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What Not To Worry About

A Senior Speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore at age 21, Andrei Cherny was the youngest White House Speechwriter in American history. He has also written speeches for President Bill Clinton, Richard Gephardt, cabinet members, senators, governors, and members of the House of Representatives.
That's Andrei Cherney, Harvard '96 and seemingly possessed of an unshakable lead in the Young Liberal Intellectual sweepstakes (although what ever happened to Jed Purdy?).

He's got a good piece in the current New Republic making the case for Clintonism as a coherent ideology and not just a mish-mash. Interestingly, as the article notes people usually understand Clintonism as a mish-mash in part because Clinton seems to see it that way. This is, in some ways, more natural than it might first seem. When I was doing my philosophy of science class we learned that from a certain point-of-view Isaac Newton was the last pre-Newtonian scientist (and Einstein the last pre-Einsteinian, etc.) rather than the first thinker of the Newtonian era. Despite making astounding breakthroughs, Einstein was a product of the pre-Einstein era and naturally carried over certain ways of thinking that he himself made obsolete. Only scientists predominantly trained after Einstein's work was already revolutionizing the way we think about physics really did science à la Einstein. Insofar as Clinton pointed the way toward a new political paradigm, it will be one that is primarily appreciated by a younger generation of activists, policy analysts, wonks, hacks, intellectuals, etc. who grew up thinking of Clintonism as in some sense a natural element of the political landscape and not something that had to be devised on the fly.

At any rate, what I really wanted to say was that a while back I was talking to Andrei and he mentioned to me a piece he was working on for The New Republic that was going to make an analogy I thought was pretty badly flawed. Now it's here:

The historical analogy to Clinton's legacy in this respect is that of Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, in a 1999 interview, Clinton acknowledged that T.R.'s presidency "was a similar point in the history of America, where we were transforming ourselves from, then, an agricultural to an industrial society, now from an industrial to an information technology-based society." While Clinton and Roosevelt certainly differed in personality and background, both governed at times of relative peace, great prosperity, and enormous transformation. Both fought the powerful interests of their party on some issues and found accommodation on others. But, most of all, both called into question accepted assumptions about the role of government and prepared Americans for the idea that their government would have to shift if it were to become relevant again. Neither Roosevelt nor Clinton mapped out that change, but both laid the groundwork for the task ahead.

But it is worth remembering as well that, in the years after the Republican Rough Rider left office, the greatest strides in furthering his legacy and ideas occurred among Democrats like Woodrow Wilson, Louis Brandeis, and T.R.'s cousin Franklin. Republicans celebrated Teddy Roosevelt's ebullient personality but either scorned or ignored his policies. And thus, Democrats became the majority party and Republicans spent a half-century in the wilderness, carping about progressive missteps and overreaches.

This seems to me to be a very odd sort of concern to have. After all, what if the GOP of the post-TR era hadn't abandonned the Bull Moose's legacy and the Republicans, rather than the Democrats, had emerged as the dominant force of mid-twentieth century politics -- would there be anything in that for today's Democrats to regret? Of course not. Today's Democrats are liberals. We basically like the legacy of the Progressives and the New Deal. We are Democrats today because the Democratic Party is the heir to that spirit. If, instead, those things had been brought to us by the Republican Party and the GOP continued to be the party operating in that spirit, I would be a Republican. The purely political aspect of this turn of events isn't anything people should worry about.

If there's a serious problem to be found in the fact that the Republicans abandonned the TR legacy, that problem would have to be that the conservative Republican policies of 1919-1932 bare large amounts of responsibility for the catastrophes of the Great Depression and the botched settlement of the World War. I'm not enough of an expert in the relevant issues to say whether or not there's much truth to that critique of interwar Republicanism, but if there's a major problem with it, that's the problem.

Flashing forward to the present, the prospect that the Bush Republicans will achieve long-term political dominance really isn't something we should worry about all that much. Bushian politics are based on an . . . unorthodox . . . policy mixture: the taxes keep going down, but the spending keeps going up. This leaves us with only a few options for the long-term:

  • Taxes are increased.
  • Spending is seriously reduced.
  • The economy collapses.
  • By magic, revenues and expenditures may take divergent paths forever.
Only one of these is consistent with the hypothetical endless Republican dominance. A tax increase would shatter Bush's political coalition, just as it shattered his fathers. Spending cuts of the scale necessary to bring things into line would cause a lot of suffering, and provoke a political backlash that would be more than adequate to swinging a closely divided national pendulum back toward the Democrats. An economic collapse would obviously sweep the Democrats back into power. The magic scenario would work, but if the Republicans really can prove that endless increases in the debt-to-GDP ratio are infinitely sustainable, they probably deserve to stay in office -- those of us who think otherwise have been depriving the nation of a potential boon!

Among the realistic options, the thing liberals ought to worry most about is the economic collapse scenario. This would, of course, be the best possible thing for the Democratic Party. But it obviously wouldn't be worth the price. The best reason to hope the Democrats get better at winning elections in time for 2006 and 2008 isn't that if they don't they'll never win again. It's that the circumstances they win may well be unbearably awful for the country and the world. Next-worst is the cuts. Serious cuts would almost certainly hand the Democrats the needed campaign issue to regain power. You simply can't squeeze the anti-poverty budget enough to make this work. You need to slash Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid's spending on middle class elderly people, or the Defense Department to make the numbers add up. The alternative would be to just shut down the national parks, the FBI, the people who make sure there's no arsenic in your ground beef, and stop building new highways. Democrats would win, but very bad things might happen to people in the interim. Better electoral performance could avoid this scenario, and that's reason enough to hope for it.

May 10, 2005 | Permalink


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You mention Jed! It seems so long ago -- the time when young liberal intellectuals would write books of general cultural criticism where they'd worry about people being too ironic and not genuine enough. O how the apathetic '90s seem so perfect now!

(Jed was my summer school proctor. I thought he was the smartest guy I'd ever met, and at that time, I may have been right.)

Posted by: Ethical Werewolf | May 10, 2005 2:00:06 AM

Matt writes: "Interestingly, as the article notes people usually understand Clintonism as a mish-mash in part because Clinton seems to see it that way."

Cherney writes: "Over a 25-year career in Arkansas and as president, Clinton was remarkably consistent in his outlook on the country and approach to government."

When you're blazing a new trail, everything is ad-hoc. But the decisions you're making are all informed by your core beliefs and worldview. The pattern you are creating is usually not apparent to you at the time - it only becomes obvious as others examine your trail.


Cherney's piece is an important read for anyone trying to understand the future of the Democrats.

Posted by: Petey | May 10, 2005 2:46:52 AM

"...what ever happened to Jed Purdy?"

Hopefully, he's been banished from the scene for life. Good lord, was he ever annoying.

Posted by: Petey | May 10, 2005 2:51:20 AM

I think Clinton read Nonzero and realized that was the basis for his way of thinking, which had probably been something like what I will attribute to Alan Alda's golden rule (although it could be some other actor) - treat people as you would like to be treated -- and make sure that they do the same.
I think major economic pain would not necessarily be a bad thing if it would never allow a government such as the one we have now -- completely and obviously irresponsible -- but I am not seeing a foundation for an economic class to be attributable to Bush incompetence. After Clinton, I thought we had acheived a certain understanding of what competent government would look like, but unfortunately, Bush took the exact opposite lessons from the media circus at the end of Clinton's term - that the image and cynical voter manipulation was all that mattered.
It would be a great thing to get back a certain confidence that future Presidents will have reach a modest level of competence.

Posted by: theCoach | May 10, 2005 3:06:47 AM

Sorry for the typos -- "class"-->crash, "will have reach"-->will reach, others I am sure...

Posted by: theCoach | May 10, 2005 3:15:37 AM

"(although what ever happened to Jed Purdy?)."

The great postmodern beast stalking the land and corrupting the children defouled and devoured him.

Posted by: Robin the Hood | May 10, 2005 3:31:23 AM

" what ever happened to Jed Purdy?"

In a just universe, he's off somewhere hanging out with Dustin Diamond and Corey Feldman.

Posted by: Julian | May 10, 2005 3:40:55 AM

Jed Purdy is an assistant professor of law at Duke. God help the next generation.

Posted by: schwa | May 10, 2005 4:14:40 AM

"...what ever happened to Jed Purdy?"

The irony gods have him and a number of blond Mormon boys and their bikes imprisoned in their basement.

Posted by: Snarkasaurus Rex | May 10, 2005 4:28:54 AM

Teddy Roosevelt doesn't resemble Clinton. Clinton's welfare reform, NAFTA, etc, hardly represent the profound betrayal of his class that TR's policies did. The US was far more in thrall to big business at the close of the 19th century than it is today. Leon Czolgosz, with a bullet to McKinley's heart, reinvigorated democracy in America. Was a crazed assassin ever more successful in his political aims? I suppose we can thank Emma Goldman.

And Clinton is jus t Nixon with charm. Competent, but hardly transformative. A government can't be run as anti-authoritarian. After the 60's, Clinton helped reclaim our government's authority on social welfare issues (that is, legislative authority), and Bush did the same for the government's police and military powers (that is, executive authority).

And the way that we solve the deficit problem will be the same way we did it in the 90's: grow our way out of it.

Posted by: epistemology | May 10, 2005 9:00:10 AM

I swear I heard Yglesias clearing his throat and subtly pointing to himself when he typed "seemingly possessed of an unshakable lead in the Young Liberal Intellectual sweepstakes".

Posted by: old guy | May 10, 2005 9:36:54 AM

Leon Czolgosz, with a bullet to McKinley's heart, reinvigorated democracy in America. Was a crazed assassin ever more successful in his political aims?

Yigal Amir.

Posted by: Answer Guy | May 10, 2005 10:37:47 AM

I think that Andrei, like Jed, was class of 97. (We had some pretty smart people that year.) Jed's also a fellow at the New America Foundation, where Mark Schmitt hangs his hat.

Matt, I'm not sure that you're right that an economic collapse would bring the Democrats back to power. It could easily lead to more militarization and more wars of aggression to extract cheap fuel. It wouldn't be rational, but if people were afraid enough, it could happen.

Posted by: Abby Vigneron | May 10, 2005 10:46:57 AM

I fear that Rove thinks of Bush as a McKinley, who lived. It was McKinley, with Hanna as Rove, and the good luck of the Gold discoveries of the 90's, which created the Republican majority, which ruled the U.S., 1896 - 1932.

Clinton is Grover Cleveland in that drama, not T.R.

T.R. and progressivism were a phenomenon. T.R.'s greatest contribution was getting Woodrow Wilson elected. It was Wilson, a man of ideas, who got the major elements of the Progressive agenda enacted, and who laid the intellectual foundation for economic liberalism and for idealistic internationalism in foreign policy.

The thing the Democrats most need to fear is getting elected, BEFORE Republican policy reaps its necessary consequences. If Democrats could magically ascend to power, tomorrow, and then, immediately began reversing all the Republican craziness, the political consequences for Democrats would be catastrophic.

Republicans are pursuing the course of policy, which they are, because it is a course without immediate pain, but they are well aware of consequences. Over and over again, on issues as varied as Social Security and RealID, Bush and his Congressional allies propose policies, which will be go into effect only in 2009, and Democrats seem not to notice the implications. If Democrats return to power, only to withdraw in ignominy from Iraq, to raise taxes, to burst the housing bubble, and to devalue the dollar vis a vis the Chinese yuan, they will be hooverized, and out of power for a generation.

If Bush can get top out the Federal judiciary with a radically conservative, Federalist Society majority on the Supreme Court and most of the Circuit Courts, they can afford to lose in 2008. If they can manuver the Democrats into taking responsibility for withdrawing from Iraq, for raising taxes and cutting social benefits, for devaluing the dollar, etc., the Democratic Party might never recover.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | May 10, 2005 10:53:20 AM

"An economic collapse would obviously sweep the Democrats back into power."

I do not take this at all as a given. This is not the country it was in 1932. The "Solid South" et al is still solid, and as Thomas Frank etc discuss, economic issues and conditions are not necessarily determinative of their vote. NB: anyong who wishes to uses 1890-1930 electoral college maps to show the South wasn't so solid needs to add congressional data to convince me.

So given Republican intransigence, somebody needs to show me how even in Great Depression conditions liberals get 275 house seats and 60 Senators, for without those kind of numbers, solutions to economic catastrophe will run toward Republican policies.

In addition, the Democratic party after welfare reform isn't really offering a credible alternative to be brought forward in catastrophic conditions. Wonks know that tax cuts don't stimulate growth, but the politicians haven't run on that platform. Instead, Clinton told America that the era of big government is over, and Democrats will not be able to switch over to a radical statist agenda simply because it is good policy.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 10, 2005 11:05:06 AM

As someone who really didn't like Clinton at the time and doesn't really like him much now, I'm wondering why people on the left or middle like him. Specifically, it seems like a lot of the last 4-5 years can be attributed to his failures. As leader of the Democratic Party for 8 prosperous years, why didn't his leadership transform the party to be more competitive with the Republicans? Why did he fail so badly at party building and development? Why are we where we are - not only at the Presidential level, but also in the House, the Senate, the State Houses, and in the Judiciary?

Obviously, Clinton is not the main person to blame for this, but if he was really such a great politician, why didn't he help make the Democratic Party into something more powerful than it is? Why didn't he tackle its fundamental weakness on National Security? Why has the National Discourse and Intellectual Leadership of our Country degenerated to the level it has?

I'm just curious why people think "Clintonism" was so great when it seems to have failed the main test of our time - it has failed to develop the Democratic Party into a political force that could challenge a Republican Jugernaut defined by greed, deceit, and self-interest?

Posted by: MDtoMN | May 10, 2005 12:49:57 PM

I think there are two different strains of Clintonism. One is a mishmash, one isn't.

The tough-on-crime, welfare-to-work, teenage-moms-must-stay-with-parents-to-get-benefits Clinton is a cohesive philosophy that the order and work ethic are necessary conditions for improving the lives of the poor and working class. Universal health care fits in because at the time there were perverse incentives that encouraged the poor to stop working in order to qualify for medicaid. Now, how he wanted to get to UHC is a little wacky, but that's because he tried to avoid the socialized medcine tag and wanted to get the support of big business. Clinton's gun control stance probably fit in here, though there was probably some political calculation that soccer moms were afraid of guns.

The "pro-choice, but against taxpayer funding", "let's deregulate some industries, but not others", "school uniforms, v-chip, and big tobacco busting" Clinton was a mish-mash of politically convenient positions and compromises he made with the Republican majority. Some of them happened to fit into his notion of a civic community, some didn't.

The "deficit reduction uber alles" strategy of 1995-1997 was almost entirely political; Bob Rubin even opposed balancing the budget at the speed with which Clinton did it, saying it would cause unneeded cuts in social spending.

I swear I heard Yglesias clearing his throat and subtly pointing to himself when he typed "seemingly possessed of an unshakable lead in the Young Liberal Intellectual sweepstakes".

Of course you did. It's sort of a shame Cherney's got it apparently locked up at this point. Does TNR have any whiz kids? How old are the other folks at The American Prospect?

Posted by: Electoral Math | May 10, 2005 1:31:57 PM

"How old are the other folks at The American Prospect?"

Ezra Klein might still be celebrating his 21st birthday, since he has an excuse to continue the party in being accepted as a Prospect fellow.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 10, 2005 6:06:17 PM

It is not at all clear to me that the Democrats will benefit if the economy tanks. It is even less clear that liberalism will benefit. In fact, it is almost certain that it won't. When people are in trouble, they become less easily moved by reason and compassion and more easily maneuvered into irrationality and bigotry, which would suit W. and his business buddies and especially his religious buddies just fine.

Posted by: David J. Balan | May 11, 2005 5:35:26 PM

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