August 23, 2006


Bill Clinton Was Right: He Saw the Roots of America's Welfare Problem (Robert Rector, August 23, 2006, Washington Post)

To fully understand Clinton's role in the passage of this landmark legislation, one must go back to the early days of the 1992 presidential campaign when Clinton first began trying out his welfare themes. According to New York Times reporter Jason DeParle, Clinton regarded his welfare message as the "all-purpose elixir" of his campaign for the presidency.

It was a values message, an economic message and a policy message all in one. And it generated more interest than any other topic Clinton addressed.

A surprising thing about Clinton's welfare message is that it found resonance with many people in low-income neighborhoods. It won Clinton respect from the poor, a group most analysts figured would object strongly to any welfare reform plan.

DeParle reports that in the fall of 1991, Clinton dispatched campaign aide Celinda Lake to North Carolina to conduct focus groups with black voters. The campaign was worried that Clinton's pledge to "end welfare as we know it" might invite Virginia's black governor (and presidential aspirant) Doug Wilder to attack Clinton as a "racist."

Lake found otherwise. "The welfare message, worded correctly, plays extremely well in the black community," Lake reported. Low-income African-Americans were all for cutting welfare, so long as they sensed a corresponding commitment to help them acquire the dignity that comes from gainful employment.

A major turning point in the debate over welfare reform came in late 1993 when Clinton made a series of remarkable public statements about the links between social problems, welfare dependency and unwed childbearing. No president before him had addressed this topic.

It started in Memphis, where Clinton addressed a group of black church leaders. Employing the rhythm, cadence and blunt-spoken hard truths of an old-style sermon, it was the kind of speech that would have caused most white liberals to turn red with embarrassment.

But the audience loved it, repeatedly interrupting with applause.

At one point in the speech, the president imagined what Martin Luther King, Jr. would say if he were "to reappear by my side today and give us a report card."

The slain civil rights leader, Clinton suggested, would say: "'I did not live and die to see the American family destroyed. . . . I fought for freedom, but not for the freedom of . . . children to have children and the fathers of the children walk away from them and abandon them as if they don't amount to anything.'"

Later that day, at another black church in Memphis, Clinton attributed the rise in inner-city crime to four things: "the breakdown of the family, the breakdown of other community supports, the rise of drugs . . . and the absence of work."

Several weeks later, in a television interview with NBC, Clinton admitted that he had found "a lot of very good things" in Dan Quayle's infamous 1992 speech on family values. "I think he got too cute with 'Murphy Brown,'" Clinton said, "but it is certainly true that this country would be much better off if our babies were born into two-parent families.

"Once a really poor woman has a child out of wedlock," he continued, "it almost locks her and that child into the cycle of poverty, which then spins out of control further."

The president went on to note that, contrary to popular belief, this cycle of poverty is not primarily a problem of race. "If you look at the figures for black, two-parent families with children, their incomes are almost three times as high as single white mothers who had their children out of wedlock," Clinton said. "So, it's not, primarily 'a racial problem' -- it's a problem of income, family structure, and educational level."

Not surprisingly, Clinton's message astonished many liberals.

Similarly, while SS Reform doesn't look like it will get done on his watch and someone else wouyld eventually have proposed the same thing, it will be George W. Bush who will have been primarily responsible for its eventual privatization.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 23, 2006 9:21 AM


Well yes and no. Yes he did do and say the things that Rector says he did. However Clinton said those things to appeal to "white" voters and never had any intention of actually following thru on it and black voters didn't believe it either.

Until oops.. the Republicans won Congress.

Posted by: h-man at August 23, 2006 2:34 PM

It required a Republican Congress, but he did pass it and sign it.

Posted by: oj at August 23, 2006 2:45 PM

He signed it.

Posted by: jim hamlen at August 23, 2006 3:06 PM

Clinton signed Welfare Reform after vetoing essentially the same bill 2x and because Dick Morris told him he had to sign it to get reelected.

Historians mostly tilt left. Bush II will only get credit for the messy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, any SS reform will be attributed to whatever liberal/Dem the historians can point to with a straight face.

Posted by: AWW at August 23, 2006 3:20 PM

By vetoing it he made it seem his bill again after the GOP stole a march. It was just savvy politics.

Posted by: oj at August 23, 2006 4:02 PM

That President Clinton never would have promoted or signed the measure without the GOP Congress isn't too surprising. But who cares what his motivations were? He gets some credit because he signed it. He could've been like the current Democrats in Congress and made an ass of himself obstructing everything the other side proposed. Luckily for us he has no principles.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 23, 2006 8:23 PM

Matt, Clinton had so many ways of making an ass of himself, he simply let that one slip by.

Posted by: erp at August 24, 2006 6:34 AM