During the 1990s, Bill Clinton represented the high-water mark of the New Politics. Clinton bit his lip, rheumied up his eyes on cue and conveyed a warm fog of empathy wherever he went. If in trouble, his first instinct wasn’t to defend results, but to testify about how he’d been “working so hard.”
In 2000, his wife Hillary one-upped him as a master of the New Politics, winning a Senate seat as a carpetbagger by telling New Yorkers the only issue in the race was which candidate would be most concerned about the issues that concern New Yorkers.
That same year, the New Politics became bipartisan. Contrary to claims from both its left-wing critics and right-wing fans, George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was not an alternative to Clinton’s feel-your-pain liberalism; it was a Republican version of it. Unlike his father, W. was obsessed with convincing voters, particularly swing voters, that he cared, that he was a “different kind of conservative.” When somebody hurts, he said, government has to move. By the end of his presidency, compassionate conservatism was in tatters. The Left couldn’t spot any compassion; the Right couldn’t identify much conservatism.
But Bush succeeded in conjuring forth the greatest expression of the New Politics in living memory: Barack Obama. One thing was clear about Obama’s candidacy: It was all about the poetry of “genuine feeling.” He may have been cool and aloof, but supporting him was a statement of passion, of self-image. He made supporters feel good about themselves. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” he said. “We are the change that we seek.”