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What Bill Clinton could teach GOP

By Julian E. Zelizer, CNN Contributor
President-elect Bill Clinton and Vice President-elect Al Gore salute the crowd on November 3, 1992, in Little Rock, Arkansas.
President-elect Bill Clinton and Vice President-elect Al Gore salute the crowd on November 3, 1992, in Little Rock, Arkansas.
  • Julian Zelizer: Bill Clinton demonstrates value of going to the center
  • He says GOP primary race seems focused on ideological purity
  • Moderate candidates are more likely to appeal to broad electorate, he says
  • Zelizer: Clinton won two presidential elections by moving away from Democratic base

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" (Times Books) and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, published by Princeton University Press.

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- Former President Bill Clinton could teach the Republican Party a thing or two about effective campaign strategy.

In an era when the primary system favors candidates who play to the base of their party, and when the media favor candidates who scream the loudest while making the most outlandish claims, running a moderate at the top of the ticket is still often the smartest thing to do.

With Tim Pawlenty out of the race, Jon Huntsman struggling to stay alive, and Mitt Romney the candidate who seemingly every conservative loves to hate, Republicans need to think hard before moving well to the right and selecting someone like Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry.

The example of Bill Clinton is instructive. In 1992, he attempted to remake the Democratic Party by moving beyond the traditional rhetoric that had grown out of the politics of the 1960s. Rather than engaging in a debate between the left and right, Clinton was a part of a small group in his party, the Democratic Leadership Council, that sought a third way.

To defeat an unpopular incumbent, President George H.W. Bush, who was struggling with an economy in recession, Clinton championed a new centrist vision for the Democratic Party.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

While continuing to support core Democratic ideals -- such as the value of government in dealing with domestic issues like health care and the need to protect the middle class -- Clinton took on issues like deficit reduction (especially after the independent candidate Ross Perot made this a big issue), tax cuts, and welfare reform to show moderates he could also be their candidate. When Clinton won the New Hampshire primary, former Jimmy Carter adviser Stuart Eizenstat said, "It brought the party to the middle."

There were many politicians and pundits who thought that Bill Clinton would never be able to run a successful campaign while adopting policies that tended to alienate traditional constituencies such as organized labor and African-Americans.

But he pulled it off. Focusing his campaign on the theme of economic recovery -- Bush's major vulnerability -- Clinton's moderate image helped broaden his appeal. He repeated this strategy in 1996 when he took on Sen. Robert Dole, stealing the thunder from Republicans who had thought after they took over Congress in 1994 that winning was a sure thing.

Clinton picked off key issues such as spending cuts and, once again, welfare reform, promising that he would concentrate his second term on smaller government initiatives on issues that concerned Americans.

While many Democrats continue to debate whether this was good for their party, moderation was certainly a winning electoral strategy. Clinton resisted the temptation that comes from primaries to play to the base and instead positioned himself as a Democrat from the liberal tradition who insisted on appealing to moderates and independents.

Republicans are now feeling tempted to try a different approach. The incentives that come from the primary and caucus system, amplified the 24-hour media cycle and the Internet, make appealing to the base more attractive than ever.

The success of the tea party in 2010 has made it even harder for candidates who want to offer a moderate conservative alternative. As Huntsman said on ABC, "Right now, this country is crying out for a sensible middle ground. This is a center-right country. I am a center-right candidate. Right now, we've got people on the fringes. President Obama is too far to the left. We've got people on the Republican side who are too far to the right and we have zero substance."

A Republican who can appeal to moderates and independents stands a good chance of winning election, given the state of the economy. Obama's approval ratings are not good and there is diminished enthusiasm for this White House from within his own party. That said, the challenge for the GOP is still immense. Obama enjoys the benefits of being an incumbent, including enormous fundraising capacity. Defeating him won't be a cakewalk.

It is important to remember that every Republican who has won the presidency since Barry Goldwater's disastrous campaign in 1964, when the Arizona senator championed extremism, has reached out to the center.

In 1969, Richard Nixon targeted disaffected Democrats with issues such as law and order, as well as ending the war in Vietnam, that aimed at winning the support of the "silent majority." In 1980, Ronald Reagan, though a product of the conservative movement, homed in on the themes of anti-communism, tax cuts and deregulation -- downplaying issues like social conservatism -- to build a broad coalition behind the GOP.

George H.W. Bush moved even further to the center, distancing himself from some of Reagan's harsher domestic programs such as his efforts to cut welfare spending, while George W. Bush's entire 2000 campaign revolved around "compassionate conservatism."

Today Republicans are at a crossroads, since many in the party are insisting on a different direction. Most of the momentum is behind those who are appealing to party activists and trying to prove themselves as right-wing ideological purists.

If Republicans let that criterion shape the choice for their final nominee, continuing to reject candidates like Pawlenty, Huntsman, and Romney, they just might end up giving Obama exactly the opponent he needs to win.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer