BILL'S MISREMEMBERED BIPARTISANSHIP....

BILL'S MISREMEMBERED BIPARTISANSHIP. Far be it for me to criticize Bill Clinton (or, for that matter, Hillary), but his op-ed today is just nuts. Celebrating welfare reform's better-than-expected results, he generously concludes that "[r]egarding the politics of welfare reform, there is a great lesson to be learned, particularly in today�s hyper-partisan environment, where the Republican leadership forces bills through Congress without even a hint of bipartisanship. Simply put, welfare reform worked because we all worked together. The 1996 Welfare Act shows us how much we can achieve when both parties bring their best ideas to the negotiating table and focus on doing what is best for the country."

Wrong. Clinton vetoed the first two welfare reform bills the Republican Congress sent him for their unimaginable cruelty -- they were punitive programs, focused on punishing, not uplifting, poor blacks. The third bill sparked the most acrimonious and intense negotiations of the Clinton White House, with the president proving unable to decide his course till the eleventh hour and 59th minute. That's because the bill was never meant to be signed. Here's how Jason DeParle, The New York Times lead reporter on welfare reform, recounts the maneuverings in his remarkable book American Dream:

Gingrich and Dole remained opposed [to passing a plan], and they found a new way to stop it: attaching a "poison pill" that would block grant Medicaid, imposing a huge health care cut Clinton (and his wife) wouldn't abide. Shaw and Haskins couldn't believe it: Republicans were propping up the welfare status quo. A strategy memo from Representative Jennifer Dunn showcased a cynicism stark even by election year standards. Emphasize "the tragedy of welfare and its crushing cruelty for the children," she wrote. But "draw opposition and, probably, a veto." Emphasize the suffering of children, and make sure they suffer some more.[...]

The prospects of a bill improved when Dole resigned from the Senate to campaign full-time; now he could no longer block it. But Gingrich remained firmly opposed. "We're not going to give the president a bill he can sign," he told House Republicans.

Eventually, Gingrich and Co. crafted a bill they thought would split the Democratic Party and sent it to the president. Against expectations, he signed it, betting that he could repair its most offensive elements during his second term. On some level or another, he was right. He did improve the legislation. But a bill by Bill -- the welfare reform Clinton wanted -- would have been infinitely better, kinder, more generous, and more successful than the Republican incarnation. Clinton and the Republicans didn't work together -- Republicans worked to undermine him and he sought to foil them. He won. And then he spent the next few years fixing the poison pills and landmines Republicans had added in order to roil the Democratic Party and snooker Clinton. To hold the legislation up as some sort of shining compromise between well-meaning representatives of different philosophies may help Clinton's reputation as a post-political statesman, but it's absolutely false as a characterization of the ugly, cruel, and hyper-partisan genesis of welfare reform.

--Ezra Klein

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