Clinton’s has gained popularity by broadening the perception of the Democratic Party as a party for lower and middle classes in addition to the poor. His policies he promoted served to create a permanent Democratic majority.
Having written off Bill Clinton for most of 1995, Republicans are now tempted to ascribe supernatural powers of persuasion to him. Neither attitude encourages constructive thought on how to counter his strategy. But despite the image of an Administration adrift, President Clinton has arrived, through a mixture of accident and design, at a strategy for Democrats to survive and perhaps even prosper in ideologically uncongenial times. While there may not be a Clintonian ideology, it is possible to speak of a Clintonian style of politics.
Its most important feature has been the attempted retooling of the Democratic Party as the servant of middle-class interests through the mechanism of government. Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg explained the reasoning in a much-noted essay in the Fall 1991 American Prospect: “Democrats need to rediscover broad-based social policy that sends a larger message: Democrats are for ‘everybody,’ not just the ‘have-nots.’ That means defending and enlarging social insurance initiatives that reach the lower and middle classes rather than constructing safety nets that protect only the poor.” Means-tested programs stigmatize recipients and are, Greenberg thinks, easy to cut; middle-class entitlements are forever.
National health insurance, a longstanding goal of the Left, was thus also a means of expanding the Democratic voter base and creating a permanent Democratic majority. It would do to the middle class what Social Security had done to the elderly: make a majority of them beholden to the Federal Government and its political champions, in this case for their very lives. As Grace-Marie Arnett points out (p. 42), the Clintons have pursued this objective with essentially Fabian tactics. They have tried to establish beachheads within the health-care market from which to launch new government interventions. The Clintons’ 1993 – 94 health-care “reform” effort would have been a large, and probably irreversible, step toward socialized medicine. Time is already beginning to obscure just how close they came.
Clinton’s repeated proposals to expand subsidies for higher education are a smaller-scale version of the same entitlement strategy. The government will now step forward to finance increased access to the very sectors of the economy the government has most inflated. It’s a proposal well crafted to help Clinton make inroads among traditional GOP strongholds in the middle class and even upper middle class. The Republican Congress has forced Clinton to spend more time playing defense: instead of increasing public dependence on government, he has been vigilantly blocking cuts in government programs that benefit people who work. Clinton’s massive expansion of the earned income tax credit, and subsequent determination to protect that expansion from Republican budget-cutters, is a case in point.
Even on welfare, where President Clinton has felt it necessary to appear responsive to middle-class demands for reform and retrenchment, he has assiduously avoided policies that would reduce the scope and power of government or its allied institutions in liberaldom. Indeed, as Robert Rector observes (p. 40), Clinton originally sought window-dressing reforms that would actually increase the power of the welfare establishment.
After the Republicans took Congress, he moved toward a liberal version of welfare reform, which, geared as it is toward processing people through welfare rather than keeping them off it, creates opportunities for expanding state services: child-care subsidies, job training, transportation assistance, child-support enforcement. Clinton has followed a similar pattern on education: he has a long history of supporting the least reform the public demands and the most the education establishment will tolerate. So, for instance, he’s all in favor of charter schools, as long as they don’t escape the burden of federal regulations or threaten the power of teachers’ unions.
To woo the middle class, Clinton has also had to tack center-right on “values.” Greenberg readily acknowledged the point in his 1991 essay: “Democrats cannot win over the average family,” he wrote, “unless there are some limits on the party’s moral agnosticism.” Clinton’s cultural rhetoric is now to the right of George Bush’s. We know that President Clinton read Ben Wattenberg’s Values Matter Most, and he has talked incessantly about “values” ever since. (The popularity of that word ought, incidentally, to depress conservatives. “‘Values’ beat ‘virtues’ eleven to nothing in a focus group we did,” says pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick. “It’s amazing Bill Bennett sold any books.”)
On social and cultural issues, Clinton has used the bully pulpit quite effectively to signal that he shares the public’s values. And if, when Clinton says that he supports introducing school uniforms or firing incompetent teachers, some people are misled to believe that he has some policy initiative to translate the rhetoric into reality, well, that’s no skin off his back. He has struck a particularly tough pose on crime, though, as David Kopel observes (p. 43), there is much less to his record than meets the eye. Clinton’s gauzy communitarian rhetoric is also deployed on fiscal issues. During last fall’s budget showdown, he was constantly claiming to be defending “our values” from Republicans intent on taking medicine away from the elderly and protection from the environment. This kind of values-laden talk is probably necessary for parties of the Center – Left for the foreseeable future. (Tony Blair, leader of Britain’s Labour Party, does it too.)
In addition to pulling more middle-class voters into the Democratic coalition, President Clinton also wanted to co-opt parts of American business. In some respects, ClintonCare was a failed attempt to do so: it offered major financial benefits to large manufacturers and insurers. The Administration’s support for high-tech subsidies was a play for Silicon Valley. The re-orientation of American trade policy toward bilateral deals, sometimes company-specific, enabled the Administration to dispense favors to exporters at its discretion. And the ultimate logic of the “corporate responsibility” themes many Democrats are pushing is to transform American businesses into docile servants of the welfare state.
IN HIS zeal to expand his base, Clinton has not forgotten more reliable Democratic constituencies. So federal funding of labor unions has increased (and it has been made easier for them to use compulsory dues on political activity). The Violence Against Women Act has funneled money to feminist organizations, and “AIDS education” programs to the gay Left. The 1993 “stimulus” bill was a payback to big-city mayors; when it failed, much of its substance was included in the next year’s crime bill. Restrictions on the politicization of the federal work force have been loosened considerably.
Clinton’s sheer political talent should not be underestimated as a factor in the success of this strategy. Nor, for that matter, should the frequency and facility of his lies. He is able to call high-mindedly for bipartisan statesmanship and then, in the next breath, launch a furious attack on the motives of his opponents –who, we are to believe, want children to drink dirty water, eat diseased meat, and smoke. Yet Clinton is simultaneously a soothing figure. He is able to appeal to that strain of public sentiment that wants the noise and bickering from Washington to stop. His rhetoric is also appealing because it tells the voters they can have it all: a balanced budget without cutting entitlements; environmental regulation without economic costs; welfare reform without anyone suffering. He’s the perfect practitioner of the politics of painlessness: for everything that’s good, against everything bad. (In fairness, some Republicans, particularly of the Gingrich – Kemp brand, are prone to this as well.)
Another reason for Clintonism’s success is that, as many commentators have noted, this White House focuses on its political health to an unprecedented degree. American foreign policy toward Ireland and Haiti has been driven largely by domestic political considerations. The church-burning issue was basically a whipped-up hysteria designed to persuade black voters that white racism is still the chief threat to their well-being. And the Administration skillfully orchestrates the appearance of a constant flurry of activity — no matter how microscopic the initiative or gesture, how inadequate the rapid response. The Administration provides motion without progress, a perpetual campaign. President Clinton hasn’t declared for re-election; would anyone notice if he did?
The chief vulnerability of Clintonism is that even the boldest New Democrat cannot afford to cross some constituencies that are out of sync with the public. Clinton can’t sign legal reform because of the trial lawyers. He was willing to anger organized labor over NAFTA, but he has done its bidding on striker replacement and other workplace issues; if the Democrats do well this November, they will be greatly indebted to the AFL-CIO’s vigorous campaign on their behalf. And Clinton would not have dared to sign the bill banning partial-birth abortions for fear of incurring the wrath of feminists, a calculation that highlights the vacuum where Clintonism’s moral core should be. But the issue that most devastatingly gives the lie to Clinton’s pretensions of conservatism — his support of race and gender preferences –appears to have been dropped by his opposition.
The consolation for conservatives is that Clinton doesn’t move the debate; he merely positions himself within it. In the first year of the Administration, William Kristol compared the condition of American liberalism to that of Soviet Communism in the late 1970s: both were seemingly dominant, both utterly hollow. For a time it was fashionable in conservative circles to describe health-care reform as liberalism’s Afghanistan, the fatal overreach that would precipitate the empire’s collapse. Yet in neither case has the old order been unequivocally defeated.
Now, writes Johnathan Sunley in the summer National Interest, “Communism as a dogma is dead. . . . The problem facing supposedly ‘post-Communist’ societies is not a revival of that ideology, but the survival of power structures that escaped the ‘revolutions’ of 1989 more or less unscathed.” Just so with contemporary liberalism and the “revolution” of 1994. If Bill Clinton wins re-election, his legacy could be that America enters the twenty-first century shackled by the institutional residua of an ideology almost nobody any longer believes.