By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Clinton's two-step on trade illustrates his general approach to issues that pitted the party's core values against the nation's most powerful constituency. When big business as a class mobilized behind a cause -- and, more particularly, if Wall Street, which was becoming increasingly and generously Democratic during Clinton's presidency, led the way -- Clinton would not go against it. Intellectually, he understood how global laissez faire ran counter to the Democrats' commitment to a mixed economy, and during the Seattle WTO debacle, astonishingly, he even gave an interview in which he said the demonstrators were right to demand binding penalties for violations of labor standards. But none of this affected the laissez-faire treaty that his own trade representative was negotiating at that very moment: That was real, not theory, and not to be mucked with by an excess of Democratic ideology. Later, when corporate and financial America didn't really care, when the question was trade not with China but with Jordan, there would be time for conscience, to craft a more humane global order.
Clinton's had plenty of time for conscience during the final month of his presidency, when there no longer was any reason to hoard his political capital against future storms. Since the Supreme Court awarded the White House to George W. Bush, Clinton set aside vast tracts of land as national monuments, or extended them protection against loggers and developers; he imposed regulations requiring employers to adhere to ergonomic standards in the workplace, and enabling government agencies to deny contracts to companies that violated labor laws. Progressive bookends now frame his otherwise centrist presidency at its beginning and end: On one side, the 1992 campaign, where he held out the promise of universal health care; on the other, his legislating by fiat when it was finally safe to throw his realpolitik constraints to the winds.
And in between, it was all largely improvisation.
THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM ON CLINTON IS THAT he lost his footing in his first two years as president, tacking so far to the left that the Republicans blew the Democrats away in 1994. But the conventional wisdom doesn't have it quite right. Clinton got two major pieces of legislation through Congress in 1993-94: his first budget, which raised taxes on the rich and thus dispelled the deficit, and NAFTA. As countless commentators have noted, the Democrats paid a price for the first of these -- the Gingrichites attacked them as tax-and-spend old-timers -- but, as hardly any commentators have pointed out, they paid a price for the second as well. Union turnout in the wake of NAFTA's passage was abysmal; in 1994, just 14 percent of the electorate came from union households.
Clinton's inability to get his (and Hillary's) health-care proposal through Congress was the most critical failure of his first two years, and indeed, of his entire administration. It was a failure both of process and of substance -- the plan was shrouded from view all the while it was being put together, then was all but incomprehensible when unveiled. The Clintons were hardly the only parties responsible for its failure; a number of centrist Democratic congressmen took a dive when it came to the Hill, turning against the plan at the behest of the hospital or small-business lobbies. Besides, mobilizing support for a universal plan when the middle-class already had private insurance was always going to be tricky at best.
But if Clinton failed to deliver for his own plan, he was a genius at thwarting the Republicans'. Gingrich stormed into the speakership vowing to abolish whole departments of government and scale back such programs as Medicare and the Clean Air Act. Clinton conceded the principle of balancing the budget -- and within those constraints, fought successfully to preserve the programs the GOP sought to kill, while crafting nice-sounding micro-programs of his own. When the deficit turned to surpluses during his second term and the Republicans sought a tax cut, Clinton headed them off by using the money to retire the debt.
Still, the dynamic was largely one of retreat: Clinton would give ground on ideology, would pledge that "The era of big government is over," then fight for this program here, that program there, all in the framework of a fiscal policy that Calvin Coolidge would have loved. Historian Eric Foner has argued that Clinton is to Reagan as Eisenhower was to Roosevelt, that Clinton was the Democrat who ratified Reagan's turn away from big government, just as Ike had been the Republican who ratified Roosevelt's embrace of it.
It was ideology by tactical concession, wedding his party to the narrowest kind of fiscal rectitude as a way to stay three steps ahead of Gingrich and Trent Lott. The markets loved it, and rewarded Clinton with the longest peacetime boom in U.S. history. But there are social ills the market has no interest in remedying (providing health care for all, building more affordable housing), that only government can remedy, and Clinton bound his party in an ideological straitjacket that would make any such large-scale remedy impossible, even if the Republicans no longer controlled Congress. On a smaller scale, however, he did establish and expand CHIP, and enforce the Community Reinvestment Act in a way that significantly increased minority homeownership. His watchword -- the same watchword that guided his trade policy as it moved from China to Jordan -- was don't upset the markets, but when the markets are napping, slip some decency into the mix.
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