It’s enlightening to compare two presidential campaign announcements offering two very different visions coming from one couple.
Then-Gov. Bill Clinton’s Oct. 3, 1991, announcement in Hope, Ark., included promises of “preserving the American dream” and “restoring the hopes of the forgotten middle class.” He displayed a healthy skepticism of government, promising that his administration wouldn’t “spend our money on programs that don’t solve problems and a government that doesn’t work.”
He called for more personal responsibility. “We should insist that people move off welfare rolls and onto work rolls,” he said, further suggesting that high-school dropouts should lose their driver’s licenses.
In short, Mr. Clinton was a different kind of Democrat, prodding his party “to learn from its past mistakes,” the Washington Post reported at the time, and emphasizing themes aimed at the general election, not simply his party’s base. “The change we must make isn’t liberal or conservative,” Mr. Clinton told his audience. “It’s both, and it’s different.”
Fast-forward to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement Saturday on New York’s Roosevelt Island. Her speech, at about 4,700 words, was half again as long as her voluble husband’s, which was 3,100. Yet he used the phrase “middle class” eight times while she used it only twice. He used the word “responsibility” 12 times; she never mentioned it.
Twenty-four years ago, Mr. Clinton said he was confident that the U.S. was “the greatest country in history” because Americans believed “that each of us has a personal, moral responsibility” to make the future “better than the present.”
Last week, Mrs. Clinton suggested America’s difficulties are to be blamed on the rich, powerful and privileged. “Prosperity can’t be just for CEOs and hedge-fund managers,” she said. “Democracy can’t be just for billionaires and corporations.”
His message was generally upbeat and optimistic. Hers was of grievance and blame. “You have to wonder, ‘When does my hard work pay off? When does my family get ahead?’" Mrs. Clinton said. “Growth and fairness go together,” she snapped.
While both Clintons used the word “change” seven times, he was talking about a break with 12 years of Republicans in the White House. She, on the other hand, will have a hard time depicting herself as an agent of change. When she complained that “your paychecks have barely budged,” does she think the American people don’t know who has been in charge the past 6½ years?
When Mrs. Clinton says success is measured by “how many children climb out of poverty; how many startups and small businesses open and thrive; how many young people go to college without drowning in debt; how many people find a good job; how many families get ahead,” does she not understand that each of these has gotten worse under President Obama?
When she demands more be done to “rein in the banks that are still too risky,” she is implicitly criticizing Mr. Obama and her husband. Her argument suggests Mr. Obama was not tough enough on the big banks, which have gotten larger under his Dodd-Frank reform. And her husband is the only president in decades who signed a major financial deregulation measure, the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act’s prohibition on commercial banks owning investment firms.
It is hard for a party to win the presidency a third time in a row with a candidate calling for change. The trap Mrs. Clinton is in is that the nation craves change, but for her to demand it means that she must distance herself from President Obama. Yet she wants to re-create the Obama coalition and is counting on the president to turn out the Democratic base—thus she cannot be seen disrespecting Mr. Obama.
Perhaps the most significant difference between Bill’s and Hillary’s announcements is that he challenged his party’s orthodoxy. She panders to the Democratic Party’s left-wing base, which is ever more extreme and aggressive. In doing so, Mrs. Clinton has abandoned the message of unity that worked so well for Mr. Obama and her husband.
Whether this is a tactic or an expression of Mrs. Clinton’s real beliefs is impossible to know and to some degree irrelevant. She has decided her path to the presidency lies to the hard left. If she tries pivoting toward the center after she is nominated, this woman of mediocre political talents will discover that it isn’t as easy as she thinks.
A version of this article appeared June 18, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline A Tale Of Two Clinton Campaigns and online at WSJ.com.