Clinton memorial library opens amid Democrat post-mortem

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He was the last man to win the big prize for them. And, as everyone who's anyone in the Democratic party gathers today in Little Rock, Arkansas, to celebrate the opening of his presidential library, one question dominates: How can they do it again?

He was the last man to win the big prize for them. And, as everyone who's anyone in the Democratic party gathers today in Little Rock, Arkansas, to celebrate the opening of his presidential library, one question dominates: How can they do it again?

The William J Clinton Presidential Centre and Park is being inaugurated just 14 days after John Kerry failed to win back the White House. And all eyes will be on not only the 42nd President but his wife, Hillary, who, in this land of the unending campaign, is already the unofficial frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2008.

The library itself is a handsome glass and steel magnificent structure, built at the cost of $165m (£90m) and cantilevered out over the Arkansas river, in a metaphor for the "bridge to the 21st century" as Bill Clinton liked to depict his two-term presidency from 1993 to 2001. For Little Rock's previously drab city centre, its arrival has been an unqualified boon, helping attract some $1bn of new investment.

But in the thematic alcoves in the main building, Mr Clinton's very mixed legacy will be on full view to visitors - who on this dedication day will include the current President, George Bush, and two of his predecessors, his father George H W Bush and Jimmy Carter.

The exhibits range from the limousine he used for his first inauguration, and memorabilia from the great events of his presidency to a small display dealing with the impeachment proceedings launched by the Republican-controlled Congress in 1998 after his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Predictably the last section, labelled "The Impeachment Battle, the Fight for Power" is presented as just another chapter in the partisan battle in Washington that rages just as fiercely now.

Today, in the aftermath of 2 November, that produced not only the Kerry defeat but also significant Republican gains in the Senate and the House of Representatives, even the impeachment saga is a reminder of happier times for Democrats - when at least they had a president to be impeached.

All these feelings will be in the air today when Democratic luminaries gather for what some are calling a virtual party convention, a perfect opportunity to continue the debate already under way over what went wrong in 2004, and how to make sure it does not happen again.

Front and centre of the debate are the Clintons themselves. Not only does this pairing of past and possibly future president comprise the Democrats' biggest stars and most potent fundraisers. They also embody the divisions over how the party can win back the White House.

For some Democratic strategists, the Bill Clinton model is the only one that will bring them back the White House. This implies a candidate with centrist policies - if necessary stolen from the Republicans - and with an appeal beyond the coasts and the upper Midwest.

As strategists are only too aware, Mr Clinton's two presidential victories were made much easier by his ability to win in the centre of the country and the South. By contrast, Al Gore in 2000, and Mr Kerry this year, failed to carry a single southern state. The lesson they draw is the party must boost its appeal to the Christian community, moderating its position on social issues such as gay rights and abortion.

"You can't have everybody who goes to church vote Republican, you just can't," Al From, founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council once chaired by Mr Clinton, told a recent post-mortem meeting of party activists.

But others argue precisely the opposite. Only a politician as uniquely gifted as Mr Clinton could carry off such a balancing act, they say.

Democrats should return to first principles, offering a clear alternative to the Republicans, standing above all for the poor and the less advantaged, and not being ashamed of the label "liberal". By moving to the centre, this school maintains, the party has ceded the initiative to Republicans and lost touch with its traditions.

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