In 1993, Vice President Al Gore took part in an unusual debate about trade: He went on Larry King’s CNN show to spar with Ross Perot—the third-party candidate President Bill Clinton had beaten in the previous year’s election—over the impending North American Free Trade Agreement. During the campaign, Perot had warned that NAFTA would create a “giant sucking sound” as high-paying manufacturing jobs drained out of the country. About a year later, Clinton was trying to push it through, and so Gore was dispatched to debate NAFTA’s most high-profile opponent.
Most observers concluded that Gore won handily. But he didn’t convincingly put away Perot’s arguments; instead, he took his opponent down with a lot of cheap rhetorical tricks—most especially, baiting Perot’s notorious temper by constantly interrupting him. Perot’s peevish “Could I finish?” was turned into a punch line by comedian Dana Carvey, and that was that. It was a tactical success for Clinton, who wanted to build a new base for his party among the executive and financier class and high-income voters. NAFTA was eventually approved by the Senate and signed into law by Clinton on December 8, 1993.
In the end, however, Perot turned out to be more right than wrong about NAFTA—and not only on economic but on political terms. While NAFTA’s overall effects weren’t that large, there were far bigger losses after Clinton signed another trade deal, this time with China, in 2000, and the wreckage left by the outsourcing and deindustrialization that followed would come back to haunt his wife in the 2016 election. The Democrats’ embrace of free-market policies, which reached its apex under Clinton, may have helped rejuvenate the party in the 1990s and early 2000s, but that embrace has now crippled it. Hillary Clinton’s shocking loss to Donald Trump—whose signature economic pledge was to reverse the “bad deals” of the past few decades—simply highlights a generation of Democratic Party politics that has now come crashing to an end.
Two new books help fill in the details of the rise and fall of Clintonian economics and politics: Bill Clinton, a short biography by Michael Tomasky, and Shattered, a narrative account of Hillary’s 2016 election loss by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes. These demonstrate neatly how Clintonism—a politics of triangulation in a neoliberal age—eventually undermined itself.
As its title suggests, Tomasky’s volume—an entry in the Times Books series on American presidents—is a brief, crisp, and overly sympathetic telling of Bill Clinton’s story. It covers, with aplomb, his early career as Arkansas governor, his long-shot campaign for president, and his later career as a globe-trotting philanthropist. At the center of the book, however, is not only the tale of a president from a town called Hope but also the outlines of how Clintonism, as an expression of post-welfarist liberalism, came into being.