History Lesson

Memo to Obama Fans

Clinton’s presidency was not a failure.

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.

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.

Clinton detractors also like to grouse about “triangulation.” This was pollster Dick Morris’ cynical term for the election-year opportunism behind Clinton’s moderate-seeming but mostly inconsequential ideas in 1996, like the V-chip (to screen out television violence) and school uniforms. On economics, however, Clinton’s construction of policies that defied traditional left-right categories was substantive. The Earned Income Tax Credit, which originated in a pilot form in the 1970s, attracted conservative support in the 1980s as an alternative to transfer payments as a way to help the working poor; Clinton made it a signature policy, expanding it in his 1993 bill to an additional 15 million families—a result that added up to the most significant anti-poverty measure since the Great Society. The virtuous cycle engendered by Clinton’s balanced budgets—which by paying down the debt won the confidence of bond traders and helped bring down interest rates—eventually won over many who had doubted the strategy.

Both Clintons bear some blame for the Democrats’ loss of the Congress in 1994, to the extent that it stemmed from the failure of their health care plan (though anyone who thinks the plan’s demise was just a matter of too much secrecy and too much big government should read Paul Starr’s historically accurate American Prospect piece from last fall). But if that loss impeded the passage of big-ticket legislation, it also led to bipartisan laws like welfare reform, which remains an apostasy to many on the left but did probably help to reduce poverty and promote employment. Equally significant for historians, the shift of the administration’s focus from big legislation to the filigree of the budgetary process led Clinton to achieve much under the radar. The Children’s Health Insurance Program—crafted by Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, with Hillary Clinton as a central player—was passed in Clinton’s 1997 budget bill, not as a stand-alone item. Other budgets increased funding for the worker retraining that Clinton said was necessary to adapt to the dislocations of globalization.

By the end of the Clinton presidency, the numbers were uniformly impressive. Besides the record-high surpluses and the record-low poverty rates, the economy could boast the longest economic expansion in history; the lowest unemployment since the early 1970s; and the lowest poverty rates for single mothers, black Americans, and the aged. Real wages, after declining over the course of the Reagan and Bush years, rose under Clinton. To be sure, the gap between the very rich and everyone else widened—as it has continued to do since—but gains for the rich, for once, didn’t leave behind the poor and lower middle class.

This isn’t to say that Clinton never favored Wall Street interests. The repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 allowed financial institutions to consolidate, which many on the left, such as economics journalist Robert Kuttner, believe contributed to the mortgage crisis. NAFTA and GATT remain controversial, though most experts agree that free-trade agreements are necessary for maintaining America’s economic strength. But the wisdom of Clintonism was to see past the old frameworks that pitted advocates of growth against proponents of fairness and to find ways, using the high-tech economy, to reach both goals together.

It’s the economic achievements of the Clinton years that people recalled when they scratched their heads at Obama’s claim that during the last 10 to 15 years—i.e., the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies—Republicans had the “new ideas.” On the contrary, while it’s possible to argue that the GOP claimed the mantle of newness in the 1980s, when Democrats were still groping for their postindustrial vision, it was precisely in 1992—with the emergence of Clinton’s fusion of populism and neoliberalism—that Democrats did find a program for the globalization age. And it worked.

This is one reason for the economic split between Democratic voters this winter. While upscale whites and blacks of all income groups are preferring Obama, downscale white and Hispanic voters in the Democratic Party—and a considerable number of struggling African-Americans, too—regard a Hillary Clinton presidency with hope and optimism. For them, the Bush administration’s neglect hurts in the pocketbook. A recent quote from a high-profile Democrat put it well: “I think there’s no doubt that there were good things that happened during those eight years of the Clinton administration. I think that’s undeniable. … And, particularly, when looked at through the lens of the last eight years with George Bush, they look even better.” The speaker? Barack Obama.