was still in Democratic hands). He wishes now he had taken up welfare reform, where he and the Republicans eventually found common ground.

Confidence-building gestures are another way of reducing partisan warfare. Clinton believes that bipartisan cooperation can be habit-forming and he urged some of his advisers to look for areas on which the White House and conservatives could agree. Hillary Clinton has followed this strategy as a senator, working across party lines with any number of conservative Republicans on smaller, targeted proposals, whether on foster care with former House majority leader Tom DeLay of Texas or reducing sex and violence on television with former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Bush has governed with what critics have called a "50-plus-one" strategy. Clinton argues that, as a practical matter, it may be difficult for any president to get more than 55 percent support for anything. But he says presidents ought to attempt to speak to a significantly larger percentage of the county with an agenda that appeals beyond his party's base to independents and even moderates in the other party. "You want your issues, your package -- something in there -- to have appeal to two thirds of the people...," he told Brownstein.

His last recommendation is most intriguing because it both takes for granted that combat is part of politics and may be necessary to produce eventual accommodation across the partisan divisions. Responding forcefully to opponents is necessary to set the stage for eventual compromise. In his view, if an opponent hits you hard, the public will not penalize you for hitting back.

But he believes presidents should avoid allowing those moments to define the parameters of relationships between a president and the opposition. He said there is value in letting opponents know "their government doesn't consider them pariahs because they disagree."

All this helped provide some context for something Hillary Clinton told the Post last month during an interview on the campaign trail. She said that, while she and others agree there is a need to reduce partisanship, simply hoping it will go away would not make it happen.

"You can't just wake up and say let's all just hold hands and be together," she said. "You've got to demonstrate that you're not going to be cowed or intimidated or deterred by it, and then you can reach out and bring people who are of good faith together."

This balance between standing firm and reaching out will be the true test of the next president's ability to reduce partisan tensions in Washington. Bill Clinton has practical suggestions for getting beyond the current politics, and no doubt Bush has some of his own.

Perhaps Bush's departure will ease tensions between the two parties, and perhaps the next president will strike the right notes to help accelerate that reduction. But as Hillary Clinton said, it will take more than wishing it away because the forces that created the America's polarized politics remain powerful -- as the presidential campaign now underway shows every day.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  November 14, 2007; 2:04 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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aepelbaum- big difference: nixon didn't start that war

Posted by: sge4 | November 26, 2007 3:00 PM | Report abuse

I agree that no amount of "sitting down and talking" would have prevented the Richard-Mellon-Scaife-supported investigations that almost brought him down.

Posted by: theoshul | November 15, 2007 12:20 AM | Report abuse

Clinton was like Muhammed Ali--he danced just out of your reach and you wore yourself out trying to land a punch on him, and then when you were exhausted and confused he'd bop you.

Posted by: theoshul | November 15, 2007 12:17 AM | Report abuse

As Greenspan said, Clinton was a great Republican President. Just look at the record. Anyone who thinks that he was a great liberal leader is mistaken. I don't think that his problem was that he didn't listen enough to the right, but that he listened too much. Both he and his wife are corporate Democrats.
I often feel that the reason he was so viciously attacked wasn't for his policies, they were centrist enough for them, but for the Court appointments he would make.
If the Democrats do not screw this next election up, I would hope that, should a Supreme Court vacancy open up, that they would appoint a Justice who is as young as the Republican appointees. The Republican appointees Roberts and Alito have a lock on their spots for 30-40 years (or more) because of an appointment by a failed President and the cowardice of Senate Democrats who didn't filibuster their nominations.

Posted by: capemh | November 15, 2007 12:10 AM | Report abuse

Last I checked, Clinton was the target of an extremely well-funded campaign to destroy his Presidency, and him personally. His wife, Hillary, named it "the Vast Right Wing Conspiracyl," on national TV, and I assume she wasn't lying.

And it isn't clear to me why sitting down with these people would have had any effect whatever.

So it looks to me like Bill Clinton's rewriting history that's only ten years old, to conform to a Beltway Village prejudice -- Hi, Dave! Taken the package yet? -- about bipartisanship, all in aid of his wife's election.

Much as I like Clinton, and I do, that's pretty shameful.

Posted by: lambert_strether1 | November 14, 2007 11:25 PM | Report abuse

I'm amazed at these Republican zealots who criticize the plurality of votes that Bill Clinton won. George W. lost the votes of the American people! He might have been a halfway decent president if he had followed some of Bill Clinton's good advice.

Posted by: ramster1 | November 14, 2007 11:23 PM | Report abuse

Bush is not an awful President...he inherited the Bin Laden problem in only the first seven months of his Presidency!! Anything and everything that has happened since his election has been bad-mouthed by the left. He and all members of Congress had the same info he had about the WMD's, Clinton was the one who "allowed" Bin Laden to escape on his watch after the first attack on the Twin Towers, Democrats along with the liberal media have caused the so call destruction of relations with allies by their constant put downs... ad nauseuu. Don't hate the Clintons....distrust them?...YES!! and I am from Arkansas.

Posted by: POOKIESMOMMY | November 14, 2007 11:03 PM | Report abuse

Bill Clinton, your election to the White House was a fluke. You were never presidential material....but you were a great pretender. Yours skills are as a manipulator of facts and women. Big deal....just shut up and go away.

Posted by: POOKIESMOMMY | November 14, 2007 10:43 PM | Report abuse

It never ceases to amaze me how blind some of you are in hating the Clintons. Now, it's obvious to all that Bush is an awful president: he lied us into war, destroyed relations with allies, allowed Osama Bin Laden to escape, etc. But all you can focus on is how much you hate the Clintons. It's strange really. It's like you have emotional dyslexia or something.

Posted by: sskyvickers | November 14, 2007 10:20 PM | Report abuse

Somewhere our founding fathers weep.

And it is our fault.

Americans, are by our very nature, neither liberal nor conservative.

We are pragmatic.

Give us a problem and we'll find a common sense solution.

Lamentably however, we have allowed the purists in our midst to steal our country and preclude any pragmatic solutions.

Compromise, which was once considered an "art form" is now considered a character flaw meant to be exploited.

Our country is suffocating under the weight of "those who know it all" but in reality "know nothing"

Pragmatism is dead.

I have grown oh so weary and oh so tired of the zealots that I wish they would just " go away"

Spew your nastiness elsewhere.

And let the rest of us find common sense solutions to the challenges we must confront.

Posted by: bobnsri | November 14, 2007 9:55 PM | Report abuse

Dear have a lack of history. It wasn't just WaterGate that brought down Nixon it was the Vietnam war and the people who were heard by the media that just doesn't exist today.

There have been more protests in the streets then you hear about on the news today dealing with today's war (iraq), almost as many as was during the Vietnam War.

Our media is the great divider and nothing that Clinton suggests will come to fruition unless we get back an un-FOX media back.

Posted by: jrubin1 | November 14, 2007 8:41 PM | Report abuse

There is the problem of mathematical logic.
Mrs. Clinton behavior within many years in the public sight has clearly indicated that she belongs to prison, or at the best scenario, to the mental asylum. However, she is moving towards White House, and seems to be able to reach out to it. The question is: Does it mean that White House is now full-scale replica of the mental asylum? According to all rules of mathematical logic, the answer should be,"Yes!" So, "Viva, science!" Or,"Viva mental institution in the place where should be the residence of the leader of the free world!" I can use all pertinent technique of corresponding predicates, etc., but the logic is fully clear even without these accessories.

Posted by: aepelbaum | November 14, 2007 8:32 PM | Report abuse

Relations between clintons, especially Mrs. Clinton, and media look like a chain of ridiculous anecdates, ne after another. About a month ago, the Washington Post placed here on their web site the presice records of Barack Obama initiatives, achievements, votes, proposed bills, etc. within his time in the Illinois senate. the record was very, very impressive. now Mrs. clinton refuses to disclose her records , as the first lady, or while the first lady, though it is just "her special experience" she is permanently refering to. NOW YAHOO NEWS reports that Obama DOES NOT HAVE ANY RECORDS from his period . as Illinois senator. But, mrs. clinton, who refused to reveal her records from 1993 to 2001, nevertheless, is emphasizing that she has a lot of such records, and Obama has, according to that article, none. I would trcommrnd to the authors of these exquisitely crappy articles to search archives pf the Washingtom Post. As a matter of fact, I -personally printed this very long record, have this hard copy, and can present upon any request. It is very much the style of Mrs. Clinton: to turn table, even when it is more than ridiculous, and to destroy any records, even state government's records, utilizing all means of corruption, and services of all kinds of criminals. God save us from such disaster as this high handed gangsterine, as the president!

Posted by: aepelbaum | November 14, 2007 8:19 PM | Report abuse

Maybe you should engage your brain before putting your mouth in gear. Did Clinton ever word with Republicans? You assert that he didn't....perhaps you have forgotten about NAFTA, welfare reform and a balanced budget? All were supported by Republicans and the GOP gave Clinton a win on all of them. Bill Clinton was lauded by former Fed chairman Greenspan as a great Republican president. Clinton was a sleezeball to be sure, but his economic policies were certainly more responsible than his disastrous successor.

Posted by: dmoore1 | November 14, 2007 8:15 PM | Report abuse

I think Bill Clinton should quit being all over his wife's campaign. He should certainly offer all the advice he wants to his wife in private, but his constant surrogate-ness doesn't make her look better. He just thoroughly confuses things, so that we don't know just who we would be voting for. I think he is the only active ex-president campaigning for a candidate, and in doing so I believe he has overstepped good taste.

Posted by: guyol | November 14, 2007 7:37 PM | Report abuse

"Another is to build trust before launching big reforms. Clinton now regrets that after the brutal budgetary wars of his first months in office, he immediate thrust his health care reform plan on the Congress (which then was still in Democratic hands). He wishes now he had taken up welfare reform, where he and the Republicans eventually found common ground." He should have listened to Pat Moynihan and others who advocated this exact approach.

Posted by: Pippin923 | November 14, 2007 7:31 PM | Report abuse

I see that Clinton-bashing never goes out of style among the 30th percentile.

I confess amazment that Bush apologists would have the gall to use a failing president with a long history of personal failures and a 30% approval rating to criticize Pres Clinton for getting elected with 43% of the vote (I'm talking to you, jabailo, since the elder Pres Bush got only 37% of that vote). The only thing the younger Bush is apparently good at is "winning" elections. He has no idea how to lead once elected, thus his horrible approval ratings.

There's a reason people started focusing on the next election nearly 2 years out. And if the current Pres Bush wasn't such an embarrasing hyper-partisan failure, we wouldn't be facing down the prospect of a Pres Hillary Clinton in 2008. I know there are better qualified people to lead this country, but thanks to Bush, Bill Clinton now looks like a god. And his wife will benefit.

So you can thank Bush, Jr when the NEXT Pres Clinton gets sworn in. And I say this as an independent.

Posted by: Alan4 | November 14, 2007 7:13 PM | Report abuse

43 percent is a plurality, but a plurality is not a majority. Clinton also failed to win a majority of the popular vote in 1996. Nader took 2 percent and Clinton finished with 49 percent in one of the lowest turnouts on record.

Clinton added tens of millions of new jobs and eliminated the budget deficit, but Democrats lost the House of Representatives and many Governorships during the 90s.

Still, without a Nixon or a Perot, Democrats will be unable to overcome the Republican West-South lock in the electoral college. Lyndon Johnson believed he was signing away the south to the Republicans for a generation. That was two generations ago. Reforming voting rights without reforming the electoral college has proven to be a mistake. Even LBJ couldn't do both though.

Posted by: blasmaic | November 14, 2007 6:33 PM | Report abuse

mitchavery7, I couldn't agree more with you. Why choose someone who has to learn how to not polarize (the Clintons) when you can choose someone for whom nonpolarization is second or first nature (Obama)?

There's an excellent Atlantic Monthly article that makes the point quite well. It's worth the read.

Posted by: kargovroom | November 14, 2007 6:23 PM | Report abuse

Bill Clinton was elected by the lowest percentage of the popular vote in history. He had only 43% in 1992! Talk about "razor thin" majorities -- he was elected with a minority!

And as far as working with the other side, I don't see any gridlock at all. The only Bush plan that failed in all of 8 years was the Immigration Reform bill -- a very liberal open one that was crafted with Ted Kennedy for crying out loud! I mean, did Bill Clinton ever once work with Newt Gingrich? And here's W working with Teddy?

Seriously, Bill Clinton should go and build houses with egg cartons like Jimmy Carter. Take Hillary with him too...they plagued us for 8 long years, they can't seriously think we would every invite them back again!

Posted by: jabailo | November 14, 2007 6:13 PM | Report abuse

It is well worth listenting to the ideas of Mr. Clinton even if you believe he has the personal morals of an alleycat. Politics has never been an easy place to ply your craft. Todays media frenzy certainly makes it more difficult. The President's every thought, let alone tryste, is a target for opposing political forces. Someone needs to find a way to represent a more centrist position on major issues of the day and the outsides of the political spectrum must come to understand that their polarizing stances are not going to appeal to enough people or Congressmen to be enacted into law. Compromise is not a dirty idea, it's the way of governing in a Democracy.

Posted by: HaroldFCrockettJr | November 14, 2007 6:08 PM | Report abuse

It's just so ridiculous that people are treating Bush just like any other partisan president. He's a megalomaniac liar who's now responsible for starting the most disgraceful war in American history, killing thousands of Americans and untold Arabs in the process. You really can get away with murder in the country. In my opinion, no one should pay attention to anything else Bush does besides this Iraqi war in print. That way, people remember his sadistic role in it rather than, as already now, forgetting how great the consequences and lies really were.

Richard Nixon was considered a scandalous president as well. But all he did was act like a political maniac with Watergate. No lives were lost over this. This Iraqi war is no comparison. Thousands of people, good American men and women, are dying over this. This isn't about partisanship here. It's about plain murder. That Bush will be remembered for other things, perhaps even good, after his administration is a crime. Still, 4 years later, there is no proof that the evidence upon which the war was initiated ever existed.

Democrats focus on comparatively useless things like wiretapping. Wiretapping means nothing to me in the face of the injustices committed in this Iraqi war. Just because Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Powell, and co. are gone should not detract attention from the root evil of the war.

Am I along here?

Posted by: sge4 | November 14, 2007 5:52 PM | Report abuse

Why are you feeling nostalgic, jgantho?
Neither Mr. Clinton, nor Mrs. Clinton, especially the latter one, doesn't possess a lot of intellgence. There reign, if is continued by Mrs. Clinton's election, would not bring any positive changes to the status quo. Their game of disagreement with neo conservatives is only the performance to public attention, and has nothing to do with their real intentions. Changes could and would (I think) bring other possible nominees, not Mrs. Clinton. Therefore, she is the worst choice for this nomination. Anyhow, the intelligence of the future presidency of Mrs. Clinton does not look like the possible reality, if she ( I still hope -not) is elected.

Posted by: aepelbaum | November 14, 2007 5:50 PM | Report abuse

A "mediocre" president is generous at best.

Good or bad, Bush has been the best thing for Democrats in some time. More people are voting against Republicans than for Democrats due to Bush' narrow minded policies.

Posted by: Juked | November 14, 2007 5:41 PM | Report abuse

A successful president has to reach out to as much of the country as he or she can. I remember reading a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt where she tried to calm her liberal friends who were chafing at FDR's conservatism. He has to govern the country, she reminded them, not just respond to a position. Even when W. was way up in the polls, I was reminded of that and thought that he was headed for a fall.
FDR had his crazies, too. Still, I wonder if it's possible to come to any accomodation with the Republican right. And I do wonder if the Clintons are willing to be too accomodating, especially to the corporate interests. At any rate, Bill C., as usual, brings an inteligence to bear on any subject. It does make one nostalgic.

Posted by: jganth0 | November 14, 2007 5:37 PM | Report abuse

So why was no mention made of Obama here. This is Obama's strength. He knows how to work with the Republicans. He knows how to get things done, but he also is not afraid to say clearly what needs to be done. This piece seems to be a way of saying Clinton will do the same without mentioning him. It also seems a bit of double talk at the end, typical Clinton style. Yes we have to talk but of course we can't pretend division will just go away. Obama is the one to lead on this, not Clinton. Clinton would make certain that the Republicans can't talk, because their base hates her so. She is stuck with that. It won't go away for her, that is sure. That's why we need someone else, someone like Obama.

Posted by: goldie2 | November 14, 2007 5:08 PM | Report abuse

Great presidents are defined by welcoming members of the opposition party into their cabinent, their inner circle. Abraham Lincoln, FDR did just that. President Bush allowed only like-minded, zealots into his inner circle. The result was disaster...9/ll, Iraq, Katrina, Justice Dept.,etc. Bush will never be placed in the pantheon of Great Presidents. Bush will forever be remembered in history as a mediocre and devisive President who represented the interests of only 29% of the American public, his base.

Posted by: logcabin1836 | November 14, 2007 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Clinton, you get elected to represent your party and promote the policies in the party platform.

The presidency is not about doing the happy dance with the opposition.

Of course, the Clintons have always believed most strongly in the economic aspects of their agenda, which as DLC coporatists they share with the Republicans.

Posted by: bogera | November 14, 2007 4:53 PM | Report abuse

A good subtle way to back his spouse for the post of POTUS 2008.All he wanted to say was Hillary will do this once she enters the White House.

Posted by: arun1 | November 14, 2007 4:50 PM | Report abuse

It sounds like Bill Clinton is advocating a person with the qualities of Obama Barack

Posted by: jimslater | November 14, 2007 4:47 PM | Report abuse

It is just impossible to imagine coming to terms with the Republicans in their current incarnation. An ability to compromise must be based, in the final analysis, on reality, not idealogy. Bush's claim about health care "you just go to the emergency room" is indicative--needless to say, if you have a disease that is not immediately life-threatening (say cancer), you will not get treated.

I will say that even hard-core Republicans are beginning to realize that their continual denial of reality is having an effect on their party's chances (see Gerson's column yesterday). But since the Republican platform is based on concentration of wealth in the hands of the top one percent, it will be impossible for them to significantly change their policies. They will have to depend, as always, on subtrefuge, dissimulation and otherwise obscuring or denying reality.,

Posted by: garbage1 | November 14, 2007 4:14 PM | Report abuse

Bill&Hillary: Thanks for being the ONLY people since Ronnie Rayguns started in with his BS to have the courage/gumption/chutzpah to stick your boot(s) up the *ss of the Republicans. Not ONE other human being has been able to outsmart those conniving GOP b*stards. OF COURSE one must be somewhat skilled in the art of deception to compete in the brutal world of politics.
Thanks again to Hillary&Bill for understanding not only the necessary skill sets but the Very High Stakes as well...

Get after it girl!

Posted by: Mitchavery7 | November 14, 2007 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Bill, just shut up! We don't want your advice. Evidently Hillary has taken it and is engaged in planted questions, illeal campaign donations (some from foreign government, laundered through immigrants - do you really expect us to believe that all of those Chinese dishwashers decided to give Hillary the maximum donations allowed?). Look, you were a lying swine as a President, who lucked out with a half decent economy. It took someone even worse, following you as President, to even allow you to play elder statesman. Quit reminding us what a scum you were and be happy with what you've got. Now, GO AWAY....and, for gods sake, take Hillary with you!

Posted by: mibrooks27 | November 14, 2007 3:17 PM | Report abuse

Dan Balz writes
"Based on his eight years in the White House, Clinton believes there is actually a way to reduce the partisan tensions that have plagued both his own and George W. Bush's presidencies... Clinton believes that bipartisan cooperation can be habit-forming and he urged some of his advisers to look for areas on which the White House and conservatives could agree. Hillary Clinton has followed this strategy as a senator, working across party lines with any number of conservative Republicans on smaller, targeted proposals."

President Clinton makes a compelling case for taking a more bipartisan approach to governing. As Mr Balz notes, Senator Clinton has demonstrated an ability - in the Senate - to work across party lines. Yet, in her Presidential campaign, Senator Clinton seems to be tacking away from such bipartisanship. She has railed against the 'vast right wing conspiracy' and seemingly never turns down the opportunity to criticize - or outright insult - President Bush specifically and Republicans generally. Is she just throwing red meat to the base in order to win the nomination, saving a message of bipartisanship and working together for the general election campaign? Or is she just flat-out ignoring her husband's advice?

Posted by: bsimon | November 14, 2007 2:52 PM | Report abuse

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