It must have felt like the good old days as they walked into the spotlight. Most of the audience stood up, some whooping with delight.
Then the two old-timers sank into their seats, took their microphones and started some familiar riffs.
Bill and Hillary Clinton opened their talk show tour in the ornate surroundings of New York’s Beacon Theatre. The previous night, a grizzled Mott The Hoople had sung their song about how all the young dudes carry the news. And later this month? A showing of This Is Spinal Tap, that brilliant mockumentary about old rockers on a disastrous comeback tour.
The Clintons, too, play on regardless of declining appeal and changing trends, with critics pointing up empty seats and slashed ticket prices over the first leg of their tour.
The couple that dominated Democratic Party politics for decades, hoovering up cash and freezing out rivals, now haunt it like ghosts. One symbolises male abuse of power, the other offers a painful reminder of the failure to thwart Donald Trump.
“I don’t know anybody that pays any attention to the Clintons these days,” one well-placed party figure said. “They don’t need the money so really they should just go away.”
Shortly before November’s midterm elections, The New York Times ran a scathing piece about how a president once so popular on the campaign trail that he was nicknamed “explainer-in-chief” had been consigned to political purgatory. The headline: “No-one wants to campaign with Bill Clinton any more.”
The Clintons are consigned to history, thanks to Monica Lewinsky, Trump and fast-changing political reality. All of a sudden, it seems, they belong to a bygone age, like all those old heritage rockers still flogging their old tunes.
But what about Clintonism, what about the centre, or the idea that elections are fought on one thing, “the economy, stupid”? Has populism and polarisation, the surge in US-style socialism on the left and MAGA-nationalism on the right left no room in the middle for the old Third Way?
The crowded race for the Democratic nomination in 2020 is still taking shape as contenders line up young versus old, female versus male, left versus centre. It is testing fresh possibilities: is it time for a non-white woman, or a gay candidate?
Few want the Clintons to be part of it – yet they linger over it all.
The couple largely filled the New York theatre just down the road from the Javits convention centre where Hillary planned her presidential victory party (although there were rows of unsold seats the following night in Detroit).
It was fascinating – if costly at $122.15 for my “cheap” ticket – to see the 42nd president perform alongside his wife, a former secretary of state, senator and failed presidential candidate.
Hillary was sharp, stylish and even funny. When quizzed about Julian Assange’s arrest, she said: “It is ironic, he might be the only foreigner that this administration would welcome to the US.” Asked whether The West Wing or Veep were closer to reality, she replied: “Probably Game of Thrones, at least in my experience.”
Those in the audience I spoke to had all come to see her – and cheered loudly when she complained about winning more votes than Trump in 2016 yet losing the presidency thanks to the electoral college.
By contrast her husband – who once oozed charisma from every pore as he rose from a humble background to win the White House and reshape centre-left politics – rambled somewhat.
This was a softball show, hosted by Bill’s former adviser Paul Begala – so no mention of Lewinsky, money-grabbing speeches, dodgy charitable donations or that dismal presidential campaign that delivered Trump into power.
Bill’s best moment came after Hillary described the tensions watching the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, outlining the difficulties of sifting through the hazy intelligence that led to the breakthrough in hunting down al-Qaeda’s leader. Afterwards, Barack Obama called and said: “We got him.”
“Who?” replied Bill.
Obama explained, and asked if Hillary had not told him? “I said, didn’t you ask her not to tell anybody? She told nobody.”
Bill waxed lyrical about love for his wife and daughter. Yet this came from a celebrity accused of serial sexual harassment, which has fuelled his toxicity amid the arrival of forceful new female voices and a more liberal agenda.
Both Clintons spoke about the need to heal divisions, repair politics and restore their party fortunes, with Bill admitting “I don’t think I could be elected dog catcher today” in his home county in Arkansas such are the shifting electoral dynamics.
Hillary said that while many people were discouraged by politics and don’t think either party will really improve their lives “they think the Democrats will demand more of them – they are going to take their guns away”.
Yet it seemed simplistic to blame the new media landscape, exploited with such skill by Trump. “A lot of the people I talk to in Arkansas are not against gay rights,” said Bill. “They’re against that gay rights gets 20 times the coverage of their misery.”
He went on to plead for better informed debate while Hillary blamed voter disillusion on the “big industry designed to feed false information to people”. She pointed out that Fox News did not exist when her husband first won the White House in 1992.
My evening with the Clintons underlined the urgent need for Democrats to adjust their mindsets. Studies have found more than half blamed the electorate for failing to understand the issues at stake in 2016, with others accusing the media and Kremlin for Trump’s shock win.
Yet the dilemma for Democrats in next year’s White House race is how to defeat a nativist president they despise – especially as many of their activists pull to the left, demanding more liberal policies, even socialism.
“In the Clinton era triangulation worked by pitching to the centre but none of those rules apply now,” says Michael Cornfield, a political scientist at George Washington University and expert on social media.
“To be a centrist you have to regain trust from the other tribe. But we have deeper polarisation now than ever before and someone with authoritarian tendencies in the White House. This is very different to the 1990s.”
Not least when the left-wing senator Bernie Sanders is back in the race, raising more cash than any of his 17 declared rivals and pushing progressive policies in a party some argue is being transformed before our eyes.
One veteran Democratic donor told me that just as the Tea Party started a Republican lurch to the populist right a decade ago, the same forces of electoral anger were pulling his party left. “We’re falling down the same rabbit hole,” he said.
Without doubt, some digital natives exploit social media as effortlessly as the president they detest, reformatting the struggle between left and centre as one between future and past.
The most obvious is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). The 29-year-old congresswoman backs a new 70 per cent top tax rate, “an agenda of reparations” to black Americans for slavery, universal healthcare, free public college education and a green overhaul of the economy.
There has been pressure before to draw Democrats from the centre, but it is more intense now – and hardliners see little difference between the business-friendly instincts of Clinton and Trump.
“They used politics as a platform to enrich themselves. It was about making the Democratic party palatable for business and capital,” said Nick Hayes, an activist whose Detroit-based film collective made AOC’s breakthrough video.
“Socialists are the only political force that can undo the damage the right has done for decades,” he says. “Socialism now feels cool, almost counter-cultural. No one can afford things like rent, college, healthcare. Young people look at the future and see a poorer life than their parents.”
These tensions are exploited with glee by Trump, as shown in his State of the Union speech two months ago. “Tonight we renew our resolve that American will never be a socialist country,” he said, testing a new trope ahead of battle.
Yet for the first time, a majority of voters who align with Democrats call themselves “liberals” – a far more loaded word in America than Europe – rather than centrists or conservatives, according to a long-running poll from the University of Chicago.
The party is starting to reflect the country better. By the time Sanders said he was running again in mid-February there were five women, two African-Americans, one Hispanic and one married gay man among the declared candidates for the Democratic nomination.
The popular former vice-president Joe Biden has said he will have another tilt at the White House, ignoring recent headlines over his physicality with women and concerns over his role in tough crime policies that led to mass incarceration.
Early polls – always skewed by the “name-recognition” factor – put him and Sanders ahead of other contenders. Two white men in their mid-to-late seventies, older than either of the Clintons, making Trump, aged 72, the young rival.
In 2016 Trump’s victory relied on fewer than 78,000 votes in three Rust Belt states – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – despite the Democrats winning the popular vote as they have in six of the last seven presidential elections.
The Democrats clawed back ground in the midterms thanks to an anti-Trump backlash from suburban women, focus on core issues such as health care – and by choosing candidates able to articulate why they were standing.
Now the debate is whether Trump can be beaten by seducing waverers in the centre, or by inspiring a coalition of young, racially diverse voters.
Success built on Rust Belt states needs a nominee to woo disgruntled white and working-class voters away from Trump, whereas a Sun Belt strategy needs someone to enthuse and energise a diverse alliance in states such as Arizona and Florida.
Given the intensity of cultural ferment over feminism and racism, could an elderly white man like Biden really get enough Democratic voters out to win the White House? Might a black woman deter too many white workers in the Midwest? Would the United States accept a married gay man as head of state?
These questions also tap into the oldest issue in politics: purity versus pragmatism.
“The Democrats are divided between the liberal wing, which has the loudest voices, and the moderates, but most of the supporters are still pretty middle of the road,” says Steffen Schmidt, professor of political scientist at Iowa State University. “No one can win a presidency unless they get a good percentage of independent and wavering votes.”
Schmidt, based in the state that kicks off the presidential fight every four years, was among the first experts to predict Trump’s success – yet he admits at the start of the 2016 campaign “no one thought he had a snowball’s chance in hell”.
Others argue the key is to hammer away on kitchen sink issues such as health and education. “The most important thing to do is talk to people about the negative impact Trump’s policies are having on the country,” says Josh Schwerin, senior strategist for Priorities USA and a former spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Schwerin says it is a false choice to focus too hard on certain states or sections of the electorate. “We have to talk to all voters in all states,” he said. “Trump is beatable but it is not going to be easy. He is unpopular but he’s proven he can win when unpopular.”
To add to the complexity of next year’s presidential contest, the heavyweight states of California and Texas have shifted their primaries much earlier in the schedule, so 38 per cent of delegates will be chosen in the first month.
This should help Kamala Harris, a Sunshine State senator, and might aid Beto O’Rourke, whose spirited campaigning last year almost grabbed Texas from Senator Ted Cruz. It could also help the progressives, with all those California votes coming early in the contest.
And it might hand someone an unassailable lead.
Right now, the attention is on a man from a town with a name that exudes the kind of romance that Little Rock once did: Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is winning comparisons to Bill Clinton in 1991.
Sure it’s early in the race. The formal declarations have barely begun. There is a long history in these battles of candidates flaring up, then crashing back to earth.
But Buttigieg is trying to do what Clinton did nearly 30 years ago – to jump a generation in politics. His message, like Clinton’s against George HW Bush, is about hope and opportunity, brushing aside accusations of lacking substance. It’s about a politics that’s not from Washington, but is needed there.
In one clear divergence with the Clinton’s style, the likes of Buttigieg and O’Rourke are following Sanders lead in hard-selling a narrative of reliance on small donors rather than cashing big cheques from billionaires and corporate giants. Most of the interest in Buttigieg is around his personal history – gay and married, seven languages, Rhodes scholar (like Clinton) – and while he probably wouldn’t appreciate the comparison, he’s in the political centre, not the left.
He highlights the biggest question confronting the Democrats: the era of the Clintons seems over, but what about their politics?
- Al From was the man who rescued the Democrats from the wilderness in the 1980s and found Bill Clinton, governor of Arkansas, to be front man for the Third Way. His book The New Democrats and the return to power describes the march to the centre.
- Joe Biden could be the best bet to beat Trump, but probably won’t get that far. Washington Post opinion writer Karen Tumulty set the tone as Obama’s vice president joined the Democratic 2020 field.
- Could Pete Buttigieg become the first millennial president? Read the Washington Post profile of the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
- Time to learn more about Kamala Harris too. This profile from The Atlantic is good on the California senator who has her own highlights from Capitol Hill hearings where she uses her skills as a former top prosecutor to take apart Trump acolytes.