Unfinished Business

Unfinished Business

As he travels around the country, musing aloud on his hopes for the future, Bill Clinton inspires an unintended melancholy about his presidency.


As he travels around the country, musing aloud on his hopes for the future, Bill Clinton inspires an unintended melancholy about his presidency. He has big dreams for the country, bold convictions about reforming this and that, and he states them passionately, as always. He wants to bring Americans together. He embraces “fair trade” for the global economy and insists it can be reconciled with “free trade.” He worries about global warming and warns that America must confront the problem, and that it can by employing already available technologies.

Last summer, Clinton chose the University of Chicago, mother church of laissez-faire economics, as the place to deliver a cogent rebuttal to Milton Friedman’s utopian claim that an unfettered marketplace governs best. The free market, Clinton argued, needs strong social institutions to thrive–“a legal framework of mutual responsibility and social safety.”

“All of us know that the problem with the new global economy is that it is both more rewarding and more destructive,” Clinton told the graduates. “So the question is, how can we create a global economy with a human face–one that rewards work everywhere, one that gives all people a chance to improve their lot and still raise their families in dignity, and supports communities that are coming together, not being torn apart?”

The media largely ignored his remarks, and why not? Clinton, as President, consigned the malfunctioning global economy to the reform energies of the Business Roundtable and Wall Street. His Administration led cheers for multinational commerce, opened fragile economies to the manic surges of global capital and created the World Trade Organization to judge whether new social standards are, in fact, barriers to trade and therefore forbidden.

When Bill Clinton recites the big challenges, he reminds us of all he danced away from as President. The spirited reformer is the young man we met back in 1992, brimming with big ideas, but he is utterly unconvincing now. One feels sadness for the lost promise of this extraordinarily skillful politician. One also suspects that Clinton is trying to revise the public memory of his presidency, polishing his reformer image so that when future Presidents actually do take up these big ideas and confront the challenges, he will be able to claim parentage.

Clinton has taught Democrats to think small. And it works as politics in this media age, given his talent for emotive communication. Republicans are learning from him too, smoothing over their big ideas with more charm, less snarl. Clinton’s many retreats from large purpose–accompanied always by small, symbolic gestures–were supposed to restore faith in government, bit by bit, and raise public expectations for genuine action. Instead, his political success has deepened the skepticism. For the cynical and disengaged, he confirms their assumption that politics is not real. For idealistic young people, who feel Clinton did the best he could, the message is that large ideas are simply impossible to achieve in this era.

Clinton’s shrewd politics did lead the Democratic Party onto new ground, but it looks like a trap. When the President was elected in 1992, the Democrats had fifty-seven senators; now they have forty-five. They controlled Congress, with a House majority of 266; now they have a minority of 211. They held twenty-eight governorships and a majority of state legislatures; now Democrats have seventeen governors and a minority of the state assemblies. Republicans have their own problems in establishing a stable majority, but for the moment, their guy is running ahead in presidential polls despite a glowing prosperity that ought to insure easy victory for White House Democrats.

The “New Democrat” straddle–the money comes from business and finance, the votes from ordinary people–worked for Clinton, but it is a cul-de-sac for the party that claims to speak for the working class and poor, that built its reputation by leading bravely on the toughest questions of reform. The Clinton success actually confines Election 2000, limiting what his party’s candidates can say and think. One important subtext of this election is whether the Democrats will find a way out of the dilemma or simply become smaller in number, weaker in purpose.

While the good times roll forward with a general sense of rising prosperity, it is impossible for any Democrat to speak bluntly, honestly, about the true nature of the Clinton legacy. Clinton’s robust approval ratings reflect the supposed triumph of his economics, and his party’s main voting constituencies still support him. An old friend, a liberal labor lawyer who now works on the other side of the street, summarized the Democrats’ predicament: “Clinton made a deal with the devil, and the devil kept his part of the bargain–low unemployment and good times.”

The deal with the devil required Clinton to keep his mouth shut while a conservative Federal Reserve ran the economy, with a cautious foot on the brake during most of the decade. The Administration, meanwhile, devoted itself to a doctrine of fiscal rectitude, balancing the federal budget. The President embraced major objectives of big business and finance as his own–promoting globalization, further deregulation, the managerial values of efficiency and continued shredding of the old social contract. Leave aside the arguments over whether politics and historic developments made this course unavoidable. The logical results of these policy choices were never a mystery: They would encourage deepening inequality in both wealth and wages and steady concentration of power for corporations and finance. And that is what occurred, probably more dramatically than Clinton envisioned.

That outcome describes the Clinton legacy. Rather than bring Americans together, his presidency deepened the economic fault line that separates the many from the few. Bottom line: The folks who twice supported him for President are worse off in fundamental terms, despite the currently improving conditions. The median family income did not get back to its 1989 level until 1998 (a slower postrecession recovery of lost ground than occurred in the Reagan years). Real wages for nonsupervisory production workers remain at early seventies levels. The maldistribution of wealth–ownership of property and financial assets–has accelerated; its impact is reflected in the negative savings rate for households. In these best of all possible times, how come typical Americans are still spending more than they earn to keep up?

Recent headlines, based on the Federal Reserve’s new survey of family finances, heralded the robust 17 percent increase in the median net worth of US households, driven mainly by booming stock prices from 1995 to 1998. The real news in the study is not so cheerful: Among families in debt, median outstanding debt also grew in the same period by an astonishing 42 percent and is now 73 percent above a decade earlier. Alas, the statistical medians are deeply misleading because the people with surging financial assets are generally not the same people who have surging debts.

Under closer scrutiny, the Fed statistics confirm the widespread anxieties felt by the broad middle class, not to mention the poor. Since Clinton was first elected in 1992, every income class except families earning $100,000 or more has experienced a worsening ratio of debt payments to income. One-fifth to one-third of the families earning less than $25,000 are in real trouble–40 percent of their income is now owed in debt. “If events are sufficiently contrary to their assumptions,” the survey dryly observes, “the resulting defaults might induce restraint in spending and a broader pattern of financial distress in the economy.” That sounds like Fedspeak for “look out below!”

The supposed democratization of wealth in the stock market is utter myth–and another trap for anxious families living beyond their means. Edward Wolff of New York University explains the illusion in a forthcoming article for The Century Foundation, “Why Stocks Won’t Save the Middle Class.” What occurred, he says, is that families typically shifted modest nest eggs from bank savings accounts to mutual funds, so the number of families owning some stock did indeed rise steadily, to 49 percent. Nevertheless, most families own very few shares or none. Wolff found that among the bottom three quintiles of the population, as of 1997, only about 25 percent own any stock at all. And only 6-7 percent of them own more than $10,000. The new Fed study may improve these numbers slightly, he said, but not enough to change the big picture. Despite the boom, rising wages and lower unemployment, the middle class is still digging a deeper hole for itself.

If this had occurred under a Republican President, Democrats would be howling righteously about the inequities, as they did when a very similar shift in income shares and wealth occurred during the Reagan/Bush years and for approximately the same reasons. Professor Wolff offers straightforward suggestions about how government could begin correcting the imbalances–a modest tax on wealth, restoration of much steeper progressivity to income-tax rates and reduction of the Social Security payroll tax, which is very regressive, since it exempts all income above $76,200 and imposes the greatest tax burden for most working Americans. Does anyone imagine the Democratic nominee will espouse any of those ideas?

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.

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.

Another great failure of omission that will haunt the next President, no matter who wins, is Clinton’s retreat from the central challenge of global warming. After the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, Clinton signaled to the opposition–major industrial sectors and their conservative allies in Congress–that he was not prepared to fight them on this ground either. Instead, he promised he would propose nothing on the legislative front until after Congress ratifies the Kyoto agreement–a cute stratagem that let both sides accept a temporary truce. When opponents are strong and determined, Clinton goes limp. But for status quo interests in Washington, any delay is always a victory.

The politics of global warming were always bound to be very difficult, and whatever Clinton proposed might well have been rejected. But that’s nearly always the case with important environmental battles, as the Natural Resources Defense Council’s David Hawkins, a thirty-year veteran of these struggles, reminded me. It took nearly ten years to enact the 1990 Clean Air Act, Hawkins recalled, but it would have taken even longer if the advocates hadn’t started pushing the fight during the early Reagan years. By forcing senators to vote up or down on acid rain, even when the legislation seemed doomed, the environmental reformers also compelled senators to feel the heat back home at the next election. Forcing accountability and educating voters is how they eventually built a majority for passage.

The first rule of politics, Hawkins explained, is that you can never win a fight until you start a fight. Reagan and like-minded conservatives evidently understood this rule too. The scale of Clinton’s failure will eventually be determined by whether Democrats rediscover, once this President has retired, that fighting for big ideas that seem hopeless can be the smartest politics in the long run.

* * *

The big money owns Election 2000 so far. That could change in the coming months, but right now it’s reflected in the emptiness of what candidates from both parties have to say about the American condition. The most pernicious influence of big money is not the repeated scandals in which contributors buy politicians, quid pro quo. The far graver damage from relying on major corporations or wealth holders to finance candidates in both parties is how this automatically keeps provocative, new ideas off the table–effectively vetoed even before the public can hear about them.

Money doesn’t just talk in politics, it also silences. Another old friend, a skilled and successful campaign consultant, explained it for me some years ago. “It costs so much to get elected and re-elected,” he said, “that the system inhibits anyone from taking positions that will be too controversial and will make it more difficult to raise money. Do people in a campaign say that directly? No. What they say is: ‘What’s the responsible position on this issue?’ That’s a code word for fundraising. Even when it’s not consciously used as a code word, that’s the effect.” My old friend is working this year for Gore.

Clinton didn’t invent the Democrats’ dependency on the moneyed interests alien to his party’s core constituencies (back in the eighties, the architect for House Democrats was Representative Tony Coelho of California, who this year is Gore’s campaign chairman). Clinton did, however, elaborate money politics in shrewd new ways. Early in his presidency, when Democrats still controlled Congress and could have enacted genuine campaign-finance reform, Clinton took a pass. Then, in 1995-96, he blew out the gaskets: The White House raised a fortune in uncontrolled soft-money gifts, then used it to manipulate the public mood with a torrent of artful attack ads. Though the legality was arguable, nobody went to jail. This year, Republicans are cheerfully emulating Clinton’s strategy, piling up millions for payback time. Democrats lamely complain that the GOP is trying to buy the election.

While there are many other contributing factors, money politics helps to explain why presidential elections are no longer very convincing. Choosing a new leader for the nation was once the most absorbing drama of American democracy, but the process is now caught in a spiral of declining legitimacy. Neither major party seems able to speak plainly, convincingly, on fundamental matters that distress Americans, in part because both parties depend upon the same galaxy of contributors to finance their candidates. Real differences endure, of course, but money makes it increasingly risky for any candidate who thinks anew and outside the accepted boundaries (unless the candidate happens to be rich as Croesus and finances himself).

So as more voters turn away from the empty talk, the voting electorate gradually shrinks further (fewer than half of eligible adults voted in 1996). The question of legitimacy is so obvious that major foundations are spending millions on promoting marginal reforms, especially on educating the populace about why politics and elections should matter to them. The real problem, I suspect, is that many citizens already know too much.

Eccentric new figures like Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura do succeed in drawing voters back into the electoral process–including young voters–but their populist message also threatens established power and allied institutions. So both major parties, aided by the big media, do whatever they can to discourage the intruders, either by ignoring their ideas, ridiculing them or making sure outsiders are excluded from prime-time venues where their irregular views might be widely heard. New voices are blocked out, the old ones given preferred status–this describes the closed circle that is slowly devouring electoral democracy.

It works for the major parties, if not for the country. Incumbents have learned how to live comfortably with a shrinking electorate (witness how very few Congressional seats are genuinely contested this year). Most incumbents are sustained not by building authentic relationships with citizens but by maintaining intimacy with the sources of big money. Outsiders with different ideas–whether it’s Pat Buchanan, Donald Trump or Ralph Nader–will be present to leaven the public’s interest in Election 2000, but conscientious voters will face the same dispiriting choice: Do they vote their anger at the status quo or do they go along with a disappointing major-party nominee to avoid getting something worse? Making people choose between anger and disillusionment probably feeds the downward spiral.

Clinton, one recalls, never achieved a clear majority in his two presidential races. He always governed with the voting support of less than 25 percent of the adult population. Democracy itself is threatened by this decline, but without some sort of earth-shaking calamity, war or economic breakdown that might inspire popular rebellion, it’s hard to imagine that established power centers will relax their hold over the political dialogue. In the long run, the party of Jefferson and Jackson seems especially vulnerable in this shrinking democracy, since Republicans are traditionally the party of money and Democrats must keep moving rightward to match the fundraising, farther away from their historic base.

I once believed that if the Democratic Party lost Congress and the White House it might feel compelled to return to its core values, launch a popular mobilization and take on the big-money interests. The party does have an aggressive core of young new members and old liberal stalwarts who would gladly attempt this, but they are a minority within a minority and are confined by the usual problems of raising money and appealing to a mass-market audience that barely pays attention to politics. After watching how Clinton’s straddle succeeded, I am no longer so sure what the party would choose to do.

This will sound corny–hopelessly romantic about America–but I am convinced that a general renewal of democracy (and the Democratic Party) will begin with the people, if it begins at all. That is, one political party or the other must decide to devote some portion of its gigantic cash flow to the unglamorous challenge of reconnecting with citizens at large–not through more opinion polls and focus groups but through listening and teaching, by discussing patiently the large and small priorities that matter to people where they live, by organizing forums where people can learn the facts and respectfully argue out the plausible public solutions.

The organizing approach–reviving small-d relationships with ordinary people, patiently, from the grassroots upward–sounds anachronistic in this media age. It’s slow and much less certain than designing smart TV commercials, fiendishly more difficult than raising money from a comparatively small number of phone calls to fat cats. Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect either major party to risk its entrenched position by actually encouraging popular intrusion into the closed circle that protects incumbents. Possibly only a new third party with strong convictions, whose leaders have nothing to lose, could be bold enough to attempt such an old-fashioned approach–inviting folks back into a politics that is real.

Yet, if you look around the country, you can see this sort of thing happening now among citizens themselves, people of left and right or neither persuasion. They are trying to reknit the torn fabric of their communities, mobilize a genuine consensus for public action or demand a real voice in governing power. This kind of politics goes forward with real successes, largely beneath the radar of the big media and usually without the least bit of help from organized politics. When it accomplishes something tangible, people can see the connections to their own lives, and their organizations grow stronger. This brand of politics, to borrow a popular phrase, is market-tested.

By comparison, Election 2000 already looks like a failed brand of soap, since so many Americans aren’t buying any of it. Restoring credible accountability in the representative system, from the ground up, is the long way back to a robust democracy, for sure. But don’t dismiss it as impossible. Leaving aside the fools and scoundrels, of whom there are many, the great saving virtue of Americans is that they do not always believe what they are told by the authorities. Sometimes, they still find their way to the truth about things, despite the media’s opacity and the blanket of propaganda for the status quo. When they do figure things out for themselves, Americans sometimes still get real ornery about it.

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