Ballot Box

The Era of Bill Clinton Is Over

Howard Dean triangulates the triangulator.

Depends on what your definition of Clintonian is …

“While Bill Clinton said that the era of big government is over, I believe we must enter a new era for the Democratic Party—not one where we join Republicans and aim simply to limit the damage they inflict on working families. … I call now for a new era, in which we rewrite our Social Contract. We need to provide certain basic guarantees to all those who are working hard to fulfill the promise of America.”

So declares Howard Dean in a speech today outlining his governing philosophy. It’s a perfect homage to the man he belittles: an embrace disguised as a repudiation.

Everyone remembers Clinton’s 1996 proclamation that “the era of big government is over.” What everyone forgets are the words that followed: “But we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves. Instead, we must go forward as one America, one nation working together to meet the challenges we face together.” In other words, big government wasn’t really over. Clinton was bashing “big government” so that his audience—congressional Republicans and the moderate voters who had put them in power—wouldn’t think of his programs as big government.

Dean is doing the same thing. When he claims to stand for a “new era” different from Clinton’s, he isn’t really ditching Clinton’s agenda. He’s just bashing Clinton so that his audience—liberals, angry Democrats, and disgusted nonvoters—won’t think of his agenda as Clintonism.

Dean’s speech doesn’t libel Clinton; it plagiarizes him. Clinton advocated a “New Covenant.” Dean advocates a “New Social Contract.” Clinton promised basic guarantees to all those who worked hard. Dean promises“basic guarantees to all those who are working hard.” Clinton proposed $10,000 a year in college aid. Dean proposes $10,000 a year in college aid. Clinton proposed a retirement savings program. Dean proposes a retirement savings program. Clinton created Americorps as a model of community service. Dean calls Americorps a model of community service.

Clinton said his economic regulations would be pro-business and pro-jobs. Dean says his economic regulations will be “pro-business and pro-jobs.” Clinton accused Republicans of trying to privatize Social Security, dismantle Medicare, and end public education. Dean accuses Republicans of trying to “privatize Social Security, dismantle Medicare, and end public education.”

Clinton renounced profligate spending. Dean renounces “profligate spenders.” Clinton said balanced budgets led to economic growth. Dean says “balanced budgets … lead to economic growth.” Clinton said social progressives should be fiscal conservatives, because only fiscal responsibility guaranteed that Americans would have the government they needed when they truly needed it. Dean says, “Social progressives should be fiscal conservatives, because only fiscal responsibility guarantees that the American people will have the government they need when they truly need it.”

So, what’s the difference between Dean and Clinton?

I see two differences. One is that Clinton ran for president promising tax cuts for the middle class. Dean is running for president promising to repeal tax cuts for the middle class and everyone else. Dean says the rich got most of Bush’s tax cuts, and he’s right. He says the tax cuts came with a hidden price tag—state budget crises, higher property taxes, higher state college tuition, higher national debt—and he’s right again. But the first point solves the second. If the rich got most of the money, then the government can get that money back—and alleviate the hikes in tuition, debt, and property taxes—by repealing the tax cuts that went to the rich, while preserving the tax cuts that went to the middle class. That’s the position taken by Wesley Clark, John Edwards, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and even Dennis Kucinich. But not Howard Dean.

In his speech, Dean concedes, “The average wage earner did get a few hundred dollars back” in Bush’s tax cuts. He says he’ll “get rid of the Bush tax program”—notice the absence of the word cut—”and repeal the ‘Bush Tax.’ ” But don’t fret about losing the few hundred bucks you got from Bush: Dean says his “New Social Contract … will include fundamental tax reform to ensure that every wealthy American individual and corporation is paying their fair share of taxes—and that the tax burden on working families is reduced.” He says he’ll crack down on companies that use offshore shelters to avoid “$70 billion a year in taxes—enough money to bring a real tax cut to every family.” It sounds like Dean is going to offer you a tax cut in exchange for taking away the one Bush gave you. But he never does.

The other difference is that Clinton got elected.