Bill Clinton, 50 in August, looks set for a second term. To a swathe of American opinion, liberal and conservative, this is a travesty. But Martin Walker contests the view that he is merely an undisciplined opportunist and describes his inspired re-ordering of the US's domestic and international consensusby Martin Walker / August 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
The us has traditionally been governed by a double consensus, in which both parties broadly agree on the main goals of both foreign and domestic policy. There is great room for argument and party rivalry within this consensus; there are also times when the foundations of national interest and economic structure suddenly shift, and the political process is thrown into disarray until a new consensus forms. The Clinton presidency has marked just such a period. He experienced the crumbling of 50 years of agreement on the fundamental principles of policy at home and abroad. He thus became the first president since Franklin Roosevelt required to give birth to a new double consensus.
In foreign policy the end of the cold war threatened the national security consensus of active internationalism which had prevailed since the second world war. This consensus, embodied in large foreign garrisons and in loyalty to foreign alliances and institutions from Nato to the UN, depended on the broad agreement of both parties that the nation faced mortal danger. The collapse of the Soviet Union removed the enemy. The new consensus which Bill Clinton has devised, with the support of Republicans such as Newt Gingrich, is for the US to take the lead in promoting a global economy based on free trade. It is an internationalist vision, based on exports and overseas investments rather than on military alliances and security commitments.
At home the old New Deal and Great Society consensus was under siege during the Reagan presidency, but preserved by a Democratic congress. It finally collapsed under Clinton with his own role in that process initially shrouded by his faith in activist government. But his election manifesto of 1992 was not far from the Republican “contract with America” of 1994. Clinton campaigned on a middle class tax cut and a balanced federal budget. He demanded “an end to welfare as we know it,” and re-invented government-smaller and more entrepreneurial. He lifted whole phrases from Ronald Reagan (“Governments don’t raise children; parents do”) and pledged to be tough on crime with 100,000 extra police and “three strikes and you’re out,” lifetime imprisonment for repeated felonies.
Clinton insisted that he was a New Democrat. A New Democrat is tough on crime, tough on welfare, resolute for the death penalty and insists on personal responsibility rather than state handouts. He believes that state benefits must be earned, that college scholarships should be financed by a form of national service, and that there is a difference between the deserving and the undeserving poor. This was a repudiation of the “bleeding heart liberal” mentality of the old Democratic elite. Historians and personal friends will argue about the extent to which this rhetoric was heartfelt or part of an electoral tactic to win back the blue collar patriots who had voted for Reagan. But Clinton’s rejection of the Democratic consensus was quite explicit. “Putting People First,” Clinton’s 1992 campaign manifesto, declared: “Our policies are neither liberal not conservative, neither Democratic nor Republican. They are new. They are different.” As Tony Blair has done in his wake, he denounced the “brain dead politics of both parties” and charted the outlines of a new consensus, located in what he called “the dynamic centre.”
In his first two years, he was frustrated by the Democratic congress, which fought his free trade agenda, refused to stand by his health reform and almost sank his crime bill. There were still some successes. The “re-inventing government” project run by vice-president Al Gore shrank the federal workforce to its smallest since the Kennedy administration. In his third and fourth years, Clinton has been faced with a Republican congress which has proved readier to join him in the emergent domestic consensus. There was much shadow boxing for party political purpose, but in the arguments over balancing the budget within seven years or ten, or whether to increase Medicare premiums to a Republican $84 a month or a Clintonian $76 a month, there were distinctions without serious difference.
The principles of the new domestic consensus-leaner and meaner government-were broadly shared by Clinton and by Gingrich, speaker of the House. The size of the bureaucracy and of the deficit had to be shrunk and the budget balanced, but funding for the Pentagon had to remain close to cold war levels. Medicare and Medicaid had to be reformed before the rising tide of old people bankrupted the system. Crime had to be fought with more police and prisons, and welfare had to be limited to two years, “not a way of life.” More federal government responsibilities had to be shared with the states, and tenants had to be encouraged to buy their public housing. But government remained the main strategic actor. Gingrich was happy to concur: “The Republican party tradition I identify with was very progressive, very activist. That was the party that created the land-grant colleges and built the transcontinental railroad. It had a vision which it was willing to impose upon the society.”
The construction work on this new double consensus took place below the daily political argument, and was veiled by the personal vituperation flung against the Clintons by the Republicans. The sweeping Republican success of 1994 in gaining control of both houses of congress, for the first time in 40 years, was hailed by supporters as a historic shift that would fulfil Gingrich’s promise “to replace the welfare state with the conservative opportunity society.” Only two years earlier, Clinton’s electoral victory, which brought the first Democrat to the White House for 12 years, had been hailed as a historic success for a Democratic party invigorated by a modernised concept of American social democracy.
The Zeitgeist can change fast in the information age. And yet, as one might expect from two baby-boomers from broken homes who managed to avoid the Vietnam war, the Clinton and the Gingrich visions had some striking features in common. Neither could abide the classic foreign policy presidency of George Bush. Each built his political appeal on the promise of a middle class tax cut, to be financed through a diminished government bureaucracy. Each still believed in activist government. In the Clinton view, it had a duty to equip the public with the educational tools to succeed; in the Gingrich view, to steer them towards the moral values without which success would have no meaning. Clinton would intervene in the schools and economy, Gingrich in the private lives of welfare mothers and the history curriculum. Those common threads suggest that something more fundamental was at work than a conventional shift in the balance of power from left to right, or from an activist con- cept of government to a shrunken one.
In effect, Clinton accepted that the Republican victory in the 1994 congressional elections was a moment at which history changed: there was a critical mass of support for a balanced budget. He was ready to go along with Gingrich, portraying himself as the one to protect the poor and elderly from the harsh effects of Republican cuts, and to insist on the government’s strategic role in investing public funds in the future through education and job training.
But Clinton was also prepared to end a tradition of welfare which went back to the New Deal, of using public funds to help poor and lone mothers keep their children. The new limit would be five years on public funds, with an expectation that work would be found after the first two years. The senate accepted this compromise, which watered down the original ferocity of the Republican proposal. But not everyone was happy. “If this administration wishes to go down in history as one that eagerly abandoned the national commitment to dependent children, so be it. I would not want to be associated with such an enterprise; I shall not be,” thundered the ancestral voice of Democratic doom, senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in a magnificent jeremiad on the senate floor. “I had no idea how profoundly what used to be known as liberalism was shaken by the last election. No president, Republican or Democrat, in 60 years would have dreamt of agreeing to the repeal.”
Moynihan was right. The 60 year consensus was over; a new one was emerging, with Clinton’s backing. It has been widely interpreted as a shift to the right in American politics. But it is also a return to a pre-New Deal and pre-cold war tradition of hostility to central government. Much of Clinton’s welfare reform lay in the waivers of federal rules he granted to 35 states, to allow them to conduct their own experiments. The new consensus reflects a shift in the centre of gravity in American politics from the north and east, to the south and west. It is a US in which the Democrats have lost their century-long grip on the south, in which Republicans have become mayors of New York and Los Angeles, and in which the Republican party has made a Faustian bargain with the Christian coalition.
The new consensus also reflects a transformed socio-economic system. When the New Deal was devised, there was an identifiable working class, employed in large factories and organised into mass unions, who lived in the cities. By the time it ended, the American social system was marked by a mass middle class, with unionisation below 10 per cent, and mostly living in suburbs. In the 1930s, Americans retired from work at the age of 65, and usually died having collected social security for less than five years. By the mid-1990s pensioners lived for ten years, often more. A medical achievement and a human triumph, the extension of the life span was a fiscal nightmare. Clinton had a first attempt at tackling it with his universal health reform.
in his policies, as distinct from his personal life, it has not been easy for the Republicans to demonise Clinton. The Democratic defeat of 1988 taught him not to be squeamish about populism. In Arkansas he introduced laws which withdrew driving licences from high school dropouts and which required parents to attend teacher conferences in schools. As president he allowed himself to be knocked off balance over gays in the military, permitting the issue to be defined as one of military virility rather than social fairness. But in his ostentatious churchgoing, his sacking of surgeon general Jocelyn Elders, and in Hillary’s call for sexual abstinence for teenagers, the Clintons fought against Gingrich’s attempt to label them “counter-culture McGoverniks.”
The task of building an unfamiliar consensus-crossing liberal/conservative lines-combined with a large dose of old-fashioned political manoeuvering has at times made Clinton seem an opportunist on a heroic scale. “I think most of us have learned that if you don’t like the president’s position on a particular issue, you just have to wait a few weeks,” said Democratic congressman David Obey of Wisconsin. This is an exaggeration but it has an uncomfortable ring of truth for Clinton supporters.
Another factor which has contributed to the febrile mood of Clinton’s presidency is his susceptibility to surging enthusiasms based on the most recent conversation or the latest speed-read book. He became spiritual after he read Stephen Carter’s The Culture of Disbelief; How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. Then he read Awaken the Giant Within by the new age self-improvement guru Anthony Robbins, and invited him to give seminars at Camp David. Clinton developed an instant fascination for third world birth control after reading a despairing essay in the Atlantic Monthly about the disintegration of west Africa. He read John Morton Blum’s The Progressive Presidents, and the following week, touring the four important electoral states of Pennsylvania, Florida, Colorado and California, raised a brisk $5m for his well-funded re-election campaign citing the lessons of the progressive era, at the start of the 20th century.
But in the course of 1995 Clinton also took several striking stands, as if to challenge the sneers that he was prepared to compromise on everything. One of these was on racial politics. In what was probably the finest speech of his presidency, Clinton took the pulpit of Martin Luther King at the Mason Temple Church of God in Memphis, Tennessee. In the place where King had preached “I have been to the mountaintop” the night before his murder, Clinton invoked his name to address “the great crisis of the spirit that is gripping America today.”
“He would say, I fought to stop white people from being so filled with hate that they would wreak violence on black people. I did not fight for the right of black people to murder other black people with reckless abandon… I fought for freedom, he would say, but not for the freedom of children to have children and the fathers of the children walk away and abandon them as if they don’t amount to anything.”
It was a moralising admonition that only a black leader, or a president in full command of his bully pulpit, could have delivered. And it was given more force by Clinton’s unyielding defence of the principle of affirmative action, against a Republican congress which sought to make political capital by describing it as reverse racism. “I want to mend affirmative action, but I don’t think America is at a place where we can end it,” he told the University of Texas, on the day that Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan rallied in Washington twice as many black men as were ever convened by King. In an America where racial debate was polarising between Republicans’ condemnation of a black pathology, and the Nation of Islam’s demand for a separate black state, Clinton’s message was unashamedly old-fashioned. He reaffirmed the liberal goals of public education and social improvement to further racial assimilation.
He also displayed, no doubt belatedly, both lea-dership and resolve in seizing the diplomatic opportunity for a Bosnian peace settlement, after the defeats of the Bosnian Serb armies in the summer of 1995. Rallying Nato behind a campaign of air strikes, and leading an energetic diplomatic offensive, Clinton then took the political risk of committing US troops to enforce the peace agreement, despite the probability of US casualties dribbling sadly home through his re-election year.
But it was the tactical firmness he applied in his budget battle with the Republican congress which really marked the extraordinary change in his political fortunes. He was able to personalise the battle, taking Gingrich as his target. The wicked Gingrichites were plotting to destroy American values, by undermining the Medicare system for the elderly, the Medicaid system for the poor, the college loan programme for the ambitious and the network of laws which protected the natural environment.
The Republicans gave Clinton the chance to define himself as the guardian of those core achievements of the New Deal and the Great Society which still enjoyed broad popular support. He seized the opportunity, cast veto after veto on the budget, and allowed government offices to close down for weeks. But all along, he was prepared to concede the fundamental Republican target of balancing the budget within seven years.
Beneath the surface of the battle over the budget, a parallel drama was unfolding within each political party. The dispirited Democrats in congress, reduced by the 1994 mid-term elections to a largely liberal core, grappled for an identity. In the White House was a New Democrat who insisted on being tough on crime, on reforming welfare and exposing US workers to the stormy competition of free trade. In the congress was an unwieldy coalition of pro-labour protectionists; minority legislators who saw welfare reform as aban-doning the underclass; and traditional liberals horrified at the new penal policy.
In the Republican party, the fissures were even more dramatic. There were the cautious old hands of the senate led by Robert Dole, and the firebrands of the house led by Gingrich. There were isolationists and internationalists, passionate free traders and reborn “America First” protectionist Pat Buchanan. Rallying for a repeal of the 16th amendment to the constitution, which authorised income tax, were the fiscal zealots with their passion for flat taxes. Above all there was the Christian coalition which has become to the Republican party what organised labour used to be to the Democrats. By 1995 it controlled 13 state parties with a grassroots organisation of 1.6m members.
Amid these two fractured parties the president came to be seen as a symbol of stability. Having suffered damage from the publicity on his womanising and his Whitewater embarrassments, Clinton now saw the most charismatic leader of the opposition, Gingrich, embroiled in a similar mess over his financial affairs. Clinton could scarcely have enjoyed better luck in the run-up to November’s presidential election. He faced no Democratic challenger to sap his strength. Colin Powell, his most formidable rival, declined the contest, so he is left facing an uninspiring Robert Dole.
The vogue word in the Clinton re-election team is “triangulation,” to distinguish the president from the old guard Democrats in congress but also from the new right wing Republicans. Conceived by political consultant Dick Morris, who had worked exclusively for Republicans since his last campaign for Clinton in Arkansas in 1990, the team is seeking re-election on the four Es: the economy, education, the environment and Republican extremism.
clinton seems almost genetically designed to understand why the US had to find a new consensus in the post-cold war era, and why this made “triangulation” a viable strategy. His own life embodies so many of the demographic and economic changes which made the New Deal consensus redundant. He came from the south, where, within his lifetime, backwardness gave way to unprecedented prosperity, chronic population loss to population growth. His mother worked and educated herself into the new mass middle class, and he won scholarships which catapulted him into the ranks of the American elite.
His small town boyhood and intense family ties spoke to that hunger for roots in a US that is the most relentlessly mobile of societies, and the education and achievements of his youth embody that American passion for self-improvement and success. Clinton is the ultimate representative of the baby boom generation. In the 1960s he was passionate for Elvis and for John Kennedy. He was devoted to the cause of civil rights, and then like the bulk of his contemporaries, he both avoided the Vietnam war and opposed it. In the 1970s he and his wife chose legal careers, when the law was becoming the first choice of the ambitious. In the 1980s, when the baby boomers were prepared to be known as yuppies, they sought to make serious money.
Clinton contains all of the characteristics of his generation, but these are not solely defined by self-interest. He has always maintained an almost mystic faith in education, as both civic duty and moral good. He has never compromised on his commitment to the cause of civil rights as defined by Martin Luther King. There was racism in the US and it had to be confronted. Success was harder for black Americans to achieve and they deserved society’s help. But, at the same time, if society was going to offer its help through affirmative action, then poor and black Americans had to do what the Clinton family and tens of millions of other upwardly-mobile Americans had done: work hard, stay in school, play by the rules.
Nor has Clinton ever abandoned his faith in the role of the state as a great machine for social improvement. The evidence of government’s capacity to do good has shaped his life. The federal government brought the investments and the roads and the military bases to the south. The federal government forced the south to end segregation and to give black Americans the vote. The state ended the disgrace of aged poverty and financed the educational system which allowed Clinton’s generation to blossom. “Government’s responsibility is to create more opportunity. The people’s responsibility is to make the most of it,” he said when announcing his presidential bid.
He was raised by strong women, yet one of the defining moments of his youth came when he had to defend his mother against a drunken stepfather. From redneck roots to Rhodes scholar-he was single-minded in political ambition, but thoroughly undisciplined in much of his personal life, from keeping time to running meetings to gratifying his personal appetites. He was not, in the US of the sexual revolution, an unusually promiscuous man, but nor was he a faithful husband. He is, in his flaws and his sensual weaknesses, in his fondness for spending and his casual approach to debt, utterly typical of his generation. He is, in that sense, the president the US deserves.
To an America transfixed by the garrulous confessions of daytime television, he is the confessional president, intimate and almost too sincere. But he is also a master of setpiece theatre of the grand public speech; his state of the union addresses are invariably the occasion of a jump in his opinion polls. He has spent more on polls than any predecessor, and sets his political course by them like some Roman reading the auguries of the sacrificial beasts; yet he also uses them as a spur to fight, rather than pander.
This is his real mastery, the dealing of politics. In Arkansas, he learned to compromise with the rich and powerful whose campaign funds could be the difference between election and defeat, and whose investments might mean dirty and polluting jobs, but they were better than no jobs at all. In Wash-ington, he has proved to be rather better at dealing with Republican zealots than with Democratic pragmatists. He may have surrendered a 60 year principle of the federal government standing as last resort for the poor, but he has fulfilled those election promises of middle class tax cuts, a lower deficit and an end to traditional welfare. On the inter-national stage, he has learned when and how to deploy the great asset of presidential prestige. In persuading Boris Yeltsin to withdraw the last troops from the Baltic states; in nudging his British allies to deal on Northern Ireland; in levering the great reluctancies of the middle east; and in seizing the moment to impose a peace settlement in Bosnia, he has applied the political skills of an Arkansas backroom fixer to the great international issues of his day, and helped them all along.
In the end, whether he is a one term president or not, Clinton will be remembered for what he did for the long term. He came to the White House to lead an America deeply uncertain of its global role, and increasingly wary of its global commitments. And in the most consistent single strategy of his presidency, he shifted that debate away from the militarised slogans of the past to the commercial realities of the future. He has become the free trade president, who has locked the US into the dominant place in the new institutions of the global economy. At home, the failure of so many of Clinton’s individual reforms is outweighed by his part in finally sinking the untenable consensus of the New Deal, and in crafting a new one.
The leaner, meaner government is consistent with the campaigning promises he made in 1992. It has given him something that he might otherwise have lacked-a compass to steer by in a second term. The new task of politics is to define just what can be done within that leaner, meaner model; to establish what Americans will accept as sensible long term investment, rather than immediate handout.
Without such a return to the promises of domestic reform, Clinton could leave a clouded legacy, of a US middle class squeezed between an abandoned underclass and an overclass of Clintonian meritocrats. The irony of Clinton’s presidency is that it has done little to make politics work for the “forgotten hardworking middle class families of the US” who elected him. He has been a rewarding president for the country’s bond-holders and exporters, for its stock market investors and for its police and prison administrators. But they did not elect him.
The ordinary Americans who elected him with 43 per cent of the vote, face a dilemma as they weigh their votes in 1996. Clinton’s four years in office have delivered 9.3m new jobs, a reduced deficit and an export boom, but these trophies come with a rather different economy of downsized corporations and job insecurity. He has presided over unprecedented rates of incarceration in the prison system and the highest number of executions since the 1930s, but violent crime has been sharply reduced.
The memory of Clinton’s failures in his first two years, and the constant drip of sexual, bureaucratic and Arkansas scandal, still sap his authority. His electors find him an ambivalent figure, likeable and yet untrustworthy, hardworking and yet often insubstantial. The Gallup poll in June was clear only in this contradiction. Asked if the words “honest and trustworthy” applied to their president, 54 per cent said no. Asked whether he had “the honesty and integrity to serve as president,” 62 per cent said yes. Better a Slick Willie who delivers than an honourable bungler like Jimmy Carter.
From the perspective of his re-election year, most of the rest of the world would judge Bill Clinton as an initially troubling and feckless, but finally admirable president. For some $250 billion a year, less than 4 per cent of GDP, Clinton’s US enjoys a planetary dominance that combines the trans-oceanic reach of the pax britannica with the military authority of imperial Rome. Moreover, this power has a purpose. Clinton has continued and greatly expanded Bush’s original perception of America’s role in crafting a “new world order” of free trading democracies.
Most Americans might prefer to reserve judgement on a man whose achievements in government are those of a traditional liberal Republican president. But despite his obvious flaws as a man and a president, he has strong grounds to assert his claim to re-election. Only a second term will determine whether Clinton can make leaner government work for most Americans, by giving them the education, job training and security that would make that furious new world of global competition seem rewarding. Having acquiesced in the shrinkage of the New Deal and Great Society, he still has to show that activist government can alleviate some of the country’s glaring social ills. His strength is that nobody else on the political landscape seems inclined to try.