Philosophers, political scientists, and journalists these days often lament the “post-truth” era of politics. The epoch allows “alternative facts” to triumph over actual facts and prioritizes hunches and whims over evidence and logic. One of the least acknowledged casualties of the “post-truth” orientation of political culture is the legacy of former President Bill Clinton.
Especially in the increasingly ideological and bizarre sphere of podcasts and social media, it is common to hear denunciations of Clinton from the left as a “corporatist” guilty of “criminalizing the poor” and “wrecking everything” to serve something called the “neoliberal consensus,” which is a blunderbuss moniker for everything from Ronald Reagan’s closure of mental health hospitals to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. The hard-left mouthpieces share a predilection to act like the 1990s never happened or were a right-wing hellscape. Barack Obama gets some of this treatment, too, as does Joe Biden. But Clinton-loathing is unsurpassed on the left.
The 1990s did happen. Billions of people lived through them. Those interested in truth might recall that every socioeconomic indicator of American life moved in the right direction during Clinton’s two terms. GDP improved while poverty declined. First-time homeownership rates increased, and the high school dropout rate diminished. Wages, particularly for those in the lower income brackets, rose while crime and teenage pregnancy dropped. College graduation and faith in government institutions climbed, and unemployment fell.
No president has godlike power to manipulate the universe. It would overstate the case to argue that Clinton was solely responsible for the good fortune and steady societal improvements of the 1990s, but it is disingenuous and wrong to assert that his policies were not profoundly influential over the welcome trends of his presidential tenure.
In fact, the Clinton administration’s economic and environmental records are the best of any presidency in the past 50 years. The record is conspicuous by its absence in a new book, A Fabulous Failure, by two academics, Nelson Lichtenstein and the late Judith Stein.
The authors begin their analysis with an acknowledgment that Clinton’s 1993 health care reform proposal was “more radical” than the Affordable Care Act and proceed to fit themselves for Sigmund Freud costumes by positing that its defeat restrained Clinton’s reformist ambitions to the extent that his presidency ended as a “betrayal of progressivism.”
Given the sinking foundation on which it rests, it is hardly surprising that the rest of the book is nothing more than a greatest-hits collection of the fallacies and folklore that have come to poison political debate: Bill Clinton did the bidding of Milton Friedman; the deindustrialization of the American heartland was only the consequence of trade, which Clinton championed, rather than the more consequential factor of automation; and the hateful cult surrounding Donald Trump grew exclusively out of objection to said trade policies, rather than, as the evidence overwhelmingly indicates, racism, xenophobia, and Christian nationalism.
So much went right during the Clinton years that the far left, which consistently demonstrated an obstinate distaste for the Clinton presidency, sharing the “Slick Willie” disdain of the right, has adopted the bizarre tendency to argue that he is responsible for almost everything that went wrong after he left office. Indeed, some of the recent problems have roots in Clinton’s decisions. Far more problems, however, are the consequences of abandoning the policies and policy outlook of Clinton’s two terms.
The theory that Clinton is the primary source of the country’s current political crisis is ironic, considering that its leftist promulgators are oblivious to how it exonerates George W. Bush, Trump, and the anti-democratic and plutocratic forces that supported their presidencies.
As their book title suggests, Lichtenstein and Stein are not shy about forcefully denouncing Clinton. What is surprising is how mealy-mouthed they are about the fascist right. The closest they can muster to an acknowledgment of the real generator of democracy’s danger is the following bit of tortured writing:
Legitimacy drained from the nation’s economic and political system as the populist anger that might have been channeled against the twenty-first-century financial elite stoked Tea Party and Trumpist resentment toward the multiracial cosmopolitanism of the Obama era and the modestly social democratic initiatives of that moment, health care reform above all.
Passive and weird syntax of this kind is littered throughout A Fabulous Failure, underscoring the dubiousness of the propositions they champion.
Lichtenstein and Stein repeat the popular bromide that Clinton was responsible for the financial crisis of 2008 because he authorized the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which separated commercial banking from investment banking. The evidence does not support it. A Fabulous Failure maintains the pattern, not even mentioning that the commercial banks that collapsed during the crisis, Wachovia and Washington Mutual, made bad loans—something Glass-Steagall would not have prevented. Furthermore, banks like Washington Mutual were not giant bank holding companies and, therefore, not in the purview of Glass-Steagall. More broadly, the subprime mortgage lending disaster—inseparable from the crash—also had nothing to do with Glass-Steagall. AIG received a government bailout during the “Great Recession,” but AIG is a global insurance organization, not a bank.
The political history also refutes the argument that the repeal of Glass-Steagall was responsible for the crash. By the time Clinton signed the repeal in 1999, years of weakening the act’s regulatory provisions by previous administrations had already made it impotent. Clinton’s pulling the respirator on the New Deal–era law had no effect. When Clinton said in 2015 that the repeal did not cause the crash, PolitiFact deemed his statement mostly true with some minor quibbles.
Intellectual honesty requires Clinton defenders to acknowledge mistakes. The one piece of financial legislation Clinton signed that clearly made the financial crisis worse, the deregulation of derivatives, received virtually no pushback from liberals at the time, except for Brooksley Born, a commissioner on the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, under whose purview derivatives fell, and a cover story by then Senator Byron Dorgan in the Washington Monthly.
There are certainly problems associated with the “too big to fail” banking of JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America. Inconvenient to the Glass-Steagall doctrine is that those banks were more solvent than others during and in the immediate aftermath of the crisis.
The chastisement of Clinton for transforming the industrial Midwest into the “Rust Belt” is similarly replete with simplification and generalization. Critics of free trade seldom acknowledge its vast benefits—namely, GDP growth and the reduction of prices for consumer goods. To that end, Robert Shapiro made the case in these pages that Clinton’s embrace of global trade led to greater growth than would have otherwise been the case. It did cause the loss of some U.S. manufacturing jobs, but far fewer than automation forced.
Even still, it is true that Clinton’s gamble that capital reforms would turn China more democratic was a big loser. China’s increased wealth has only made it more repressive and authoritarian. For those reasons, the Biden administration has wisely all but abandoned the World Trade Organization.
Most of the labeling of Clinton as a “corporatist” is due to his continuation of the corporate consolidation of the Reagan/Bush years when M&A became one of the law’s hottest fields. While the Clinton administration’s policies were more akin to his Republican predecessors’ than the robust antitrust period from the Progressive Era and post–World War II America, the Clinton Justice Department launched a seminal case against the biggest company on the block—Microsoft—in a precedent-setting suit that is, in many ways, the model for the federal government’s current efforts to rein in Google.
The net effect of Clinton’s economic policy agenda was positive for most Americans, particularly those in the middle and bottom income brackets. They did not come without some harmful consequences, but to solely focus on the downside—with nary a word about the gains—is a poor history that makes for destructive politics.
The chief focus of A Fabulous Failure is economics, but Lichtenstein and Stein repeat, several times, that Bill and Hillary Clinton are the main culprits behind “mass incarceration.” The statistical evidence contradicts the claim that increased detention of Black and Latino Americans began as a consequence of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994—legislation that, despite the ignorance of its critics to this fact, most Black Americans, including elected officials, strongly supported. The crime bill did exacerbate widespread incarceration by stiffening some sentences and giving grants to states to build more prisons. It should be noted that those were Republican-championed provisions that Clinton accepted so he could enact the provisions that he and liberals favored: the Biden-authored Violence Against Women Act; programs to help “at-risk youth” such as the midnight basketball–style programs that Rush Limbaugh and the ’90s right pilloried; and, of course, the assault weapons ban, which led to a decade in which Americans were free to hunt, go to target practice, and enjoy rod and gun clubs, but couldn’t pick up weapons of war and then shoot up a school. Had Clinton not acceded to GOP demands on the prison construction and sentencing issues, the bill would have died. The authors seem unfamiliar with the idea, which is called politics and compromise. One can quarrel with the decisions, but not reckoning honestly with the trade-offs Democratic presidents must make—be they Franklin D. Roosevelt, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, or Joe Biden—betrays their scholarship as a mere polemic.
As far as the actual prison population is concerned, much of its rise was due to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The Reagan-era reform included the infamous sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. State prisons and even private prisons popped up everywhere. As a result of the Reagan-era crime policies and the right-wing-driven provisions in the Clinton crime bill, the prison population increased significantly in the 1980s and the ’90s but climbed at far lower rates in the latter decade. Because crime rates continued to drop, incarceration declined in the 2000s.
That the authors of A Fabulous Failure make only passing mention of the assault weapons ban and the Violence Against Women Act—two acts of reform that helped to reduce mass shootings and spousal abuse—is truly stunning.
But it’s a habit with Lichtenstein and Stein, who minimize anything that interferes with their depiction of Clinton as the nemesis of liberalism. There are predictable conniptions over the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—Clinton’s welfare reform—but no concession that poverty, including for Black women, steadily declined after its implementation. Clinton’s dramatic expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which, according to the authors’ own admission, economists credit with lifting more than 4 million low-wage workers out of poverty, gets one sentence. The Children’s Health Insurance Program—the most significant expansion of public health care at the time in 1997, since Medicaid—fares slightly better, meriting a paragraph. To this day, CHIP provides health care coverage for millions of children and pregnant women.
A Fabulous Failure ends with a call for leftists to storm the barricades, making its political prescription as baffling as its diagnosis. The Democratic Party has moved to the left on economic and social policy since Clinton left office, much of it due to the increasingly progressive sensibilities of its younger voters and officials. While the march left on issues like health care, higher education, and LGBTQ rights is long overdue, it also flirts with political disaster when it fails to address America’s legitimate concerns about issues like crime.
The decidedly anti-Clinton crime policies in many Democratic cities and states increase recidivism and leave Democrats scrambling to defend sentencing and bail leniency, enabling more criminals to prey on innocent victims. Democrats and activists who embraced anything like defunding the police—think of unpopular progressive prosecutors or progressive city councils—faced a predictable backlash not just from the right but especially from minorities who know full well who suffers when cops are taken off the streets.
Fortunately, most Democrats and the Biden administration never cowered from the Clinton mantra of fewer guns on the street, and more community police. Left-wing candidates running in Democratic primaries usually got a stern rebuke from regular voters. Think of the crash and burn of Hillary-turned-Bernie supporter Nina Turner, who lost her congressional bid in Ohio to a mainstream Democrat.
Far from betraying liberalism, President Clinton delivered on what Candidate Clinton promised in the spring of 1992 when Los Angeles faced rioting following the criminal acquittal of police officers who beat Rodney King, who had led them on a high-speed chase. Clinton forcefully denounced police brutality, encouraged cops to walk the beat instead of enforcing laws from squad cars, and empathized with the poorest Americans’ twin plights of lousy policing and brutal crime. (Those who suffer are, more often than not, poor and working-class Black and Latino residents of urban areas.) As president, Clinton put these ideas into practice, combining good policy with good politics.
Meanwhile, President Biden’s Clinton-like compromises on infrastructure and clean energy have given Democrats, and the left more broadly, victories in an otherwise stagnant era of governance.
Lichtenstein and Stein devote almost no time to the right-wing menace that organized to oppose the Clinton presidency, injecting conspiracy theory, racism, violent rhetoric, and Christian nationalism into the body politic. Given that the authors could not identify the origin of the most significant threat facing the stability of American democracy, they certainly could not comprehend how their work strengthens those malevolent forces.
The most natural assumption to follow the assertions of A Fabulous Failure is that there is no substantive difference between the parties, no real difference between “corporatists,” Clinton, and Reagan. If the Democrats and Republicans are equally indifferent to the suffering of the poor and unwilling to listen to their constituencies, then American democracy is a failure. If our institutions inflict harm on the general public, no matter who is in charge, then why vote? Or vote for Ralph Nader, Jill Stein, or Cornel West.
It is shameful enough that Lichtenstein and Stein’s argument is full of half-truths and untruths, but even worse is that the untruths they’ve written will bolster the cynicism that undermines the trust vital to the survival of the American experiment.