By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
And yet -- take a closer look at the ostensibly centrist cities and their new, supposedly traditionalist, immigrant populations. Look at the erosion of middle-income jobs and the efforts of the labor movement to organize the underside of the New Economy. Look at a liberal movement that has moved beyond a kind of knee-jerk protectionism to the first serious efforts to build at a global level the kind of mixed economy that liberalism created at the national level 60 years ago. What you see are the stirrings of a new liberalism, moving beyond the cul-de-sac of identity politics to a new emphasis on class politics, moving beyond the limits of national sovereignty to a new emphasis on creating some balance -- of power, of wealth -- for the global economy.
For liberalism's critics underestimate its powers of reinvention. The New Deal liberalism of the '30s democratized and added a working-class component to the progressivism of the teens, just as the liberalism of the '60s removed the racial blinders that had led the New Deal to accommodate itself to segregation. And today, even amid the wreckage of venerable liberal programs and the self-destruction of some cherished liberal beliefs, a new liberalism incubates. It will shortly give birth to a new generation of mayors. It is not yet ready to generate a presidential candidate of its own (though both of the centrist Democratic candidates embrace a few of its defining positions), even as the old liberal causes and campaigns have grown too weak to generate the traditional liberal candidates to which Democrats have long been accustomed. At the national level, the presidential level, we are in a liberal interregnum -- a winter for liberals.
But there is a seed beneath the snow.
II. A DECADE ON DEFENSE
BY ONE ACCOUNT, THE LIBERAL WINTER WAS SUPPOSED to have ended 10 years ago. According to historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s cyclical theory of American politics, the '90s -- like the '30s and '60s before them -- was to have been a progressive decade.
As the decade closes, the foremost achievement of '90s progressives may be little more than preserving the progressive handiwork of the '30s and the '60s: Social Security and Medicare, respectively. But then, liberals have spent most of the '90s on the defensive -- fearing, after the debacle of health care, to advocate any new programs that raise taxes, and directing themselves, since the Newtoids took Congress in 1994, to curtailing Republican mischief.
Which explains the liberal acquiescence to the Clinton plan for Social Security.
For when it became clear last year that the government was about to start running huge budget surpluses, Clinton developed the ultimate defensive ploy of the decade. By demanding that the surplus be set aside to "save Social Security," he blocked the Republicans from enacting the kind of disastrous tax cuts that had ballooned the deficit and curtailed any new domestic programs during the Reagan years.
The problem for liberals is what exactly Clinton proposes to do with the surplus, since there's no Social Security bank account in which the money is just going to sit. His actual proposal is to use the surplus to pay down the national debt -- to its lowest level, as a percentage of all U.S. economic activity, since 1917. This is a proposal that has Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin's fingerprints all over it. When Clinton first took office, it was Rubin who argued that reducing the deficit and lowering interest rates would boost the economy, and should take precedence over any major governmental initiatives. Now, as Clinton is preparing to leave, Rubin is making the same argument for reducing the debt.
And, as with the deficit, Rubin is both right and wrong. Whacking the debt will free up more capital for investment, just as whacking the deficit already has. Problem is, not every social need is addressed by private investment. Affordable housing has dwindled even as the deficit has shrunk, because there's no profit in building affordable housing. The number of medically uninsured Americans has increased even as the deficit has decreased, because HMOs cannot figure out a way to insure them at a profit.
So directing several trillion dollars to debt reduction not only blocks any future GOP tax cuts. It also aborts any future Democratic designs to alleviate the affordable-â housing crunch, or win health coverage for the 45 million uninsured. Indeed, under the Clinton administration's own projections, so minuscule a percentage of the surplus will go to such projects that by the year 2004, spending on domestic programs other than Social Security and Medicare will shrink to its lowest level, as a percentage of the economy's total output, in 34 years.
More than that, putting the surplus into paying down the debt also takes a huge pool of money out of circulation, at a time when the global economy is drowning in a sea of overproduction and layoffs. It is precisely the kind of policy that the governments of the world charted in the early '30s, when they transformed an economic panic into the global Great Depression. It was the defining economic policy of Herbert Hoover -- and the policy against which the Democrats defined themselves for the next half-century.