JUNE 19, 2006
`Clinton's third way failed miserably. It ... delivered nothing." So
wrote Markos Moulitsas, the most influential online activist in the
Democratic Party, in the May 7 Washington Post. It's not an unusual
view. In his wildly successful book, What's the Matter with
Kansas?, Thomas Frank says that, in the 1990s, Democrats committed
"suicide." Among liberal activists today, the claim that Clintonism
represents a failed model--which contemporary Democrats must
reject--has virtually become conventional wisdom.The case against Clintonism comes in two parts: one moral and
intellectual, the other political. I'll tackle the first this week;
the second next week. What unites them is a deep amnesia about the
party--and the country--that Bill Clinton inherited. The attack on
Clinton founders on one simple question: compared with what?
The moral and intellectual critique starts with the assertion that
Clinton stood for little other than his own political survival. By
draining the party of its core convictions, the critics allege, he
left Democrats in the intellectual wasteland in which they find
The charge ignores two small things: the 1970s and the 1980s. In
reality, the Democratic Party didn't lose the confidence of its
convictions when Clinton became president; it lost them when he was
in graduate school. From Harry Truman through Lyndon Johnson,
Democrats stood for three basic things: enlightened anti-communism,
an expanding welfare state, and racial integration. Between 1968
and 1972, under pressure from Vietnam and racial conflict, two of
those three collapsed. By 1972, George McGovern was urging the
virtual abandonment of anticommunism and advocating racial quotas.
Then, in 1976, Democrats nominated a relative economic
conservative, Jimmy Carter, who showed little interest in extending
Johnson's Great Society largesse. And, poof--there went principle
From 1976 to 1992, each Democratic presidential nominee tried to put
Humpty Dumpty back together, and each failed, until Clinton. Carter
ran on character-- as a decent, capable man who embodied the
small-town virtues forsaken by Richard Nixon. And it worked--until
economic recession and the hostage crisis stripped him of his
reputation for competence and left him ideologically naked.
In 1984, the Democrats nominated Carter's vice president, Walter
Mondale, who looked like a prisoner of the party's fractious,
multicultural factions. While serving numerous parochial interests,
his campaign never defined any broader national one. As one Mondale
speechwriter admitted, "We had a hell of a time putting down on
paper what this campaign was going to be all about."
In 1988, Michael Dukakis barely even tried. "This election is not
about ideology," he declared. "It's about competence." And, when
Lee Atwater shrewdly invoked cultural issues like crime and the
Pledge of Allegiance, which required not merely technocratic
solutions, but statements of belief, he crumbled.
This, like it or not, is the history that preceded Clinton. He did
not create liberalism's crisis of faith; he inherited it. And, in
1992, he became the first candidate in two decades to offer a
coherent response. His adviser Bill Galston called it the "politics
of reciprocal responsibility." Government would provide
opportunity, but it would demand responsibility in return; it would
not give something for nothing. This idea--manifested in Clinton's
pledge to "end welfare as we know it"--angered some liberals. But
it told blue-collar whites that Democrats would distinguish between
people who "played by the rules" and those who didn't. (Clinton's
tough stance on crime sent the same message.) By the time Clinton
signed welfare reform in 1996, the public's image of government was
changing. When people thought of the beneficiaries of government
help, they were more likely to think of people like themselves.
If Clinton convinced Americans that government action could be
moral, he also convinced them that it could be responsible. By
reducing the budget deficit, he helped restore the Democratic
Party's reputation for economic stewardship, which had been gravely
damaged under Carter. And, by using market mechanisms to achieve
traditional liberal goals, he found ways to fight poverty in an
environment where large new programs were politically impossible.
To be sure, Clinton sometimes bobbed and weaved. But these two
principles-- the willingness to make moral judgments (think of
school uniforms or the V- Chip) and the recognition that social
justice does not always require new programs (think of Al Gore's
reinventing government)--were the most important intellectual
innovations in the Democratic Party in two decades.
And they worked. Clinton's 1993 decision to cut the budget deficit
rather than propose substantial new spending helped lay the
groundwork for an extraordinary economic boom. And, unlike the boom
of the '80s, Clinton's genuinely benefited the poorest Americans.
Under Ronald Reagan, 50,000 children escaped poverty; under
Clinton, more than 4 million did. During Clinton's tenure, income
rose faster for blacks and Latinos than for whites, and faster for
single mothers than for two-parent families. By 2000, black and
Latino poverty were at their lowest levels ever recorded.
And it wasn't only the economic boom. Clinton raised the minimum
wage, he created schip, which offered health insurance to children
of the working poor, and he dramatically expanded the Earned Income
Tax Credit (eitc). These initiatives rewarded work, and none
required large new government bureaucracies. But, on the ground,
they changed lives. When Clinton left office, the poverty rate was
11 percent. But, as Ronald Brownstein has noted, when you factor in
government policies, especially the larger eitc, it dropped to 9
percent. During Clinton's presidency, the percentage of Americans
living in poverty fell by one-quarter. And, without particular
policies based on a particular vision of government, that would not
have happened. Morally and intellectually, Clintonism wasn't a
miserable failure; it was a success.
The same is true politically. But that's for next week.
By peter beinart