The Stash

Are Frank And I Too Hard On The New Dems?

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Ed Kilgore has some worthwhile thoughts on the piece Frank and I just wrote about Obama's worldview--two quibbles in particular. The first is that he says we're a bit uncharitable to the New Democrat movement. "I do question, as a veteran of the whole New Democratic thing, Foer and Scheiber's retroactive take on that ideology, which they describe as based on the belief that 'if government largely got out of the way and let markets work properly, the natural result would be widely shared prosperity.' I don't think New Democrats were ever as laissez-faire oriented as they describe it." He quotes from a helpful Progressive Policy Institute document from 1996 that announces "there is no invisible hand that creates equal opportunity; it is a conscious social achievement that requires affirmative acts."

Ed's second point is that one can find clear antecedents to Obamaism in the last two decades of New Democratic thinking.

In which response to which I'd say: This is a man who knows how to read between the lines and suss out the issues we struggled with. Still, broadly speaking, I think we agree with Ed on this more than we disagree.

Two things happened as we wrote the piece. The first is that we became more sympathetic to Clinton; the second is that we became much more aware of Obamaism's roots in Clintonism (and, for that matter, Clinton's roots in Carter). On the first, you can't go back and read Woodward's The Agenda without being struck by how big a crisis the deficit seemed to pose, and how much courage it took for Clinton to set aside part of his program to deal with it.

Our point isn't that Clinton came into office believing government should largely get out of the way. The point we tried to make--and which may have gotten lost a bit, but which is worth emphaiszing--is that Clinton and the New Democratic ideas he embraced were largely about making sure prosperity was widely shared. But the corollary point is important, too--that, by the second term, it became easier for the Clintonites to believe that government could create this prosperity more effectively if it stepped back in many respects. This evolution is a central part of our argument. To wit: "many New Democrats came to believe that if government largely got out of the way and let markets work properly [emphasis added]..." Or consider this passage:

Before long, the economy was creating jobs at a dizzying clip--ten million between 1993 and 1997, another eight million between 1997 and 2000. Rising productivity was driving up wages across the income spectrum. ... It really did look like shrinking deficits had triggered lower interest rates and unleashed a wave of private investment that was powering the economy to new heights.

It's what came next that darkens the narrative. Amid all the new economy triumphalism, the Clintonites deregulated the telecommunications industry and repealed New Deal-era restrictions on bank consolidation. In 1997, Clinton even signed a bill lowering the capital-gains tax rate, that perennial GOP fetish. Having begun their administration grudgingly appeasing Greenspan, the Clintonites gradually embraced his view that, in many cases, government could do no better than step aside. [emphasis added]

The second point is kind of related to the first. It is unquestionably true that Obama has borrowed/updated some of the ideas Clinton proposed on the campaign trail in 1992, and which he pushed during his first term. We have a riff in the piece about a policy wonk named David Osborne, who was the inspiration for Clinton's version of the market "nudging" and "harnessing" ideas Obama has adopted. Similarly, we note that Obama's proposals--particularly on health care--have "more than a hint of Ira Magaziner." The point, to return to the first idea, is just that Clinton got away from some of this stuff in the second term, when it became less clear that more affirmative efforts were necessary. It took the ensuing eight years to clarify that they were.

Ed actually summarizes Obama's worldview in a way I'm pretty comfortable with--and which is pretty consistent with our piece: 

I'd say the more we learn about Barack Obama's domestic ideology, the more it looks like a "third way" progressivism chastened by the economic experiences of the last decade and yoked to a much firmer commitment to the necesssity of maintaining some of the "old" social bargains and regulatory practices of the New Deal and Great Society eras.

P.S. A final small point: I think Frank and I (and Ed as a result) were a little too casual in our use of two separate concepts interchangeably: "New Democrat-ism" and "Clintonism." There's obviously a lot of overlap there. And, as a practical matter, it's often tough to disentangle: a.) a broad governing philosophy from b.) the particular governing philosophy of a leader who subscribes to "a." But they're rarely the same (for obvious reasons--theory-versus-practice kind of thing). 

In particular, one could argue that second-term Clintonism may have drifted in a more laissez faire direction than New Democrat-ism as originally conceived.

--Noam Scheiber

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