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The Clinton Legacy

Max Sawicky and Anne Lewis debate over at TAP Online. My own take, abstracting away from nitty-gritty policy details is this:

Ronald Reagan, as I've noted before, stormed the barricades flying the banners of small government and budget cuts. Once in office he discovered, however, that while people thought they thought government was the problem, they actually liked the programs that accounted for the bulk of the budget. Nevertheless, small-government nostrums propelled the GOP to re-election in 1984 and 1988. What Clinton did was lance the boils -- the mistaken impression that Democratic spending was primarily responsible for budget deficits and that the unpopular Aid to Families with Dependent Childen (AFDC) program was a major component of federal expenditures -- and thus lay the groundwork for bringing people's first-order love of government into line with their second-order beliefs about the desirability of big government. Unfortunately, this psychic reconstruction only took place after the GOP had seized control of congress, which prevented Clinton from implementing any grand domestic agenda.

The Bush administration's conduct in office, however, demonstrates the extent to which the reconstruction really has taken place. Since the Bushies don't care about good policy, we haven't gotten any good policy, but since they do care about politics, we've gotten a lot of policy. The terms of today's political debate take place on liberal terms -- if you have a problem with your health care or your kids' school, it's the federal government's responsibility to solve that problem. It is taken for granted that the environment should be cleaned up through federal regulation. This is liberalism. That administration policies will not, in fact, improve your health care, fix your kids school, or clean your air is noteworthy (this is why you shouldn't vote for Bush), but not ultimately decisive. The parties are bound to alternate in power, the really important issue is what will the good guys be able to achieve when they have power. Hence, the centrality of the terms of debate. Bush has accepted liberal terms, and Bill Clinton deserves a great deal of credit for that fact.

Now of course it's hard to totally abstract away from policy specifics. The other big thing Clinton did was convert the Democratic Party from a mercantilist one to an at least sporadically free trading one. I think this was a good thing. Others disagree. And we'll probably have to agree to disagree.

July 2, 2004 | Permalink


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"The other big thing Clinton did was convert the Democratic Party from a mercantilist one to an at least sporadically free trading one."

My historical knowledge is too fuzzy to be certain, but I think this is incomplete in light of the ag subsidies, as Jefferson & Co. were southern agriculturists who wanted to be able to import finished goods without having to pay tariffs (which seems to be what we have now, with the limited import taxes on Lexuses and NIKEs) but who were not so hot on having their agricultural goods compete with equal freedom, though I suppose at that time slave labor was even cheaper than 3rd world nation labor is now, so U.S. ag goods would be highly competitive in free trade.

Posted by: PG | Jul 2, 2004 11:13:46 AM

"Bush has accepted liberal terms, and Bill Clinton deserves a great deal of credit"

This was a good post. I like it, tho it somewhat refutes my previous thinking.. Righties like Tacitus have grounds for complaint not only on actual spending, but also for the way Bush has framed the debate. "Compassionate Conservatism" as privatizing many gov't services was just mentioned, but never really developed or engaged.

I don't know if Rove and Luntz found that that the specifics really would'nt sell, or if 9/11 changed everything, distracted them.

I do know that the Shrub was opposed to Medicare and Social Security as far back as prep school, and I doubt that his philosophy has changed. This may be where I differ with Matt. Repubs are not now in love with big gov't.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 2, 2004 12:08:21 PM

Is it really true that before Clinton (BC) the Democrats were a mercantalist party? Sure, there were and are Democrats who don't like free trade (for example Dick Gephardt). But for most of the 20th century, Democratic presidents have been more likely to support free trade than Republican ones. After all Herbert Hoover raised tariffs. FDR continued this policy in his first term but by the late 1930s was convinced that free trade was the way to go. The modern trade regime -- and the supporting political infrastructure of internationalism -- was basically hammered out during WWII and the early Cold War -- think of GATT, the IMF, the World Bank. The precursor and model to Nafta was the Canada-USA auto-pact, which was created under Kennedy and Johnson.

Pat Buchanan always argues that Free Trade is a liberal heresy and that ortodox Republicans should support tariffs. He happens to be right on this.

Posted by: Jeet Heer | Jul 2, 2004 12:12:24 PM

I heard Clinton speak earlier this week at a small private fundraiser in a Los Altos home.

He said when he is asked what big contribution he and Rubin brought to economic theory, the answer is always: "arithmetic."

Better line than Busn's "trifecta" gag, don't you think?

But he is right. You are seeing the difference right now between the Clinton years, where policy was driven by sound economic principles, and the W years where policy is totally driven by ideology. When you have to make a decision on something like NAFTA and WTO and Fed rates etc if you have to bow down to the God of Supply Side Economics and Privatize Evrything you are basically screwed. If you have to bow down to the God of Tax and Spend Liberalism you are equally screwed but in a different way.

Only a centerist or a fiscally-conservative liberal or a socially-progressive conservative (if there is any difference) has a chance of making the right decision, and even then they won't always get it right. Just right often enough to let the robustness of the U.S. economy do its thing.

Posted by: Alan | Jul 2, 2004 12:31:00 PM

This may be where I differ with Matt. Repubs are not now in love with big gov't.

MY's not saying that Rethugs love big gu'ment, but rather that since coming to power they use government spending (or deferment in the case of tax cuts) purely for political reasons. For the Rethugs, the End (power) justifies just about any and all means, even those which seemingly contradict their stated principals.

Posted by: Bragan | Jul 2, 2004 12:32:28 PM

Today's Repugs care about NOTHING other than POWER. They will do anything, betray any value / constituency / support any lie or corruption, to stay in power.

Posted by: MattB | Jul 2, 2004 12:54:59 PM

Matt: "Hence, the centrality of the terms of debate. Bush has accepted liberal terms, and Bill Clinton deserves a great deal of credit for that fact."

I agree completely with this, but the coin has another side. While Bush hasn't shown appetite for cutting programs dramatically, he has turned these programs inside out in many cases (witness the rape of the environment going on under him).

Also on the other side of that coin is Bush's total, complete, unreserved belief in tax cuts that now endanger almost all of the liberal programs since the 1930's because of the huge current deficits and long term debt that he has fostered through these tax reallocations from the wealthy to the not-wealthy, and from today's tax-payers to future tax-payers. Huge amounts of current expenditures have to be allocated to paying interest on that debt - which is a total waste of our taxes.

Whether he really believes in the GOP Conservative view of "starving the beast" (of government) or not, in practical terms that is what is happening.

The government funding issue will be the hardest problem of the Kerry administration to solve domestically.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 2, 2004 3:17:14 PM

On the other hand, Clinton governed a bit right of center.

I think Europeans are correct when they tell us that we have two parties. The Democrats, the right wing party, and the Republicans, the far right wing party.

Not that I'm complaining, mind you. I think the debate over statism vs. libertarianism has been won by the forces of liberty for the most part. It must be acknowledged that a rich society should have a basic safety net, and should do those things the private sector cannot do. But there is no reason the federal government should ever take more than 20% of GDP, and under Clinton and Gingrich, the government's share of GDP fell. I think it's no coincidence that the budget became balanced and the economy was good. I know many liberals love to credit tax increases of all things for this, but it's just not so. Spending fell as a percentage of GDP, and liberals conveniently forget that the deep spending cuts were the other half of the 1993 Clinton economic plan.

The Democratic Party is certainly more right wing than it was before Reagan. Which of course is why so many liberal Democrats are infuriated. Well, get over it. I'm a proud Lieberman/Zell Miller/John Breux/BILL freakin' CLINTON Democrat and proud of it.

We know what we're doing, we brought you guys back to the show! DLC forever!

Posted by: Adam Herman | Jul 3, 2004 12:24:15 AM

I take it when Adam says he at least a partially 'Zell Miller' Democrat, he means the "1992 introduces Bill Clinton to the Democratic Convention" Zell and not his current senile and Lester Maddox possessed iteration.

Posted by: Mr. bill | Jul 3, 2004 9:55:39 AM

Politically, Zell is still the same. He's just been misled that Bush is the only guy that can win the War on Terror. I think he's also confusing the rhetoric of the moonbat, blame America left, with the Democratic Party. I see very little connection. And I certainly don't see Kerry as representing that wing, although I would have been happier with Lieberman. Oh well. Kerry has surrounded himself with Clinton advisors and promised to govern as Clinton did, so I won't complain much if he wins.

Miller speaking at the Republican convention does rankle though. I don't have anything against the Republicans when they stick to conservative idealism, I share most of their stated values. I just object to their corruption and overreliance on fighting the culture wars. It's beyond absurd. And I don't think I'm the only conservative/libertarian that's more comfortable in the Democratic Party. Our battles have been fought far more effectively by the conservative wing of the party and the DLC than by the incompetent Republicans. And more civilly too. When was the last time you heard a nasty word from a conservative Democrat? We get it from both liberal moonbats and conservative zealots.

Posted by: Adam Herman | Jul 4, 2004 3:28:44 AM

Matt: "Hence, the centrality of the terms of debate. Bush has accepted liberal terms, and Bill Clinton deserves a great deal of credit for that fact."

I don't think Bush has acccepted the terms of the debate in the sense that this is a policy he believes in or wants or one to which he would willingly pledges his troth.

Bush just uses the words and doesn't mean them.
He's like a guy (Republican compassionate conservative) who's after a girl (the American electorate) who wants romance and commitment so he says whats he needs to say like "I love you" in order to get her into bed.

Then he'll sweet talk her and @$%*@ her and
keep putting off the wedding.

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