Video: Sen. Clinton discusses her health plan

By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 9/19/2007 2:34:46 PM ET 2007-09-19T18:34:46

Could Carly Simon be right? These are the good old days? As a society, we are programmed to believe yesterday was better than today.  Whether about sports, technology or politics, we love to wax nostalgic about yesteryear.

Spend 10 minutes with anyone over 30, let alone someone in their 60s, and you’re likely to hear them say “in my day” or “I remember when” to frame a conversation about homerun hitters, computers, or honest politicians.

On the campaign trail, no one is benefiting more from nostalgia than Hillary Clinton. Many folks, including me, thought the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton fatigue was real and a problem with voters across the board.

But there's growing evidence that the fatigue theory is just not true, at least with Democrats.

What Clinton appears to be benefiting from is the low opinion partisan Democrats have of President Bush. These are the most likely primary voters. And that loathing is benefiting Clinton because of the "good old days" feeling Democrats now have of Bill Clinton.

Rival campaigns are admitting the Clinton negatives are popping up less in focus groups and research on likely Democratic voters than we in the media might think.

Frankly, it's why the Clinton camp is so nervous about the Norman Hsu fundraising controversy . It's a negative reminder of the Clinton years which Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats have blocked out. One negative reminder of the 90s is not fatal for Clinton. He campaign only has to worry about other, um, shoes (or Hsus) dropping.

Barack Obama, of course is also hoping to benefit from nostalgia. Initially, he did so from the aging elitist boomer liberals who still pine for what-might-have-been with Bobby Kennedy. The problem for Obama is aging liberal baby boomers aren't rank-n-file primary voters.

Obama, actually, has (or is it now had?) been banking on a lack of nostalgia to build his base for victory.

One of the most telling moments of Barack Obama's interview with Brian Williams earlier this week was the acknowledgement by the political newcomer that Bill Clinton was still very popular with Democrats. Said Obama: “Senator Clinton is the default candidate for a lot of Democrats. People have fond memories of Bill Clinton and his administration.”

To some, that might seem like a "duh" statement akin to finding out the Yankees are still enormously popular with New Yorkers.

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But for Obama, who had been trying to fine-tune his media-friendly message of "turn the page," this reality is becoming a major stumbling block for him.

Some Obama admirers have been grumbling to those who would listen that with this "turn the page" message not working he needs a new message. Because without a new message, he'll simply be hoping for more Hsus so that "turn the page" has teeth again.

Here's an odd irony. Would Obama's "turn the page" be working better if Bush weren't so loathed by Democrats?

Now, nostalgia is not just having an effect on the Democratic race.

The two top Republicans in the national polls – Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson – are both sitting at the top because of nostalgia.

With Giuliani, it's nostalgia, oddly, for the days after 9/11. This is not to say that Republican supporters of Giuliani are pining for another 9/11. To the contrary, what they are pining for is a time when gut-check leadership ruled the day; When a soot-covered Giuliani addressed the media or a bullhorn-carrying president was inspiring Republicans.  The image of Giuliani during those days has made the one-time liberal Republican a viable GOP nominee. That's nostalgia at its most powerful.

For Thompson, the nostalgic time Republicans see in him is the 80s and Ronald Reagan. After all, compared to now, the 80s seem like a simpler time. Our enemy was known and Republicans had a simple domestic message of "less government and lower taxes."

Thompson with his aw-shucks shtick and acting background make Reagan comparisons inevitable.

Of course, Thompson is suffering a bit with the Beltway press right now because they (we) don't see another Reagan. But we don't matter as much as caucus goers in Iowa. And if they see Reagan three months from now, he just might pull it off. For the record: I still have my doubts. Video: Giuliani: Hero or villain of 9/11

Nostalgia is more of a primary phenomenon. Activists on both sides are always looking for what they remember were their party’s best days. That’s why at the ’92 Democratic convention, the “moment” Democrats remember best is the unveiling of the Clinton-JFK photo dug up by Mandy Grunwald and her team.

But if you’ll recall, we didn’t see that Clinton-JFK image again on the general election campaign trail that fall. Why? General elections are rarely won by candidates asking voters to look back in time. Swing voters care about the future. It’s part of the reason why Kerry struggled against Bush because he was running on what happened, not what should be done. Gore had a similar struggle in 2000. He was running on the past, not the future.

Clinton might get the Democratic nomination asking Democrats to remember the good times, but that message is a recipe for defeat in a general. 

Obama's "turn the page" may be falling on deaf Democratic ears, but for a Mitt Romney or even Rudy Giuliani, don't be surprised if the phrase becomes part of their standard stump if either ends up facing Clinton in ‘08. Of course, Mark Penn, who helped run the Clinton re-elect campaign from ’96 with the message “a bridge to the 21st century” knows this better than anyone else. Ultimately elections (particularly general elections) are about the future. The question is whether primary elections can be won by talking about the past. Clinton, Giuliani and Thompson are counting on it.

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