Notion of Political Dynasty a Problem for Clinton

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton runs her campaign based on the idea of a "new beginning." But she also talks about turning the clock back to the "good old days." That concerns voters skeptical of two families (Bush and Clinton) that could produce an entire generation's presidents.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The candidates expected for today's debate here in Des Moines, Iowa include one whose strength may also be a weakness. Hillary Clinton wants to follow up on her husband's popular presidency, and that concerns an Iowa voter we met here in Des Moines. Democrat James Irwin(ph) is preparing to attend one of his party's caucuses next month.

Mr. JAMES IRWIN: I would like to judge everyone individually on their merits, but at the same time I can't have two families produce all the presidents for an entire generation. I don't want the history books to say Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton.

INSKEEP: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports on the woman who wants the history books to say exactly that.

(Soundbite of song, "Oh Boy")

Mr. BUDDY HOLLY (Musician): (Singing) All my love, all my kissing, you don't know what you've been missing, oh boy.

MARA LIASSON: In Clear Lake, Iowa yesterday, Senator Clinton campaigned at the Surf Ballroom, a shrine to Buddy Holly, who played his last concert here before dying in a plane crash in 1959 - an appropriate place for a trip down memory lane.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): Maybe you remember we created 22.7 million new jobs during the 1990s and that you want to get back to job creation and good opportunities for every American.

LIASSON: The good old days of the Bill Clinton administration is a staple of Hillary Clinton's stump speech. She talks about it everywhere. In Boone, Iowa...

Sen. CLINTON: Remember six and a half years ago, my husband left a balanced budget and a surplus to George W. Bush.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: And in Manchester, New Hampshire...

Sen. CLINTON: ...that while we began in 1990s with record deficits, we ended the decade with a balanced budget, a record surplus, higher wages for the middle class...

LIASSON: And her number one surrogate, Bill Clinton, if he does say so himself, agrees.

President BILL CLINTON: She is the person to bring the right kind of change we need. First of all, what kind of change do we need? We need to get America back to the future.

LIASSON: Back to the future is a novel slogan for a presidential campaign, says Carl Bernstein, author of "A Woman in Charge," a biography of Senator Clinton.

Mr. CARL BERNSTEIN (Author, "A Woman in Charge"): This election is partly about - let's face it, a word that she wouldn't use - is partly about a restoration. It's about a third and fourth Clinton term, something we've never had in post-Roosevelt presidencies, except this time Hillary would ultimately be in charge.

LIASSON: Unlike George W. Bush, who offered a conservative departure from his father's kinder, gentler Republicanism, Hillary Clinton's is a more wholehearted embrace. She has the same political team that helped her husband and many of the same policy advisers, and she's even recycled some of the same proposals. Bill Clinton's 401k-style USA accounts, for instance, are now Hillary Clinton's federally subsidized American retirement accounts. But she has distanced herself from some of her husband's policies, like NAFTA and gays in the military.

In an interview with ABC's "Nightline," Barack Obama expressed his frustration with what he called her cherry-picking of the Clinton record.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): Senator Clinton is claiming basically the entire eight years of the Clinton presidency as her own, except for the stuff that didn't work out.

LIASSON: Obama's campaign theme is turning the page - away from the divisiveness of both the Bush and Clinton years.

Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore's campaign in 2000, says there are risks to looking backwards. Al Gore tried it, she says, and it didn't work.

Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (Georgetown University): We tried to point out the record prosperity. We tried to talk about peace. We tried to talk about helping the middle class. But voters wanted to talk about the future. And I think every election is a referendum on the future, not the past.

LIASSON: None of Hillary Clinton's rivals ever mentions the D-word. But at a Democratic debate in Hanover, New Hampshire, NBC's Tim Russert did.

Mr. TIM RUSSERT (NBC News): Senator Clinton, if you are the nominee, it will be 28 years from 1980 to 2008 where there's been a Bush or a Clinton on the national ticket. Is it healthy for democracy to have a two-family political dynasty?

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): I thought Bill was a pretty good president. And from my perspective...

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

Sen. CLINTON: But look, I'm running on my own. I'm going to the people on my own. And I wish we could turn the clocks back, but we can't.

LIASSON: This is the careful balancing act that Clinton is trying to manage: turn the clock back, but at the same time, promise a new beginning; embrace her husband's record, but insists she's running on her own.

Former Clinton White House adviser David Gergen thinks it's hard to pull off.

Mr. DAVID GERGEN (Harvard University): Normally we would look for somebody who's going to be totally new. What Hillary Clinton has done is she's convinced people we can go back to the future. We can go back to the Bill Clinton days and bring that kind of quality of governance and go into the future that way. And it's interesting - we've never seen this kind of campaign before in which it's so artfully, you know, done.

LIASSON: Gergen says it's not clear whether it will work in the end, but it's a big part of Clinton's argument in the final weeks before the Iowa caucuses, particularly as she and Senator Obama escalate their battle over which is the more compelling case for the Democratic nomination - change or experience.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Des Moines.

MONTAGNE: You can read a preview of today's NPR and Iowa Public Radio debate at npr.org - that's the Democratic debate - and hear the debate live at 2:00 p.m. Eastern on some NPR stations.

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