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Unfinished Business | The Nation

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Unfinished Business

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Clinton's confinement of the Democrats is reflected in what Al Gore and Bill Bradley have to say about the middle-class predicament, which is very little at all. How can they raise these unpleasant facts without disparaging their very popular leader or sounding skeptical about the good times so many are enjoying? Bradley does deserve credit for attempting to break free of the fiscal bondage that Clinton has devised--the President's very conservative, even reactionary, posture that fiscal surpluses must be devoted to paying down the federal debt, not for new spending of any consequence. Even Bradley's healthcare plan is framed in the language of noblesse oblige--extending a hand to unfortunates--but does not question the underlying economics that strand working people. Bradley is silent on the fundamentals driving the maldistribution and eroding middle-class security.

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William Greider
William Greider
William Greider, a prominent political journalist and author, has been a reporter for more than 35 years for newspapers...

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Gore's economic utterances are even more opaque--a neo-Calvinist mush that enshrines fiscal order above all else. He attacks Bradley as a liberal spendthrift. He promises he will raise taxes only if a recession develops and threatens the precious balanced budget. Raising taxes in a recession is upside-down Keynes--the "root canal" economics reminiscent of Hoover and Coolidge. Even Republican economists now recognize that it's wrongheaded economic doctrine as well as heartless. One hopes Gore is insincere or merely confused.

Has the Democratic Party traded places with Republicans on these central issues of economic policy? Not entirely, but as I have written before, Clinton did essentially govern like a moderate Republican. His accomplishments, when the sentimental gestures are set aside, are indistinguishable from George Bush's. Like Bush, Clinton increased the top income tax rate a bit, raised the minimum wage modestly and expanded tax credits for the working poor. He reduced military spending somewhat but, like Bush, failed to restructure the military for post-cold war realities. He got tough on crime, especially drug offenders, and built many more prisons. He championed educational reform. He completed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was mainly negotiated by the Bush Administration. On these and other matters, one can fairly say that Clinton completed Bush's agenda. It is not obvious that a Democratic successor in the White House would be much different.

Defenders of Clinton will protest that I am ignoring the harsh political context Clinton faced--the brutally hostile right-wing opposition he outmaneuvered. His greatest accomplishment, it is true, was to stymie Newt Gingrich's half-baked "revolution" and to defuse many of the powder-keg issues Republicans have employed for decades (crime is down, the welfare queen got a job). His success at this has left Republicans with fewer hot buttons to push, so this year their moderates are staging a comeback. The Clinton style may work less well for Democrats if the opponent is not flaming Newt but a pleasant guy who talks compassion or worries aloud about the folks who've been left behind.

Clinton's cultural sensibilities, as opposed to his economics, are genuinely liberal (though he would never use that word), and his faithfulness to social issues like abortion and gay rights further inflamed the right wing's hatred of him. Their blind enmity led them into the sorry spectacle of impeachment, which, for Democrats, was powerfully unifying (and also self-blinding in its way). Clinton did advance controversial social positions, though usually in a self-protecting manner that was less than courageous. Lani Guinier was dumped as too radical after the Wall Street Journal published a maliciously erroneous polemic. Dr. Joycelyn Elders got sacked for announcing that teenagers masturbate. Belatedly, the President does agree now that "don't ask, don't tell" is a failed policy for gays in the armed forces, but he blames the military for its lack of cooperation. When Harry Truman abolished racial segregation in the armed forces, he did not ask the generals and admirals, the sergeants and corporals, if they thought it would be OK.

The problem with Clinton's rope-a-dope style of leadership is that it rewards the opponents for their opposition. The deeper they dig in, the more likely he will back off, postpone action to the indefinite future or invent clever diversions that essentially co-opt the other side's position (his "victory" on welfare reform confounded many conservatives too thickheaded to see that they had won). Clinton's big retreats from party ideals were seen as smart tactical moves, and they often were. But they also became the new starting line for the Democratic Party. Like Bradley, I find myself feeling nostalgia for the stubborn clarity of Ronald Reagan--a leader who believed in a few big things, who repeated them endlessly, never backed off and never admitted defeat, though he frequently lost. The Gipper accomplished great forward progress for his way of thinking.

Clinton instead has talked romantically about a far horizon of progress, then backed away from the messy political conflicts that might actually move the country toward it. The most serious omissions of his presidency define his failure, but are not even talked about in this campaign because he never took up the fight for them. He leaves no legacy on a lot of tough issues, except that he ducked.

Clinton, for example, saved himself a lot of grief by not taking on the military-industrial complex. He simply mimicked Bush's post-cold war defense strategy--the silly doctrine of preparing to fight two wars at once, the occasional violence of cruise-missile diplomacy and selected expeditionary adventures in behalf of humanity. By co-opting the hawks, Clinton wound up on their side. He too wants to build the destabilizing and vastly expensive missile-defense system. If the F-22 or other unneeded new weapons systems are canceled, it will be done by defense-minded Republicans fighting over scarce dollars, not by this President. Clinton's answer to the impossible desires of the arms industry is to propose an astounding increase of $110 billion in the Pentagon budget (this exception to fiscal rectitude is embraced by Gore too).

Do Democrats have an alternative vision for maintaining peace in the post-cold war world? If so, we are not likely to hear about it during this campaign, since the GOP has already moved the goal posts, insisting that even more money be devoted to this bizarre military remobilization in the midst of peace. The Clinton team faced a great moment in history without a coherent vision of how the world might look, now that superpower rivalry was behind us. They opted to continue the status quo, drifting into a dangerous role as "good guy" empire.

To be fair, Clinton was not alone. The country at large didn't want to hear any more about defense issues, and establishment circles were also bereft of new ideas, unable to grasp the great possibilities for reviving a different kind of internationalism, one that is closer to American ideals than massive overseas military deployments and occasional interventions. Reviving or inventing genuine international mechanisms for world peace is a challenge left to future Presidents. To appreciate the scale of the neglected opportunities, think of American leadership at the end of World War II, when the United Nations, the Marshall Plan and the Bretton Woods agreement were invented and launched.

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