During his bid for re-election in 1996, Bill Clinton famously promised to build a “bridge to the 21st century.” His message was crystal clear: Despite the earlier political setbacks in his first term, Clinton was the fresh, energetic candidate best suited to lead the country into the next decade. His opponent, the then-73-year-old Bob Dole, was not.
Nearly 11 years later, however, a few of the best-known candidates in the current race for the White House are making a sharp U-turn back to the 1990s. On Thursday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., embarks on his “Straight Talk Express” bus tour, after doing the same thing eight years ago during his first White House bid. At her own campaign stops, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., continually invokes her husband's presidency and enlists his help with key constituencies. And now even Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the ’90s, is seriously pondering a presidential run.
It seems that everyone is carrying on like it's, well, 1999 — or earlier. In fact, all that’s missing is for Ken Starr to announce a bid for the Senate, Monica Lewinsky to get her own TV show, and former Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug to stick another vault landing.
Remembering Bill Clinton
The past, of course, becomes a theme in every presidential contest. It tells us where the candidates have come from, how they might respond to future situations, and what skeletons they have in their closet. But what seem different about this presidential race are the numerous references to the decade defined by Nirvana’s grunge music, Quentin Tarantino’s movies and Bill Clinton.
For obvious reasons, no one seems to have done this more than Hillary Clinton, especially when it comes to her husband, his record, and what she learned from him. “During the eight years of Bill’s presidency, I had a front row seat on history,” she said while campaigning in South Carolina last month. “As you may remember, [he] had to deal with terrorism. I learned both what works and what doesn’t work.”
Contrasting the Clinton administration’s diplomacy with Bush’s, she noted while stumping in New Hampshire last month: “That’s what Bill always did.… He reached out to other people.” Also in New Hampshire, she insisted that her campaign would mirror her husband’s. “Probably the only thing that I’ll try to do differently from my husband is not so many Dunkin Donuts stops.”
More recently, Clinton on Tuesday said a 2002 phone-jamming scandal in New Hampshire was proof of “a vast, right-wing conspiracy” — the same words she famously used to describe the rumors that her husband had an affair with Lewinsky, which later turned out to be true. And also on Tuesday, she called for adding more cops to America’s streets, as Bill did a decade ago.
Taking the bus
Meanwhile, beginning on Thursday, McCain will once again hop on the “Straight Talk Express” for a bus tour through Iowa and later New Hampshire. It’s the same thing he did while campaigning in key primary states back in 1999.
It’s no surprise that both are conjuring up memories of a decade ago. For Clinton, it’s a reminder of the last time Democrats controlled the White House, when the economy created some 23 million jobs (compared with the approximately 5 million during the Bush administration’s first six years), and when there was no Iraq war. For McCain, it’s a reminder of when he was the underdog media darling battling the establishment favorite, when he wasn’t burdened with Iraq, and when the GOP’s brand was more popular than it is now.
Even for Gingrich, who says he’ll decide on a presidential run next fall, the 1990s were a time when he ruled the House and the Republican revolutionaries who stormed into power in 1994.
(By comparison, the other presidential front-runners aren’t identified as much by the ’90s: John Edwards was a successful trial lawyer that decade before winning election to the U.S. Senate in 1998; Barack Obama graduated from Harvard Law School, taught law at the University of Chicago, and was elected to the Illinois Senate; and in addition to his unsuccessful ’94 Senate bid, Mitt Romney was a successful businessman. An exception is Rudy Giuliani, who served as New York City mayor for most of the decade — but who’s now mostly identified more with Sept. 11, 2001.)
Taking a chance?
Yet invoking the ’90s also carries some risks for these presidential candidates. A closer look reveals that the decade — like some of the music, movies, and clothing (remember the ubiquitous flannel?) that defined it — might not bring back as many positive memories as one would think. After all, it was during the Clinton years that Democrats lost control of Congress, which they didn’t regain until last year’s midterm elections. It also was a time of continuous scandals, although many of them never matched their hype: Whitewater, Travelgate, Monica Lewinsky, Marc Rich.
For McCain, those heady days on the campaign trail in 1999 didn’t lead to victory in the GOP primaries the next year. And for Gingrich, the decade included stinging political defeats to the Clintons — as well as his eventual resignation from Congress and the affair he recently admitted to conservative evangelical leader James Dobson.
“There were times when I was praying and when I felt that I was doing things that were wrong. But I was still doing them,” he told Dobson. “And I look back at those as periods of weakness.”
Perhaps the biggest risk for these candidates is being defined by the past. In some respects, that's how President Bush won his first presidential election — he had the famous Bush name and talked like Ronald Reagan, albeit with a Texas twang. He represented the past.
But with Bush's approval ratings stuck in the 30s, Clinton, McCain, and even Gingrich don't want to be seen as old hat, as Bob Dole was back in 1996. Instead, they want to be the ones seen as building a bridge to the future.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.
NBC's Carrie Dann and Andrew Merten contributed to this article.