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
Published in August 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.