By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
He was, all in all, the most gifted political leader since Franklin Roosevelt -- but, in the words of one historian, he was "Roosevelt without the backbone."
HOW MUCH OF THE DEMOCRATS' RETREAT FROM LIBERALISM WAS due to Clinton, and how much to the times themselves, is a question historians will surely debate. It's important to remember that before Bill Clinton burst on the national scene, an entire generation of national Democratic leaders -- Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, Jerry Brown, Michael Dukakis -- had already distanced themselves from the expansive vision of government that had emerged from the New Deal and the Great Society. Clinton differed from them chiefly because they clung to policies of social liberalism (such as opposition to capital punishment) that he had abandoned. But he also differed from them in that he spoke of a more active role for government -- in providing health care, building schools, funding more cops, offering more college loans -- than they had.
Clinton has always argued that he was trying to rebuild support for government in the wake of the Reaganites' assault on it, and that that entailed jettisoning support for failed programs such as welfare. Less euphemistically, he was trying to de-radicalize the Democratic Party, to shuck the policies that had driven the historically Democratic white suburbs of major Northern cities into the Republican column during the preceding quarter-century, that had created the Nixon and Reagan Democrats. By that standard, he was a clear success. Clinton in 1996 and Al Gore in 2000 carried the suburbs of Detroit and Philadelphia and Northern New Jersey; outside the South, America's major cities and their suburbs have become a powerful base for the national Democratic Party.
Los Angeles, Democratic rally, June 1991 (left); Los Angeles, Democratic National Convention, August 2000
Photos by Ted Soqui(left) and Associated Press
At least in part, Clinton changed the thrust, and certainly the image, of Democratic policy from welfare to work. Probably the single most effective and necessary accomplishment of his administration was to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the government program to bring full-time low-wage workers above the poverty line. Part of the 1993 budget, which was enacted over unanimous Republican opposition by a single vote in each house of Congress, the EITC today lifts 4 million Americans out of poverty, at an annual cost of $30 billion -- twice what the main federal welfare program, Aid to Families With Dependent Children, used to cost. A range of other Clinton-created programs have also been targeted at the working poor -- chiefly, child-care subsidies and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Both are only partial successes, but then, both were scaled back to win the approval of a Republican-controlled Congress: The child-care subsidies reach just 10 percent of eligible parents; CHIP, after a slow start, now covers 3.3 million children.
All of which has led to the most notable success of the Clinton presidency: the considerable decline in the poverty rate, from 15 percent when he took office to 11.8 percent today, and, more tellingly yet, the decline in the African-American and Latino poverty rates to 23.6 and 22.8 percents, respectively -- in both instances, historic lows. This is partly Alan Greenspan's doing, since his willingness to entertain a lower unemployment rate than economic orthodoxy said was sustainable produced an upward pressure on low-end wages. But Greenspan's policy is itself partly a result of Clinton's decisions to bring down the deficit and pay off the debt. Even then, without the increase in the EITC and the 1996 minimum-wage hike, fewer than half the Americans who escaped poverty during the Clinton years would have done so.
The effect of Clintonomics on the middle range of the economic spectrum has been somewhat less pronounced -- ironically, since it is the Democratic tilt of that part of the spectrum that is Clinton's most significant political achievement. Median household income adjusted for inflation, rose by 12.2 percent during his presidency -- from $36,379 in 1993 to $40,816 in 1999 The decent-paying blue-collar manufacturing job was already an endangered species when Clinton took office, and his trade policy only accelerated its disappearance.
Trade is another area in which Clinton changed traditional Democratic policy -- except in this instance, he didn't really bring his party along with him. In 1993, when Congress enacted NAFTA, 40 percent of House Democrats voted for the agreement. In 2000, when Congress passed the bill establishing permanent normalized trade relations with China, 35 percent of House Democrats voted for the agreement.
United States Supreme Court, Inauguration Day
Photo by Ted Soqui
Since the China deal, however, a new Democratic synthesis on trade has begun to emerge. Under pressure from such industrial unions as the United Auto Workers, Al Gore pledged during his campaign that any trade treaties negotiated by a Gore administration would place guarantees of worker rights and environmental standards in the treaty itself -- not, as in the case of NAFTA, in an easy-to-ignore side agreement. In the past half year, the Clinton administration negotiated and signed just such an agreement with Jordan, and has laid the groundwork for a similar pact with Chile (though there's no reason to think the Bush administration has any desire to see such guarantees in the final document).