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.