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Clinton and Liberalism

Thursday, July 22, 2004
Jack O'Toole has raised an intriguing issue on his blog, namely, was Clinton sufficiently liberal? He argues that while Clinton's means were different from traditional liberals, his ends were the same: greater opportunity and social justice. Neoliberalism and incrementalism are just another way to get there.

Clinton's critics, on the other hand, have accused him of being "Republican Lite", citing the examples of deregulation, corporate fundraising, NAFTA, welfare reform, and other policies.

Still others argue that it is hard to tell how liberal Clinton really was, since he had Democratic majorities in Congress for two years, and they weren't so cooperative when he did have them.

I think O'Toole basic argument is essentially correct. Liberals have been far too inflexible as to means, which has compromised their ends. The Left tends to have a knee-jerk response that any social problem requires the intervention of the federal bureaucracy. This has had extremely damaging political consequences, inviting an anti-government backlash.

We should certainly be flexible as to how we pursue liberal social ends. Of course, this leaves as an open question whether neoliberalism is effective at pursuing those ends. I would argue that they are not. In policy terms, neoliberalism tends to advantage social elites and reinforce existing social inequities. Politically, neoliberalism actually underscores the dominant conservative paradigm, which is why it is ultimately a dead end. All it does is continue to shift the needle to the right.

But I don't think Clinton was a thoroughgoing DLC Democrat. Yes, he was chairman, but so was Dick Gephardt, and he isn't a neoliberal. And I don't think it's fair to criticize him for policies he supported after the Republicans captured the Congress- he was on the defensive from then on. So if you look at his first two years, you have some neoliberal policies (free trade, deficit reduction), some liberal ones (health care, gay rights), and some that don't fit in either category (national service, for example).

E.J. Dionee in "They Only Look Dead" lays out what the Clinton strategy was: to establish credibility where Democrats had been traditionally been weak (crime, welfare), in order to puruse their overarching goals, particularly health care. The Republicans were terrified that Clinton's health care plan would succeed, because it would restore faith in government. It was a close run thing, but the right managed to stop the plan, with disastrous consequences for the rest of us.

Clinton's success was only partial for a number of reasons. He never got the chance to deliver on the really liberal stuff, and his gains were reversed on at least blocked by Republicans later on. I believe Clinton's limited success was due in large part to his chief failing as a politician: his inability to argue in thematics. He was spectacularly good at defending a particular policy on its own terms, but he was never able to explain how all his policies fit together in a coherent whole. There was no overarching vision, which enabled people to pick and choose which ideas to support, causing the whole edifice to collapse. It is THIS problem which has bedeviled Democrats for decades. You can't persuade people to support your ideology if they don't know what that ideology is. We have allowed our beliefs to be defined in the public mind by conservatives, and so we lose. And until we learn how to craft a compelling narrative, we will continue to do so.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:38 PM
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