The “Clinton Doctrine” Revisited

As you may recall, Mitt Romney continued his bizarre invocation of Bill Clinton’s legacy in a speech in Iowa the other day, referring to a “Clinton doctrine” of fiscal discipline that he alleges Barack Obama to have abandoned.

Now I know the non-opinion media are not in the habit of calling B.S. on this sort of thing, but Mitt giving a shout-out to Clinton on budget-balancing is especially rich. Salon‘s Steve Kornacki succinctly explains the irony:

[T]here’s really only one thing that Bill Clinton did to erase the deficit: He raised taxes on the rich – against the wishes of every single Republican in Congress.

Clinton’s 1993 budget, which was enacted as the country was emerging from a recession and confronting leftover deficits from the Reagan years, hiked rates on the top 1.2 percent of income-earners and created a new 39 percent tax bracket. Republicans branded it “the biggest tax increase in world history” and screamed that it would kill millions of jobs and plunge the country back into recession…. Attacks on the Clinton tax increase became a major component of the GOP’s 1994 midterm campaign strategy.

And as Kornacki notes, one of the featured candidates in that 1994 campaign was one Mitt Romney, running against Ted Kennedy and railing against the tax increases in the ’93 budget (which he called “Bill and Ted’s excellent adventure”) with the best of them. The denouement:

[V]oters reelected Kennedy anyway, by 17 points, and the deficit was gone just a few years later. The Republican warnings about a second recession never materialized, and as the economy picked up strength, the new Clinton tax rates (on top of the hikes that President George H.W. Bush enacted over his own party’s objections in 1990) produced a revenue windfall and the resulting surpluses — which Romney and Republicans now hail as the work of a Democratic president who, unlike Barack Obama, just didn’t believe in class warfare.

Steve oversimplifies just a bit; there were some spending measures in that ’93 budget. But there is no question the tax increases were the politically risky part, and without them there is no way Clinton and congressional Republicans would have been able to reach a balanced budget agreement in 1997, much less generate the surpluses that enabled George W. Bush to go before Congress in 2001 and demand “a rebate” as justification for the tax cuts that plunged the budget back into deep red almost immediately and ever since.

And that’s the ultimate irony of Romney’s invocation of some “Clinton Doctrine:” Obama’s supposedly insatiable lust for higher taxes actually involves a partial reestablishment of the income tax rates that prevailed during those wonderful years when the deficit was wiped out and America was creating so many new millionaires that you couldn’t stir ’em with a stick. And once again, Republicans are warning of a “Taxageddon” if he succeeds.

Mitt Romney’s propensity to lie about stuff is so well-established that it barely attracts notice any more. But there are little lies that don’t matter a lot and there are big lies that do. And Romney’s regular mischaracterization of extremely recent history should matter a lot; it’s not as though you have to call in the historians to show that he is systematically applying to Obama the very calumnies he once aimed at Bill Clinton, while claiming it’s Obama who has somehow betrayed Clinton’s legacy. Mitt and his friends were dead wrong about Clinton’s fiscal policies then and are dead wrong about Obama’s now. How many times do we have to repeat the cycle before the whole scam becomes laughable?

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.