November 22, 2011

THE UR'S PROBLEM IS HIS FAILURE TO MOVE FAR ENOUGH RIGHT:

When Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable?: If every Democratic president disappoints, maybe there's something wrong with our expectations. Tough love from a fellow traveler. (Jonathan Chait, Nov 20, 2011, New York)

It is odd that Bill Clinton's imagined role as ass-kicking economic savior has become the object of such extensive liberal fantasy. We don't have to speculate as to what Clinton would have done if Republicans had blocked his economic stimulus. It actually happened. Clinton had campaigned promising a stimulus bill to alleviate widespread economic pain, with unemployment at 7.5 percent at the start of his term. Like Obama, Clinton needed a handful of Republican senators to pass it (Obama needed two Republican votes to break a filibuster, Clinton three). Clinton's proposed stimulus was $19.5 billion. Unable to break a Republican filibuster, Clinton offered to pare it down to $15.4 billion. Republicans killed it anyway, creating an image of a Clinton administration in disarray.

Certainly, the circumstances faced by Clinton were different. (For one thing, the recession was far less deep and passed its worst point shortly after he took office, making the case for stimulus less urgent.) Still, nothing in this episode suggests Clinton possessed any special communicative or legislative skill that would have enabled him or his wife, had either held office in 2009, to pass a larger stimulus than the $787 billion bill Obama signed.

Bill Clinton's election, following a dozen years of Republican presidencies, ushered in buoyant hopes of renewal. But liberals experienced his presidency as immediate and almost continuous deflation and cynicism. Clinton did enjoy one major triumph in his first year, when he passed a budget bill that raised the top tax rate, expanded the earned-income tax credit, created a new national-service program for graduates, and reformed other parts of the budget. This was the progressive apogee of the Clinton administration. Liberals at the time viewed it as a sad half-measure. The focus was on deficit reduction, not public investment, and each iteration of the legislation that worked its way through the congressional machinery emerged less inspiring than the last. "The Senate's machinations on President Clinton's budget plan have left many Democratic House members feeling angry and betrayed," noted a New York Times editorial.

The rest of Clinton's first two years consisted of a demoralizing procession of debacles and retreats. A series of Clinton appointments--Lani Guinier, Zoe Baird--came under conservative fire and were withdrawn in a panic. He steered his agenda toward right-of-center goals, like the North American Free Trade Agreement and a crime bill, serving only to alienate his liberal allies without dampening hysterical attacks from conservatives and the business lobby. Health-care reform collapsed entirely, in part because liberals refused to support a compromise final measure. Six months into Clinton's presidency, after he had abandoned his effort to integrate gays into the military, Bob Herbert summarized what had already settled as the liberal narrative: "The disappointment and disillusionment with President Clinton are widespread ... He doesn't seem to understand that much of the disappointment and disillusionment is because he tries so hard to be liked by everyone." Hardly anybody contested that portrait.

After Republicans swept the midterm elections, Clinton moved further rightward. He famously declared that "the era of big government is over" and brought in reptilian operator Dick Morris--not yet the right-wing conspiracy-monger seen on Fox News these days, but distinctly right of center--as his chief political adviser. He signed a welfare-reform bill containing such Draconian provisions that several liberals resigned from his administration in protest.

All of the things that made Bill Clinton unpopular with liberals made him popular with voters.  But he had the advantage of having run to the Right in '92, so it seemed he was being summoned back to himself. 

Mr. Obama ran on nothing, so he could have governed from the Right from the git-go, but shifting now, while helpful politically, would only make him more troubling personally.

Posted by at November 22, 2011 5:38 AM
  

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