Economy and Clinton

First, he contrived a national health insurance scheme in a manner more befitting a parliamentary government. Congress was not much involved in the design or political management of his plan. Worse, Clinton bungled the interest-group and popular politics of health reform. The managed competition scheme was complex, and it did not fire the public imagination. Politically, Clinton hoped to make a deal with the big employers and insurance companies, but this proved naive. In the end, both turned on him–and he didn’t have public opinion on his side as a counterweight.

Worse still, Clinton spent what remained of his political capital in 1993-1994, to ram the NAFTA deal through Congress. The plan was a leftover from the Bush administration. It badly split the Democrats, and it was not even wise geopolitics. In the end, Clinton got NAFTA enacted with heavy Republican support, dispiriting his own party. Republicans took control of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, and Clinton deserves some of the blame.

What followed was, of course, a turn to the right. Clinton did play a weak hand well, helping Newt Gingrichs Republican Congress to overreach itself. But during the mid-1990s, Clinton himself tacked further to the right than the situation required. He embraced a Republican view of welfare reform. He went along with a brutal immigration bill and assaults on civil liberty in the name of crime control. He accepted the idea of a balanced budget–and then when an economic boom pushed the budget into surplus, he declared that he would pay off the entire national debt.

To a point, all this was a kind of tactical Dunkirk: a strategic retreat to enable the Democrats to fight another day. But this particular Dunkirk moved the fleet not just to Dover but to Bermuda. The entire center of gravity moved to the right. On most aspects of domestic policy, Bill Clinton has been to the right of Richard Nixon.

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