Of Our Time: A Liberal Dunkirk?

Has the Clinton presidency been a grave setback for liberalism? Or a necessary, if wrenching, re-centering? We have debated this question in our pages, and historians will long argue the issue. One must await the results of the 1996 election to provide a more complete answer. However, here is a look at both sides of the argument and a tentative verdict.

Modern liberalism has been a twofold enterprise. First, it has entailed the expansion of individual rights, social inclusion, and political participation. Second, it has used the state, through both government regulation and public spending, to temper the extremes and instabilities of the private market. When the public is in a liberal mood, the polity is rendered more inclusive; and government gains expanded authority to discipline the market-a nice marriage of politics, government, and political economy.

By these tests, Clinton has failed to consolidate past liberal gains, let alone expand them. He has stemmed the slide to the right only by moving right. In the process, he has validated conceptions of liberty and opportunity that make it difficult to use the state in either its fiscal or regulatory incarnation. As the 1996 election approached, Clinton had failed to rally a latent electoral base that might have expanded the boundaries of the possible. The center had held, but it was a more conservative center.

Of course, this is no easy time to be a liberal. The market is rampant and the state constricted. The overhang of the Reagan debt adds further constraint. Even moderate fiscal prudence, of the kind Clinton embraced during his first two years, left little spare money for major initiatives. Clinton's acceptance of more extreme austerity after November 1994 left liberal constituencies arguing with one another over what to cut.

Trust in government has been at a postwar low, and sorely in need of rebuilding. On balance, Clinton has added to the general climate of contempt for the competence and value of government. Reinventing government, a valid New Democrat idea, has given way to slashing government. Here, the Republicans led, but Clinton lines like "The age of big government is over" (to thunderous Republican applause) were not helpful.

Clinton took office with just 43 percent of the vote and only the most tentative of mandates. With a lineup of 258-176 in the House and 57-43 in the Senate, he had a bare working majority (though one that looked mighty good after November 1994). For many in the press and for the President's New Democrat loyalists, it was Clinton's brief turn to the left in January 1993 that was mistaken; the rest of his presidency was made a course correction to express the philosophy people thought they were electing in the first place.

In that view, the ill-fated economic stimulus package of early 1993 was a mistake, both as politics and policy; the support of gays in the military disastrous; the ambitious health security plan a conceptual and tactical overreach. And it took the partisan blowout of 1994 for Clinton to realize that his proper home was the political center.

By moving right and stealing the Republicans' clothes on the budget and other key issues, Clinton miraculously husbanded enough political capital to surprise Gingrich with his toughness the following winter and to win back voter affections by vetoing Republican extremism. This was a Dunkirk in the best sense of the word--a strategic retreat that salvaged resources and enabled the Democrats to fight another day.

Even some of the most painful reversals, such as Clinton's embrace of Republican welfare reform, served to clear away unpopular baggage, deprive conservatives of a battering ram, and allow real innovation. Besides, with the country not in a very liberal mood and fiscal resources plainly unavailable for another New Deal or Great Society, better a centrist liberalism than one that is a permanent minority. So say the President's defenders.

As Clinton took a commanding lead in the polls in the summer of 1996, that interpretation seemed vindicated by events. But this judgment is at best premature.

That Clinton flailed around for his first several months has been well documented by several recent books. His first two years, however, turned disastrous only late in 1994, when the Republicans successfully adopted the tactic of blocking everything. Much as William Kristol had counseled, Republicans were able to enforce partisan gridlock, then attack Clinton for one failed initiative after another--and invite voters to blame the Democrats in November.

Though many of Clinton's sins were merely tactical, they had strategic consequences. Famously, he did not prioritize well. He tacked left on social issues and to the center on pocketbook ones, when his campaign manifesto, "Putting People First," suggested the reverse. His expansions of rights, such as increased protection for gays, have been a blend of venturesome and inconstant, inviting scorn from both sides. He spent political capital on peripheral causes such as NAFTA, and waited too long to advance key initiatives such as health security, welfare reform, and political reform.


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In fairness to Clinton, he did some things well in his first two years. His regulatory initiatives, which have gotten little attention, were resolutely liberal, insisting that public intervention was needed to correct market failure in the environment, in financial markets, and in consumer safety. As my colleague Paul Starr wrote in our September-October issue ["Damage Report"], Clinton played a bad hand well by getting the most obtainable out of such legislation as telecommunications reform, family and medical leave, and defending most of the achievements of his first two years from a Republican Congress. Readers who desire a sanguine view of that period can consult Richard Rothstein's article, "Friends of Bill: Why Liberals Should Let Up on Clinton" [TAP, Winter 1995].

Probably the most successful single policy, and the trickiest, was his budget strategy. The administration, after fierce internal debate, resolved to cut the deficit in half by 1996. This was sufficient to allow the Federal Reserve to begin cutting interest rates, but not so stringent as to undercut the government's capacity to launch new initiatives. Significantly, Clinton explicitly rejected the idea of embracing budget balance.

At the time, many liberals complained that Clinton had backed away from his public investment and stimulus package too quickly. But though the President received scant credit from left or right, as macroeconomics the policy was a notable success. Growth has resumed, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan has allowed the unemployment rate to fall well below the rate that centrist economists consider a "natural rate of unemployment," and the deficit has been cut almost exactly in half. Clinton also courageously insisted that the deficit reduction had to come half from program cuts and half from tax increases, with new taxes falling only on the top 2 percent of the income distribution.

A policy like this not only sets priorities; it conveys lessons. In this case, the policy signaled that deficit reduction was necessary, but absolute balance excessive. And it signaled that progressive taxation was legitimate and appropriate--that the rich had to pay their share, while the working poor deserved tax relief through an earned income tax credit. This posture reinforced Clinton's campaign stance as an advocate of working families.

Unfortunately, with the single exception of the 1993 budget, Clinton's other domestic policy successes were either relatively minor, or divisive of his own coalition. His major liberal policy initiatives failed politically.

NAFTA, which consumed enormous attention and delayed more important issues, was a wedge in the Clinton coalition. Certain wedge issues were hard to duck, such as affirmative action, or welfare reform, or gay rights. This one was entirely gratuitous. No harm would have been done by letting NAFTA die with the Bush administration, and real political damage was done by making NAFTA a key legislative goal.

The other major initiative of Clinton's first biennium, the health plan, has been almost universally attacked as a bureaucratic monstrosity. In fact, the substance of the plan was rather sensible, had it been enacted as written. What Clinton bungled was the political execution.

Given his slim majority, Clinton might have chosen to compromise earlier in the session. A bipartisan bill would have delivered at least half a loaf. Alternatively, he could have spent his first two years educating public opinion, waging a populist campaign of the people against the interests, and then gone to the country for a mandate. The actual Clinton bill, ideologically, was tailored to the New Democrat theme of blending regulation with markets. Tactically, it was designed to co-opt key interest groups: Small employers would have their costs capped, insurance companies could run plans, the indigent would no longer be a drain on providers. But big business never provided the support the administration anticipated, and the broad public remained unmoved. The defeat of the health plan became symbol and substance of the Republican fall campaign: Clinton's plans were grandiosely unrealistic, and Clinton failed to deliver.

By November 1994, the worst indictment of the Clinton presidency was that tactical blunders had cost the Democrats control of Congress. Clinton had been naive; he tried to govern as a moderate liberal, but had just not delivered enough to enlarge his slender mandate of 1992.

The second half of his term was another story entirely. In terms of pure survival, his bobbing and weaving was successful. Clinton initially stopped just short of embracing the Gingrich Congress. Having preempted several Republican themes, Clinton then surprised nearly everyone by wielding the veto pen he had said he hoped not to use. The gamble paid off. Gingrich and the Republicans were blamed for shutting down the government, and had to back off. Most of the Contract with America was rebuffed.

In the very moment of tactical triumph, however, Clinton disastrously gave away too much. Clinton had never been a strong partisan Democrat. The very phrase, New Democrat, suggested there was something fatally wrong with old Democrats. This weak partisanship intensified after November 1994, with the embrace of Dick Morris's "triangulation," distancing the President from both parties. The tactic may have bought Clinton some breathing room, but at the expense of his party. Every time Clinton validated a conservative theme, it made his own party seem a fringe, and made it harder for Democrats to champion liberal positions.

The single most damaging capitulation was Clinton's embrace of absolute budget balance. This is treated at greater length in Karen Paget's fine piece, "The Balanced Budget Trap". The timing of his commitment to balance the budget in seven years, in June 1995, utterly undercut his allies in Congress, who were just beginning to gain some traction in educating the public on what total budget balance would cost. The combination of budget balance and triangulation has lead to a presidency whose signature is programs that won't make a real difference.

Here, the ostensible villain is Dick Morris. As the work of Bob Woodward and Elizabeth Drew, among others, has revealed, it was Morris who sold Clinton on undermining his own party, on seeking a seven-year budget deal with the Republicans, and on appropriating numerous Republican themes. Morris had his own back channels to Trent Lott, and at times undercut not just his enemies in the White House, but his client, the President.

It is not bizarre that Morris was selling this formula, which enhanced his marketability as a consultant who could work both sides of the street. What is bizarre is that Clinton bought it. At several points, Morris had more influence over policy, program, and message than the House and Senate Democratic leaders and the entire cabinet. Indeed, even relative conservatives in the cabinet were against signing the welfare bill, and most opposed embracing a balanced budget.

Combined with the fiscally paralyzing effect of budget balance, Morris's particular style of linking poll and focus group results to policy initiatives created a presidential cynicism that could only reinforce public cynicism about government. In Morris's hands, a policy idea was not something that might actually address, much less remedy, a national problem. Rather, the initiative du jour was a quick response to a hot button identified in some poll. Clinton was reduced to proposing costless measures like curfews and school uniforms. This stance was a double gift of Dick Morris-a function of the budget balance and the resulting lack of resources that Morris delivered, and the cynicism and opportunism that Morris represented.

The result was what Jeff Faux has called a "pilot-program presidency," an administration bereft of the fiscal or ideological means to address national problems with much more than symbols. Morris may have bought Clinton time, but his influence intensified the long-term conservative undertow, the structural tilt in favor of the market and against polity and community, and the popular cynicism about government and politics.

Ihave had some intriguing conversations with people well to my left who are fierce in their defense of Clinton. I found this stance baffling, until one aging ex-radical, after a few drinks, explained that Clinton was only reflecting the constellation of forces in the country. "Capital" was in a high state of mobilization, while "the left" had failed in its necessary task of mobilizing the people. "It's our fault," he said, "not Clinton's."

Perhaps I have an old-fashioned view of leadership, but I actually think the presidency is a partly autonomous force, and not the executive committee of the ruling class. American history demonstrates that presidents have a fair amount of latitude to mold public opinion as well as follow it. Reagan surely did, as did Roosevelt. Lincoln did not run focus groups before announcing the Emancipation Proclamation, nor did Truman consult polls when he launched the Marshall Plan. Clinton is uncommonly gifted as a public educator. But he has been far too ready to follow the path of least resistance, and in the process to validate the slide to the right.

So, despite the ending of twelve years of Republican rule and four years of a Democrat in the White House, the center of political gravity today is somewhat further to the right than it was the day Clinton took office. Public spending is more in disfavor. Fiscal resources are less at hand. Budget balance is more widely accepted. Social insurance is under greater assault. Public investment has further declined. Only regulation has fared moderately well.

Could it have been different? Certainly, November 1994 was not destined to be a partisan blowout. A more judicious first two years, with clearer priorities, would have spared many Democratic legislative seats. Certainly, the President did not need to embrace a balanced budget. A reasonable fiscal test, as Paget explains, is a debt level that is stable or falling relative to GDP. At current real growth rates, this requires a deficit of around 2 percent of GDP, not zero. The concept is slightly tricky, but not impossible to convey. Getting the dispute over budget balance off the table may have bought some breathing space, but at terrible long-term cost.

Nor did Clinton need to accept Republican welfare reform. There were ample grounds to veto the bill. All Clinton needed to do was insist that any money taken away from programs for the poor--the bill cut over $50 billion in food stamps, immigrant aid, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children itself--be redirected toward the creation of jobs for the poor. The Republicans would have ducked the challenge, and Clinton would have had a campaign issue.

Neither did Clinton need to salvage his presidency by savaging his own party. On the contrary, Clinton did best when he reverted to popular partisan themes that made clear the difference between Democrats and Republicans.

The product of all of these capitulations is a government deprived of either the legitimacy or the capacity to solve national problems. This stalemate then reinforces the skepticism about government and politics and the libertarian claim that "you know how to spend your money better than the government does." Politically, thanks to triangulation, we see partisan activism deprived of an alliance with the White House, and a White House lacking a mobilized mass base. The contrast with Reagan, who used his presidency to nurture the conservative grass roots, is striking.

The past century displays countless liberal initiatives that actually made a difference in the lives of ordinary people. Regulatory interventions of the Progressive Era blocked the worse excesses of Gilded Age capitalism. The inventions of the New Deal put millions back to work, brought electric power to rural America, made possible secure retirement, legitimatized trade unions, and saved capitalism from its worst self-cannibalizing tendencies. Postwar government actions safeguarded the environment, extended rights of citizenship to new groups, enlarged education opportunity, expanded social insurance to include Medicare and Medicaid, underwrote science and technology, and used public investments to undergird the long economic boom. By contrast, few of Clinton's current initiatives will make much difference in people's lives. Some happy exceptions are a modest minimum wage increase, his defense of family and medical leave, reproductive rights, and a partial defense of affirmative action. For the most part, however, the new initiatives of the 1996 campaign are symbolic, and transparently so.

It is ironic in the extreme that Clinton has been most successful in differentiating himself from Republicans when he has invoked the most expansive liberal programs of the recent past such as Social Security and Medicare, the legacies of liberals far bolder than he. There is surely some lesson in this. People evidently value public programs when they are effective enough to make a difference. Dick Morris shamelessly used our most liberal programs, Medicare and Social Security, to flay Republicans. Even as Clinton disdained much of liberalism, its achievements are what kept him afloat.

The best one can say is that Clinton prevented the 1994 midterm result from turning into a mandate for Newt Gingrich's Contract. It is conceivable that a second Clinton term might produce a swing back toward the left, but everything would have to break perfectly. By establishing a new, defensible perimeter well to the right of his allies, Clinton perhaps contributed one blessing in disguise. (When an aide applied that description to the German advance after the original Dunkirk, Winston Churchill replied, "It certainly is well disguised.") I refer to the shock of recognition that for six decades, liberals have become dependent on Washington. With Carter, and then Clinton, this is no longer an option.

It is fine to rely on the power of the national government to address national problems programmatically. Partial reliance on Washington, in that sense, will always be at the heart of modern liberalism. But it is folly to depend on the power of the White House as a substitute for an energized liberal constituency. Contrary to the claims of my New Left friend, Clinton might have contributed to a renewal of liberal, grassroots energy, as Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson did. Mostly, he chose not to. The next liberal upsurge will have to come from the people.

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