October 3, 2009


We Were Wrong: Why I'm Not Voting for Clinton (Katha Pollitt, October 7, 1996, The Nation)

In 1996 we can say with some certainty that Clinton has more than fulfilled the fears of his critics, including the ones at this magazine, who received a great deal of grief in the early years of the new Administration for being too "negative" and "carping". Michael Kazin and Maurice Isserman's 1994 Nation article urging leftists to give Clinton a break looks positively quaint today. Among his accomplishments they list the "affirmative action" appointments of Mike Espy, Ron Brown, and Janet Reno, three big disasters; a "sexually explicit" anti-AIDS campaign (what?); an expanded definition of homelessness (with expanded actual homelessnes soon to come); and access and jobs for our side (plus the chance to quit on principle). Yes, in a few high-profile area Clinton has been less bad than Bush would have been: the Supreme Court (but not the lower courts); abortion rights, the largely symbolic assault weapons ban and the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Violence Against Women Act. But it's a short, narrowly tailored list. On many of the great issues before government he's continued Bush's policies--the crime bill, the neglect of the cities, the erosion of civil liberties and privacy, NAFTA. On some--welfare, food stamps--he's arguably been worse.

Liberal defenders of Clinton blame the 1994 Republican victories for his current conservative stands, particularly on welfare. But it was Clinton himself who made welfare a burning issue. His original welfare proposal, which Gloria Steinem and other feminists now portray as benevolent, included many of the punitive features of the bill he eventually signed--cutoffs, time limits, forced work. Donna Shalala herself (whose shameful tenure as secretary of H.H.S. is hardly an argument for getting "liberal to radical activists" into government service) admitted that under the Clinton plan some mothers would lose their children.

Besides misreading the actual chronology of events, blaming Gingrich for Clinton takes much too narrow a view of politics. Clinton and Gingrich are part of the same worldwide phenomenon: the slashing of the welfare state, the lowering of the working class's standard of living, and the upward transfer of wealth. You can plausibly argue that Clinton prepared Gingrich's way by accepting Republican terms of debate.

Of course, we cannot know what a second Bush Administration would have brought. We can safely say, though, that we would not see Bernie Sanders voting for more prisons and Carol Moseley-Braun advocating trying 13-year-olds as adults. We would not have Barbara Mikulski and Tom Harkin voting to abolish the federal entitlement to welfare, or Nita Lowey supporting abstinence-only sex education. We would ahve an opposition in Congress--and out of it too. If Bush had proposed the Clinton health plan, single-payer activists would never have signed on to flack it. If Bush had suggested hooking up to the Internet schools that don't have neough desks he would have been ridiculed as a clueless showboater. And if a bill cutting $54 billion out of public assistance had come up during his tenure, Marian Wright Edelman, Jesse Jackson, and Gloria Steinem would have been out in the streets. Who knows, Donna Shalala might have been there too.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 3, 2009 6:48 AM
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