Clinton's Not-So-Good Deeds

Richard Rothstein may be right that Clinton is the best liberals can hope for in our present institutional environment ("Friends of Bill?" TAP, Winter 1995, Number 20), but many who have fallen away from Clinton feel that he failed to test the potential of liberalism and populism, and in so doing contributed decisively to the 1994 electoral fiasco. Instead of giving high priority to serving and building up a popular constituency, Clinton quickly retreated to placating business and the right. His major policy moves, designed to curry favor with the bond market and transnational corporations, weakened his ability to serve ordinary citizens. While he did better for ordinary people than Reagan or Bush did, he didn't do much, and their position continued to deteriorate. It was these policy choices, along with business's continued preference for the even more accommodating Republicans, that explain Clinton's political decline.

It is curious that Rothstein treats the Democratic Leadership Council (and New Democrats) kindly, when it was the New Democrats who immediately went after Clinton and helped force his quick abandonment of a stimulus program. Somehow their defection does not bother him as much as subsequent liberal criticism and ambivalence. Rothstein uncritically accepts the DLC's self-serving claim that their program aims to "build majorities." In reality, their policies have been well aligned to the demands of the bond market and the DLC's corporate donors, and the voter response to the candidates who most closely followed their agenda Sasser, McCurdy, and Cooper; and earlier, Mondale and Dukakis has been abysmal. Rothstein states that Clinton may have invited electoral repudiation in 1994 by moving to the left, as mainstream pundits have suggested. Yet critical Democratic defections were of disenchanted lower-income and middle-class voters whose standards of living were stagnant or declining. Apparently they didn't understand the extent of Clinton's good deeds, either.

A telling omission from Rothstein's list of good deeds is the North American Free Trade Agreement. Getting NAFTA enacted was a huge preoccupation of Clinton for which he expended much time and political capital. In pursuing this project he had to fight his own party and the opposition of his mass constituency: His support was in the business community and the DLC. (Was this helping to "build majorities?") Meanwhile, Rothstein defends Clinton's handling of the Lani Guinier nomination on the grounds that Senator Joseph Biden and 24 Democratic senators told Clinton the nomination was dead. But this was after Clinton had signalled a limited commitment to her candidacy. The difference from his willingness to invest time and political capital in the case of NAFTA reveals a priority system that Rothstein fails to confront and evaluate.

Rothstein lists cutting federal deficits in half as one of Clinton's accomplishments, but deficit- cutting is a conservative objective, pressed on Clinton by the financial community, and it was done at the expense of policies that would have produced higher employment and greater investment in infrastructure and people. Rothstein also lists "crime prevention measures and new funding for community policing in the crime bill," despite the fact that the crime bill as a whole is profoundly illiberal and displays the worst kind of presidential opportunism and cater ing to stoked hysteria. On Rothstein's logic, the recent provision of $5 million for the homeless by the Pennsylvania legislature was liberal, although it was part of a bill that drastically cut welfare benefits and knowingly contributed to greater homelessness.

Rothstein's list of good deeds also fails to weigh them by importance. He ignores funding levels that make some actions symbolic and omits consideration of foregone alternatives. Where also is the list of bad deeds for us to weigh against the good ones? He fails to mention the military budget, which Clinton has protected to a remarkable degree and which absorbs large resources that could contribute to a liberal policy of putting people first.

There is a certain illogic in Rothstein's view of the proper role of liberals. He does not deny that conservative and business pressure pushes Clinton policies toward the right, but liberal-left counter- pressure for some reason can't push Clinton toward populism. This makes no sense, except on the assumption that Clinton's positions are invariably as far left as is possible so that full liberal support for each of them is an optimal strategy. This is nonsense, and several analysts of environmental policy have argued the opposite: namely, that uncritical support of "our" Clinton- Gore-Babbit team paralyzed many environmental organizations and weakened pressure that would have tempered excessive accommodation to cattle-raising, mining, and logging interests.

Rothstein also misreads the dynamics of liberal criticism. For example, he notes that Franklin Roosevelt took years to develop a policy of antifascist resistance, so why should we expect Clinton not to take time to develop a sound Haiti policy? But liberals first had to confront Clinton's continuation of the Bush policy of seizing and returning all Haitian refugees to Haiti, in blatant violation of Clinton's campaign position as well as elemental decency. Were liberals supposed to maintain silence on the ground that Clinton was our last best hope? Insofar as his policies slowly improved, was this not at least partly a result of liberal anger and disapproval?

There is in fact a strong element of authoritarian "democratic centralism" in Rothstein's political position. He doesn't see policies on his side emerging out of the give-and-take of a wide spectrum of liberal interests: Once the leader has spoken, even if responding only to judgments of politically motivated insiders (and "the market"), the cadres on his side should shoulder arms and fall in behind the leader. An exception is made of New Democrats attacking and pushing Clinton toward sound policies like deficit reduction that will "build majorities." The attitude is unhealthy, just as the case made for the steadily wise and truly liberal choices of the maximum leader is weak.


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Richard Rothsein Responds:

Edward Herman's view that my plea for liberals to circle their wagons around Clinton's beleaguered presidency smacks of "authoritarian democratic centralism'" is precisely the debility I bemoaned. Habits of confrontational opposition, developed over 30 years, have made liberals incapable of the compromise now required to assemble liberal majorities with a minority presidency.

Nowhere does Herman hint awareness that Clinton came to office with only a 43 percent plurality while Ross Perot and George Bush split an anti-liberal majority, or that a Republican and conservative Democratic coalition either defeated or gutted virtually every effort Clinton made to promote liberal initiatives, like the stimulus program and his oft-mocked social "investments." Perhaps Herman believes that the only accommodations Clinton should have made to this conservative majority were painless ones.

Clinton, Herman argues, "failed to test the potential of liberalism and populism." But Clinton did "test" this potential with several initiatives, chief among them his effort to provide universal health care coverage. Perhaps foolhardily, he "tested" a potential for liberal reform that, it turned out, was chimerical. Discussion of the health care debacle is conspicuously absent from Herman's critique. I don't know what position Ed Herman took during the health care debate, but many liberals withheld enthusiasm from Clinton's plan and only half-heartedly defended it against assaults from the right, clinging to the fantasy that Canadian-style alternatives would emerge if only Bill Clinton had the courage to campaign for them.

Herman asserts that "deficit-cutting is a conservative objective, pressed on Clinton by the financial community." Perhaps Herman's post-Keynesian economic theory argues that deficits should never be cut, even during economic expansion. Perhaps permanent deficits will not reduce flexibility for counter-cyclical initiatives during future recessions. However, liberals did not make these arguments in the 1980s when Republicans controlled the presidency. We attacked Reaga- nomics for failing to expand public investment and shrink deficits simultaneously.

Herman states that deficit reduction comes at the expense of higher employment. But, in fact, our economic crisis has more to do with growth's composition than its magnitude. (And furthermore, the Federal Reserve Board, to which Clinton has had only two appointments, stubbornly tightens the money supply to offset the stimulus of any deficits it regards as excessive.) Our big problem is not growth but lagging real minimum wages, inadequate health coverage, paltry investments in infrastructure and education, a deregulated labor market, and infatuation with free trade (which also produces growth at the expense of equity). I myself regret Clinton's insufficient attention to the last point, but on others he's waged valiant, but losing, battles against conservatives.

Herman blames Clinton because he didn't fight for Lani Guinier as hard as he later fought for NAFTA. Putting aside the merits of Clinton's NAFTA position (I, for one, had some disagreements), Clinton pushed it because there was a majority that he could mobilize and win. Clinton withdrew Guinier's nomination only after liberal senators asked him to do so, hoping to avoid giving Republicans a race weapon in their 1994 re-election campaigns. Does Herman think Clinton could have pulled off a NAFTA-like coup for Guinier? Could he have won conservative votes to replace those lost when liberals abandoned her?

Compare l'affaire Guinier to Newt Gingrich's quick dump of Christina Jeffries, his friend and appointed House "historian" who had argued that Nazi and Klan perspectives should be included in Holocaust curricula. Gingrich determined that continued attention to Jeffries would distract Americans from his agenda, so despite friendship and sympathy for her views, Gingrich sacrificed her. Not a peep of protest, criticism, or denunciation came from conservatives who share Jeffries's instincts. Their priorities were clear: They would rather not sacrifice the opportunity to destroy the welfare state for hopeless symbolic fights. Call it authoritarian democratic centralism if you will; it's a tragedy that liberals lack similar self-discipline.

Perhaps my distress about liberal Clinton critics stems from experience as a Californian who's observed a decade-long ballot attack on government, recent enthusiasm for an anti-immigrant initiative, and overwhelming voter repudiation of a single-payer plan. I now brace for a forthcoming likely-to-succeed ballot proposal to stir the racist pot with a ban on affirmative ac tion. I do not believe that the American people today are in a populist and egalitarian mood, just waiting to be galvanized if only Bill Clinton would provide leadership. On the contrary, I think we now partake in worldwide reaction against mid-twentieth-century reforms. I pray this reaction plays itself out soon. But until that occurs, greater support for and defense of the Clinton presidency is one way to retard the rightward march.

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