PBS recently showed a 3 ½ documentary on Bill Clinton, which you can see in full here. Afterwards they asked what the legacy of Bill Clinton was. I do not know the answer to the question. Evaluating someone’s legacy takes a little more distance than 11 years (Clinton left office in 2001). Mao Tse-Tung summarized this sentiment nicely when someone asked him what the impacts of the French Revolution were and he replied: “it’s too early to tell.”
My biggest issue with this documentary was the ridiculous amount of time they spent on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which echoed the obsession the mainstream media had with the scandal back when it was breaking. I know it resulted in the impeachment of a president, only the second time in U.S. history that has happened. Despite that, most Americans saw it for the witch hunt it was. For God’s sake, he left office with sky-high approval ratings. The other impeached president, Andrew Johnson, slinked out of office in disgrace without even getting his party’s nomination.
What they did a half-assed job on, and what really should have been the focus of the documentary, was the whole idea of the New Democrat that Clinton crafted. For his first two years in office, Clinton overplayed his “liberal” (try not to laugh) hand, culminating in the healthcare reform disaster spearheaded by Hillary. He paid the price in the 1994 midterm elections when the Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, not to mention losing 8 seats in the Senate. This caused Clinton to focus on what was “possible”. With a Republican-controlled Congress, the only things that were possible were very Republican things like the 1996 welfare reform law.
Shades of Barack Obama?
Bill Clinton’s New Democrat looked much like an Old Republican. Even before 1994 he had signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into law, a treaty that had begun under George H.W. Bush. This allowed companies to easily move jobs into Mexico. Then there was “ending welfare as we know it.” There is a lot of revisionism about how welfare reform was a great success for the millions of people, mostly women, who were thrown off the welfare rolls. Here is a hint: the percentage of children living in poverty increased since that law and has seen no signs of slowing down. It turns out that forcing single mothers into minimum wage Wal-Mart jobs was not their path to financial freedom.
In his second term, Clinton did things like repeal the Glass-Stegall Act, tearing down the firewalls between savings and investment banks. This turned the entire banking industry into a giant casino and was a major cause of the current Great Recession in which we are still mired. How about privatization? Under Clinton, the idea that “markets work best” led to a tremendous outsourcing of public functions to private companies. Even parts of the CIA were privatized. All this did was accelerate the development of the “shadow government” that began under Reagan, wherein private companies do things like disburse welfare and public sector checks and mop the hallways of federal buildings.
Yet, for most of us who lived through the Clinton years, they provide a bright contrast to the dark 2000s marked by the Bush/Obama era. It was a decade of technological innovation. The internet breathed new life into the economy, sparking an entire information revolution that changed the face of the planet. Materially speaking, most Americans were better off in 2001, after Clinton left office, than in 1993 when he had assumed it. This, along with leaving behind a budget surplus, is what will probably mark Clinton as one of the best presidents of the 20th century.
And that is just a shame.
First, it is not clear at all that the booming economy had anything to do with Clinton. The internet that was the hub of the entire boom came out of heavy military spending during the Reagan years. In fact, most of the nifty technologies of the 1990s, like cell phones and ever-larger, gas-guzzling jeeps, were the fruits of government investment well before Clinton was anywhere near Washington. Much like Calvin Coolidge, he was the right president at the right time.
Second, and most importantly, the fruits of this economic boom were maldistributed. Maybe everyone’s standard of living went up, but the standard of living for the wealthiest Americans went up much more. Again, just like Coolidge, he presided over one of the most uneven economic growths in American history. This was not the recipe for sustained economic prosperity. (A very underrated book on this issue is Joe Stiglitz’s The Roaring Nineties). The documentary makes the false claim that Clinton oversaw the longest boom of the 20th century. In fact, the longest boom lasted from 1941 until 1973 and it lasted so long because the New Deal ensured that the fruits of that boom were more evenly distributed than at any point, ever.
In reality, what Clinton oversaw was a bubble, one with dire consequences. Much like the 1920s, the uneven distribution of wealth would doom the country down the line. When the economy tanked in 2008, it started with people who could not repay their mortgages. We can replay all of the reasons why they could not repay, like predatory lending in the shady subprime market, that were results of Bush’s policies. However, at the very core, people could not repay because they were broke and they were broke because they represented a class of Americans who were receiving less and less of a piece of that great big American economic pie.
This is really Clinton’s legacy. The horrid gap between rich and poor began in earnest during the Reagan era, of which President Bush 41 was a part. Clinton came into office and merely held the line on that gap. It did not increase as fast as it did under Reagan, but it increased nonetheless. Then Bush 43 came to Washington and picked up from where Reagan left off, furiously transferring the nation’s wealth upwards. This is what the New Democrats represent. They are a more subtle, more cushioned continuation of what the Republican Party has always aimed to do throughout the 20th century.
Clinton was the first Democrat since FDR to win a second term. (Truman and LBJ do not count because their first terms were not their own.) He was Nixon in reverse. Nixon won a second term largely because he presided over a liberal era and gave himself over to liberal policies in order to gain support. He expanded the welfare state, made peace with communist nations and helped pass meaningful environmental legislation. Clinton won a second term in a conservative era by giving himself over to conservative policies. This was cold political calculation on Clinton’s part and Clinton was not anything if not a masterful politician.
This is what the New Democrats represent. In order to maintain power for themselves, they will agree to policies that end up screwing the weakest people in society. Obama is a New Democrat on steroids. The fact that Obama is willing to bargain on Social Security, accelerate the privatization of education and keep taxes low on the wealthy (which Clinton did not do, I might mention), is a sign of how far we have fallen as a nation. Since the 1994 midterm elections, if not since Ted Kennedy’s defeat in the 1980 Democratic primaries, real progressives have been relegated to the political wilderness.
Nobody has done more to relegate progressives, not to mention the poorest among us, to oblivion than the New Democrats. Will this end up being Bill Clinton’s legacy when all is said and done?