Edwards and Clinton vie to define the '90s

Rob Christensen
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

GRUNDY CENTER, Iowa -- For many Democrats, the 1990s, when Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton were in the White House, were the good old days.

The economy was booming before the dot-com meltdown. The Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Twin Towers were still standing. The country was more or less at peace.

"I loved them," said Richard Hubble, a 54-year old retired career military man, at a political rally in Grundy Center. He is supporting Sen. Hillary Clinton for president. "There wasn't any federal deficit. They were great years."

But Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards is seeking to alter perceptions of the 1990s as he attempts to derail the Clinton candidacy. In some ways, the Democratic primary campaign comes down to competing versions of that decade.

In Edwards' view, the 1990s were the days when disastrous trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, were passed. Health-care reform failed. Democrats learned to challenge the Republicans in raising huge amounts of corporate money from Wall Street to K Street and thereby -- in Edwards' opinion -- lose their way.

"We have these trade deals like NAFTA and CAFTA, all they do is pad the profits of the big multinational corporations," Edwards said in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "What has America got in return? Millions of dangerous Chinese toys. That's what we have got in return."

Hillary Clinton, of course, remembers the `90s quite differently. For much of the decade, she was first lady.

She recalls that 22 million jobs were created, the federal budget showed a projected $5.6 trillion surplus instead of today's projected $9 trillion deficit, and the middle class was doing better.

"I just want to get back to fiscal responsibility," Clinton told a crowd in a school in rural Vinton. "It took one Clinton to clean up after the first Bush. It will probably take another."

The Democrats are renewing an old debate as they seek to recapture the White House after seven years out of power.

"The Edwards-Clinton debate captures a legitimate tension within the Democratic Party that existed in the early `90s with the rise of the New Democrats," said Peter Francia, an East Carolina University political science professor, referring to moderate Democrats.

"Edwards is trying to tap into the liberal discontent of the `90s, which was very real with the liberal activist core of the party," Francia said. "(Bill) Clinton in some ways was the symbol of the new centrism of the Democratic Party. Those on the left felt shut out to some extent."

Labor was unhappy with the Clinton trade deals, Francia said. Anti-poverty groups didn't like aspects of welfare reform.

But most polls show that Bill Clinton -- the leading political figure of the `90s -- is well-regarded by the American public, particularly among Democrats.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted this fall found that two-thirds of Americans approved of the job that Clinton did as president, compared with one-third who approved of the job that President George W. Bush has done.

In another poll, Clinton was listed fourth among America's greatest presidents -- behind Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy but ahead of Franklin Roosevelt and George Washington.

Gary Baker, 47, a farmer from Belle Plaine is among those who has fond memories of the `90s.

"We were in balance with our finances," Baker, who is leaning toward Clinton, said in an interview after a Clinton rally in Vinton. "Jobs were easier to get. Farming wasn't bad."

Other Democrats remember the 1990s as the time when Republican Newt Gingrich became House speaker and the country was consumed with the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the subsequent impeachment efforts.

"In some ways, the 1990s were good years for America, but they weren't necessarily such good years for Democrats" said Patricia Sheller, 56, a chemical engineer from Bettendorf who is backing Edwards.

"It was the same decade we lost the House and the Senate. I would say that in recent years, Bill Clinton was one of the best presidents we had. But I think it's fair to say there were problems about the way they went after universal health care, which is why we don't have it yet."

To the extent that the 1990s were a success, there is also the question of how much credit should go to Hillary Clinton, who as first lady had no real title in her husband's administration.

When Hillary Clinton claimed she would be a better steward of the economy, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois quipped, "My understanding was that she wasn't treasury secretary in the Clinton administration."

And even some Democrats say they are suffering from Clinton fatigue, or perhaps more accurately, Bush/Clinton/Bush/Clinton fatigue.

Michael England, 48, a printer from Wellsburg, said it doesn't seem quite right to him that he has spent much of his life living under the leadership of two families. That is one reason he is supporting Obama.


(McClatchy researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.)




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