Matthew Rozsa discusses why liberals should respect the legacy of President Bill Clinton.
Whenever I talk to potential voters who doubt Hillary Clinton (not outright oppose her, mind you, but simply have reservations), I find there are two arguments which are most likely to convince them to develop a more favorable view of her potential presidency. One is the possibility that not turning out to give her an extra vote will help elect Donald Trump; the other is that, when all is said and done, she was the single most influential adviser to one of the most consistently popular presidents in modern history – her husband, William Jefferson Clinton. While the former is great for scaring them away from The Donald, I find that one of the best ways to convince voters to want a term for Hillary is by arguing that it’s tantamount to a third one for Bill.
Unfortunately, there is an ongoing trend to convince the general public that they must reevaluate that favorable assessment. While this was predictable given the growing possibility of a Clinton restoration, unfortunately the effort seems to be working. Clinton’s current favorability rating has been down to 53-56 percent since the start of the year, despite remaining solidly in the ‘60s through most of the Obama era. This is especially troubling because Democratic liberals – often Bernie Sanders supporters – are contributing to it as well. Most conspicuous among them right now is author Thomas Frank, who wrote an editorial for Salon criticizing Bill Clinton’s presidency for its policies on welfare reform, free trade, and expanding America’s police state and prison complex. While these are valid criticisms and deserve to be discussed, there is a pervasive implication that they’re also somehow sound reasons for liberals to not vote for the likely Democratic ticket in November. That development would be very dangerous indeed, not only because it deprives Democrats of one of their chief assets in defeating Trump, but because it does a disservice to a legacy that – though flawed – still deserves considerable credit.
We can start with Clinton’s venerated economic record, which like the rest of his presidency is flawed but still quite impressive. Unemployment fell from above seven percent to less than four, median wages increased, the financial market boomed, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by an average 3.8 percent, inflation stabilized, and poverty declined. Although extreme poverty began to grow in part because of Clinton’s cuts to welfare programs, those reductions were part of a broader policy of fiscal discipline that led to one of the most widely discussed aspects of the Clinton era – namely, how a Democratic president managed to balance the federal budget and erase the federal deficit.
When it came to foreign policy, it’s important to remember that the Clinton administration was a brief period stretching from the end of the Cold War to right before the September 11th attacks. Consequently it was a period of relative geopolitical peace, perhaps the closest to a complete Pax Americana that our nation will ever experience. It was in this climate that Clinton pushed through a range of important social legislation, including raising taxes on the rich (remember that budget surplus?), stopping more than half a million people from getting illegal guns with the Brady Bill, passing the National Violence Against Women Act, creating the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), raised the minimum wage, and guaranteed unpaid leave for all American workers.
Of course, if you read editorials like the one by Frank (an excerpt from his book “Listen, Liberal,” which I admittedly have not read), you’d have a much different view of these achievements:
“Why was it, I wondered, that we were supposed to think so highly of him—apart from his obvious personal charm, I mean? It proved difficult for my libs. People mentioned the obvious things: Clinton once raised the minimum wage and expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit. He balanced the budget. He secured a modest tax increase on the rich. And he did propose a national health program, although it didn’t get very far and was in fact so poorly designed it could be a model of how not to do big policy initiatives.”
The Brady Bill, the National Violence Against Women Act, and the wide range of positive economic indicators aren’t mentioned here at all, while his other landmark progressive legislation is dismissed with either glibness or deliberate diminution. Nowhere is there a due appreciation for the fact that Clinton was one of two Democratic presidents in the forty year span separating Richard Nixon’s first year in office from George W. Bush’s last (1969 to 2009). During that period, American politics underwent a major shift to the right, with the Democratic Party best embodied by the political impotence of presidents like Jimmy Carter and failed candidates like Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. Into this scene strode Clinton, a charismatic Democratic president who, despite losing control of Congress two years into his presidency and surviving a trumped up impeachment effort, managed to actually get things done in a prosperous and peaceful America. To all but the most partisan or jaded, this must be acknowledged as a feat of considerable dimension.
This isn’t to dismiss the meat of Frank’s essay, as most of his criticisms are valid. Clinton did deregulate derivatives and the telecommunication industry, which played a major role in the banking crisis of the late ‘00s. His successful push for the North American Free Trade Agreement resulted in almost 700,000 jobs being shipped overseas, while his support for so-called “anti-crime” legislation helped make the American police and prison state as hellish as it is today. That said, disproportionately emphasizing Bill Clinton’s mistakes – at least in the context of this particular presidential election – risks creating the illusion that Hillary Clinton shouldn’t politically benefit from her association with the legacy of his presidency. This would be unfair even if it wasn’t an election year, but it becomes borderline suicidal in a contest as serious as this one. The Clinton style of government, however flawed, is being juxtaposed with some pretty frightening alternatives on the Republican side.
I personally view Clinton’s achievements as best embodied by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. By forbidding homosexuals from openly serving in the military, it perpetrated a terrible injustice; by eliminating the outright ban on homosexuality in the military, though, it simultaneously constituted an important step forward. That is the alternative on one side… and Trump is the other. While Trump’s quasi-fascism doesn’t in its own right redeem Clintonism, it does help put it in a more nuanced perspective. The Clinton presidency, like all presidencies, was very flawed, but that doesn’t diminish the good that President Clinton did, even when that good frequently came in a cracked package. Few American politicians are overwhelmingly good or overwhelmingly bad; most contain a mixture of positive and negative qualities, with the burden falling on voters to discern which ones are more important within the choices presented to them.
For liberals, there are plenty of legitimate criticisms of what Clintonism has stood for in the past, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore or diminish the good in the process. If we do that, we risk being just as simplistic in our approach to politics as Trump supporters – and, in the process, leading America into an Age of Trumpism.