Memo to Obama fans: Clinton-ism was a success.

The history behind current events.
Feb. 12 2008 3:34 PM

Memo to Obama Fans

Clinton's presidency was not a failure.

Bill Clinton. Click image to expand.
Bill Clinton

There are several reasons why Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign has shied away from running on the accomplishments of Bill Clinton's presidency: anxiety about a Clinton "dynasty," a concern not to be seen as dwelling on the past; and a clear public hunger for "change," however unspecified the content of that change may be. But the upshot has been a bit perverse: Clinton, like Al Gore in 2000, is downplaying what should be an enormous asset.

Barack Obama's upscale white supporters (and those too young to recall the 1970s and 1980s) tend to describe Clintonism as a betrayal of liberalism, a sellout to Wall Street, and proof that "the Clintons" won't bring about change—a view encapsulated in the Daily Kos blog's visceral aversion to Terry McAuliffe's mug. Yet while the courting of big donors with stays in the Lincoln Bedroom left a bad odor, as a historical matter, the Clinton years were unquestionably a time of progress, especially on the economy. And it seems that as Obama mania sweeps the educated classes, the party's struggling lower-income base still prefers Hillary. One reason is that they're less prone than their better-off party mates to vote out of an enthusiasm for stirring rhetoric or viral videos or a wish to play their part in a grand narrative of racial reconciliation. Having been battered by globalization, rising health care and education costs, and the subprime mortgage disaster, they're remembering the Clinton years and voting for who they think will help them.

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Understanding Clintonism's appeal to the distressed starts with Bill Clinton's candidacy for president in 1992. Though he ran as a New Democrat, Bill was not, contrary to legend, a classic example of centrist Democratic Leadership Council thinking. He was well to the left of DLC stalwarts like Georgia's Sam Nunn or Virginia's Chuck Robb, who, according to Ken Baer's history of the DLC, Reinventing Democrats, had been the preferred choice of the body's chairman, Al From, to seek the presidency. Clinton also ran to the left of his chief rival for the Democratic nomination that year, Paul Tsongas, a former Republican who trumpeted his pro-business stands and his desire to reform Social Security. Clinton's 1992 slogan, "Putting people first," and his stress on "the economy, stupid," pitched an optimistic if still gritty populism at a middle class that had suffered under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Clinton's populism was complicated—more so than the simplistic "people versus the powerful" cant that has sapped the vigor from innumerable Democratic campaigns. Clinton's version incorporated a technocratic, neoliberal vision. Before globalization became a buzzword, Clinton grasped that the main reasons for worsening inequality and the disappearance of good jobs were those larger economic forces that regressive tax policy might exacerbate but that even progressive tax policy would be powerless to stop. So on issues like trade, he argued that liberals had to make peace with globalization and find policies to help spread more fairly the wealth that globalization would create.

Clinton's neoliberal strains and his populism—as well as the budget-balancing zeal of deficit hawks such as Lloyd Bentsen and Leon Panetta, who joined his first administration—naturally conflicted at times. In 1994, I assisted Bob Woodward with his book The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House, which pulled back the curtain on infighting among the different factions in Clinton's first year as they struggled to craft and pass the 1993 budget bill. Although some of the populists saw Clinton as having caved to the moderates, the resulting deal included a good dose of increased progressivity. Indeed, the tax hikes on the upper brackets were the main elements that made it controversial even in a Democrat-controlled Congress and led to its passage by only one vote in the Senate and two in the House.

But the bill was a pretty good compromise. It made the tax code fairer while setting the budget on a path that—in one of the most astounding achievements of Clinton's presidency—turned record budget deficits into record surpluses. A little thing called the Internet boom obviously helped, too, and, as Alan Greenspan never tired of noting, so did the increased productivity of American workers. But for this turnaround to occur, Washington had to get its house in order, and Clinton's bill—though passed amid internal chaos and the president's storied "purple fits"—was also a bravura feat of improvised legislative strategy. That the Bush tax cuts have now reconverted those surpluses into deficits again shouldn't be reason to diminish the Clinton achievement.

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