By Lance Selfa
NOTHING BETTER exemplified the spirit of the Clinton-Gore years than the May 24, 2000, Democratic fundraiser held in Washington, D.C.’s MCI Center. Pulling in a record $26.5 million in one evening, the Democrats paid tribute to their fundraiser—in—chief, outgoing President Bill Clinton. But unlike the blue-blooded Republicans, who dined on gourmet goat cheese at their recent fundraiser, the Democrats ate barbecue served on paper plates. In keeping with this fake populism, organizers encouraged all who attended to wear blue jeans.1
The MCI Center spectacle typified the administration it honored. Like the Clinton-Gore administration, it hid its pro-corporate agenda behind a fog of populist rhetoric. Like the administration, it beat the Republicans at their own game.
The Democratic Party moneybags who gathered in the MCI Center could thank the Clinton-Gore regime for producing “prosperity and progress” for them, the richest Americans. Yet this was an administration that arrived in Washington dedicated–in the words of its election manifesto, Putting People First–to helping ordinary people “who worked hard, and played by the rules.”
Putting profits first
Clinton won the 1992 election calling for change from Reagan-Bush’s “12 years of trickle-down economics.” Instead, in his first couple of years as president, he pushed harder for passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the 1994 crime bill than he did for anything that helped win him the election. The health care system overhaul that was supposed to be his signature achievement collapsed in 1994. Public disappointment ran so high that the 1994 election delivered the Congress–a Democratic bastion for 60 years–into the hands of the Gingrich Republicans.
Within a year, Clinton figured out a modus operandi to deal with the Republican Congress and to recapture public support in the polls. Clinton adopted most of the GOP program, including its retrograde “welfare reform.” At the same time, he staged high-profile battles with the Republican Neanderthals to show that they were “going too far.” This strategy revived Clinton’s presidency.
But after regaining the initiative, Clinton immediately embraced “bipartisanship,” signing off on a 1997 budget agreement that slashed billions from important programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Yet even this accommodation with the right-wing Congress won him few friends, as the same Congress spent most of the next year trying to drive him from office. The vigor with which Clinton and his surrogates fought off the Republican scandalmongers contrasted sharply with their failure to mount campaigns for health care reform or civil rights.
Clintonism may appear as nothing more than a series of poll-driven maneuvers intended to keep Clinton one step ahead of his political foes. But from the start, the Clinton-Gore administration pursued a well thought-out and deeply conservative political project. This “New Democrat” agenda emerged in the 1980s as the program of a faction of conservative Democrats determined to break the Democratic Party’s identification with organized labor, civil rights and other traditionally liberal causes. Embodied in the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), this faction succeeded in capturing the party machinery in 1992. It placed two of its chief leaders–Clinton and Gore–at the top of the Democratic ticket.
Four core ideas embodied Clintonism, according to journalist Ronald Brownstein: “opportunity and responsibility,” “economic globalism,” “fiscal discipline,” and “government as catalyst.”2 “Opportunity and responsibility” describes the Clinton-Gore “idea that government should both help those willing to help themselves and enforce common standards of behavior.” Clinton put it more crudely in describing his plans to force welfare recipients to work for their benefits: “We will do with you. We will not do for you.”3
“Economic globalism” means the single-minded pursuit of free trade and free market policies around the world. “Fiscal discipline” describes Clinton economic policies that generated record federal budget surpluses and the lowest level of government spending since the Eisenhower administration.4 Finally, “government as catalyst” describes a series of small-scale initiatives–from establishing a right to non paid family medical leave to tax credits for college tuition–that are Clinton-Gore hallmarks. All of these share similar characteristics. They sounded like good reforms of a deeply flawed system, and sometimes they even addressed critical social needs. But they were usually so minimal as to come nowhere near filling the social need they were supposed to meet. What’s more, they tended to stress private-sector initiatives, as when the administration marketed tax breaks for business as its anti poverty program during its 1999 “poverty tour” of depressed areas.
Conservative David Frum, writing in Weekly Standard, captured the essence of Clintonism:
Since 1994, Clinton has offered the Democratic Party a devilish bargain: Accept and defend policies you hate (welfare reform, the Defense of Marriage Act), condone and excuse crimes (perjury, campaign finance abuses) and I’ll deliver you the executive branch of government….He has assuaged the Left by continually proposing bold new programs–the expansion of Medicare to 55 year olds, a national day-care program, the reversal of welfare reform, the hooking up of the Internet to every classroom, and now the socialization of the means of production via Social Security. And he has placated the Right by dropping every one of these programs as soon as he proposed it. Clinton makes speeches, Rubin and Greenspan make policy, the Left gets words, the Right gets deeds.5
Clintonomics: boom for whom?
“It’s the economy stupid.” By now, nearly everyone has heard this slogan of Clinton’s 1992 campaign advisers. It held the key to Clinton’s victory over Bush as the country remained mired in a recession in the early 1990s. Clinton took office promising to focus on the economy “like a laser beam.” In keeping with his populist campaign themes, he pledged a “stimulus package” to create jobs and a “middle-class tax cut” to put money in ordinary people’s pockets. While these two pledges proved popular in the campaign, Clinton jettisoned both of them within months of taking office. The stimulus package fell to a Republican filibuster in the Congress. But Clinton withdrew the tax-cut proposal of his own accord.
That’s because his central economic policy–the 1993 budget plan–enshrined “deficit reduction” as the administration’s chief aim. The bill, passed without a single Republican vote in Congress, raised taxes on the wealthiest Americans, expanded the earned income tax credit for the working poor, and increased a variety of regressive excise taxes. Abandoning his proposals for “investments” in education and job training, Clinton’s “deficit reduction plan” won support on Wall Street. “Clinton’s willingness to raise taxes to close the deficit proved reassuring to a different kind of traditionally Republican constituency–the bond traders, who, initially at least, brought long term interest rates down,” wrote E. J. Dionne. “The bond sellers made Clinton’s willingness to support some sort of levy on the middle class a test of his ‘seriousness’ about deficit reduction.”6
The other major piece of economic legislation passed in 1993–ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in October–added another fundamental plank to the Clinton-Gore economic program. Clinton and Gore went all-out to win NAFTA, shunting aside protests from labor and environmentalists. If the 1993 budget plan enshrined “deficit reduction” as a domestic economic strategy, NAFTA established “free trade” as the holy writ of the Clinton-Gore foreign economic strategy. Subsequent free trade initiatives, such as the 1994 ratification of the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the 2000 approval of “permanent normal trade relations” with China, showed that no modern administration has been as aggressive in pushing deals for American business around the globe.
The administration’s pro-business policies went farther than simply “deficit reduction.” Clinton and his treasury secretaries Lloyd Bentsen, Robert Rubin, and Larry Summers allowed conservative Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan a free hand to jack up short-term interest rates at any hint of inflation, real or imagined. The Clinton Justice Department’s current antitrust action against Microsoft Corp. aside, the administration has actively encouraged deregulation and monopolization in the military, telecommunications, and finance industries.
And despite a lot of pro-environment rhetoric from the administration, big business has had little to fear in the area of environmental regulation. “We just don’t have unlimited resources to enforce all these measures and that can create a backlash [from corporations],” said Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner. “So we need to be realistic.” For the Clinton-Gore administration, “being realistic” meant sacrificing environmental protection at the first hint of any corporate objection. After fierce industry lobbying, the administration preserved sweetheart deals allowing the mining industry to pillage federal lands and the timber industry to clear-cut old-growth forests. In 1995 it opened some federal land holdings to oil drilling–a decision that enriched Occidental Petroleum and the vice president, an Occidental stockholder. Browner even allowed sugar growers and land developers–including a few Clinton-Gore campaign contributors–to dump polluted water into the Florida Everglades. The Clinton-Gore administration signed the 1997 Kyoto Agreement, a worldwide treaty aimed to limit global warming. But it has not even tried to win treaty ratification in the U.S. Senate.7
By the time the GOP took over Congress in 1995, Clinton had already adopted “Republican-lite” economic policies. Only Clinton’s embrace of the goal of a balanced federal budget by 2002 went further. As it turned out, his “deficit reduction” policies produced the first federal budget surplus in a generation in 1998. Clinton and Gore have recently set their sights on eliminating the federal debt for the first time since 1835. Their conversion to the balanced-budget religion has virtually ruled out any major government initiative to expand access to education, health care, or Social Security. In the early 1990s, with the economy pulling out of recession, Clinton argued for “shared sacrifice” and budget austerity to “get our economic house in order.”
Today, with the budget running surpluses, Clinton and Gore continue to tout the need for austerity. Gore recently ruled out stimulative deficit spending in the face of a future recession. Instead, Gore said, a recession “should be viewed as an opportunity to [downsize government further] before any other options are considered.” For echoing Depression-era President Herbert Hoover, Gore “should wash his mouth out with soap,” said Nobel Prize—winning economist Robert Solow.8
From Wall Street’s point of view, Clinton’s eight years in office have to be viewed as a smashing success. When he took office, the New York Stock Exchange’s Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at 3,300. At the time of writing, it stands at more than 10,000. Inflation dropped to imperceptible levels and, in May 2000, unemployment hit a 30-year low of 3.9 percent. Between 1992 and 1997, corporate profits grew by an average of 15 percent annually.9 The U.S. had clearly zoomed ahead as the world’s leading economy.
Yet all that glittered in the “miracle economy” wasn’t gold. Of the 22.5 million jobs created since the American boom began, about half of them pay less than $7 an hour. And the number of part-time workers desiring full-time work, combined with the number of low-wage ($7/hour or less) workers, is three times the number of workers without jobs.10 Low unemployment has boosted wages, but only back to 1989 levels in real terms.
To achieve even that standard of living, Americans work six weeks longer per year than they did in the 1970s. Even with the tax increases in Clinton’s 1993 budget plan, the wealthy pay a substantially lower percentage of their income in taxes than they did in 1977.11 Meanwhile, 38 million Americans remain poor by the government’s own statistics, which underestimate the true level of poverty, according to many experts.
This growing gap between rich and poor was no accident. It followed directly from the Clinton-Gore economic program. Whenever Clinton faced a choice between economic policies favoring Wall Street or those that might help Main Street, “in almost every instance, [Clinton] took the route favored by Wall Street, business executives and conventional economists, not the ones that ordinary people might have favored and that almost certainly would have been easier to defend politically.”12
Undoing the New Deal
Of all the Clinton-Gore administration’s actions over the course of its eight years, none will have a more far-reaching–and destructive–impact than Clinton’s signing of the 1996 welfare repeal bill. Peter Edelman, a Health and Human Services official who resigned in protest, called the bill “the worst thing Bill Clinton has done.” The welfare repeal bill represented one 1992 election promise Clinton didn’t break. Pledging to “end welfare as we know it” during the campaign, Clinton opened to door to the reactionary legislation he signed in 1996. Welfare repeal ended the 61-year-old guarantee of some income for the poorest Americans. It eliminated federal standards for welfare benefits. It imposed a five-year lifetime limit and a two-year continuous limit on benefits. It barred immigrants from receiving welfare and cut $24 billion from the federal food-stamp program. It marked the first time that a piece of the 1935 Social Security Act was repealed.
Clinton’s own Health and Human Services Department estimated that the bill would throw at least 1.1 million children into poverty. Other experts produced estimates three times higher. Despite these terrible consequences, Clinton received very little organized opposition to welfare repeal. Edelman conceded that
so many of those who would have shouted their opposition from the rooftops if a Republican president had done this were boxed in by their desire to see the president re-elected and in some cases by their own votes for the bill.13
Clinton didn’t sign the bill because a Republican Congress forced him to. With no chance of losing to Sen. Robert Dole in the 1996 elections, he didn’t even have the excuse of political expediency. He signed it because he supported it. “Welfare reform” had always topped the New Democrat agenda.
The economic expansion has forestalled the full impact of welfare repeal. And the five-year term limits will kick in when Clinton is tending to his presidential library in 2002. But already millions of poor people have felt the cuts at the state level. Almost half a million children who would have been lifted from poverty before welfare repeal passed remain in poverty, according to one study.14 The welfare caseload has dropped from 5 million families in 1994 to around 2.5 million today. Federal and state governments spend $10.6 billion less than they did in 1994. But most states have pocketed federal welfare block-grant money rather than making it available to poor people.15 Meanwhile, demands for food assistance and emergency shelter showed their largest annual increases since the early 1990s in cities across the country, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.16
Few would have predicted that “welfare repeal” would stand as the Clinton-Gore administration’s most far-reaching change to social policy. Clinton arrived in office promising to pass national health care reform. But in seeking a “New Democrat” solution that preserved the central role of the biggest insurance companies in managing the health care system, he handcuffed himself from the start. As soon as small insurance companies mounted an attack on his 1994 proposal, Republicans and many congressional Democrats lined up in opposition. With every attack on health care reform, Clinton retreated. In the end, health care reform wasn’t so much defeated as it was compromised away, piece by piece, until there was nothing left. The bill never even came to a vote in Congress. Since, Clinton has advocated smaller-scale reforms like a toothless “Patients’ Bill of Rights,” and Medicare coverage for prescription drugs.
Clinton often takes credit for defending Medicare and Social Security against Republican efforts to slash and burn both. But when the administration completed the 1997 Balanced Budget Agreement (BBA) with the congressional Republican leadership, it endorsed the GOP’s long-term goal of gutting spending on “entitlements” like Medicare and Medicaid. Between 2000 and 2005, the BBA will impose more than twice the $112 billion in Medicare cuts the Congressional Budget Office predicted. These austerity measures accounted for the first-ever annual decline in Medicare spending in 1999. Millions have already felt the cuts in higher fees and fewer services. Between 1997 and 1998, the number of sick and elderly receiving Medicare-financed home health-care services fell an astounding 45 percent, with 600,000 fewer people receiving care.17 The BBA’s draconian spending “caps” on the rest of “discretionary” programs from home heating assistance to legal services could force unprecedented cuts of 15 to 20 percent over the next eight years.18 Under the BBA, Clinton-Gore literally abandoned millions of poor, sick, elderly, and disabled Americans.
What’s more, the Clinton-Gore agreement with the GOP laid the groundwork for moving Medicare from a system that guarantees benefits to one that will provide vouchers so patients can buy insurance–if they can afford it. In other words, this free market solution will reintroduce all of the worst aspects of for-profit health care that Medicare was created to combat. At the same time, while denouncing Republican attempts to privatize Social Security, Clinton and Gore’s proposal to invest some Social Security money in the stock market already starts down that road. Unless these free market plans to wreck Medicare and Social Security are stopped, tens of millions of Americans face a cruel future.19
Kicking labor in the teeth
In 1992, Clinton won labor support with promises to ban scabs in strikes and to fight for a minimum wage increase. Instead, he spent most of his political capital on legislation that organized labor opposed. Clinton twisted arms and passed the pork barrel to whip up support for NAFTA’s passage in 1993. At the time, he even denounced labor for using “real roughshod, muscle-bound tactics” to oppose the free trade deal. But when congressional Democrats introduced the anti-scab bill in 1994, Clinton barely lifted a finger as the bill fell to a Republican Senate filibuster. The AFL-CIO’s political impotence–and the 1994 “Republican revolution”–provoked a fight inside the federation. In 1995, the federation ousted the encrusted Kirkland leadership in favor of John Sweeney’s “New Voices” slate.
The Gingrich GOP and the 1995 changing of the guard at the top of the AFL-CIO brought closer coordination between the White House and organized labor. When the Democrats controlled Congress during Clinton’s first term, Clinton did not mention the minimum wage once in any public statement. But with the GOP in charge of Congress, the minimum wage became a potent issue against the Gingrichites. The administration managed to push a minimum wage increase through the right-wing Congress, shoring up its labor support for the 1996 and 1998 elections.
Despite owing Democratic congressional gains in 1996 and 1998 to AFL-CIO get-out-the-vote drives, the Clinton administration had no qualms about tossing labor aside when it could score points with big business. In February 1997, Clinton used the 1926 Railway Labor Act to outlaw an American Airlines pilots’ strike. “[E]veryone understands that [American Airlines CEO] Bob Crandall’s latest coup is getting Bill Clinton to side with management over labor,” the Clinton-hating Wall Street Journal editorialized.20 Under its “Reinventing OSHA” initiative–which stresses “partnership” with business and “voluntary” compliance with regulations–the administration turned its back on workplace safety. During the Clinton-Gore administration, the number of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) workplace inspections is at its lowest, and the percentage of serious charges against corporations OSHA dismissed is at its highest since Congress created the agency in 1973.
Labor displayed a kind of schizophrenia about the administration. It wanted the White House to take it seriously as a “partner,” but it knew the White House wouldn’t return the favor. Still, the AFL-CIO was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prove its loyalty to the New Democrats. In the lead-up to the 1999 WTO summit in Seattle, Sweeney joined with a dozen major corporate CEOs to endorse the Clinton trade policy. But no amount of loyalty to Clinton-Gore brought labor much consideration. Sweeney’s signature had hardly dried on the pro-WTO declaration when the White House announced its intention to flout labor and environmental standards in a trade deal with China. Labor exacted some measure of revenge in the streets of Seattle.
Likewise, Sweeney engineered an early federation endorsement of Gore in 1999, helping Gore to push aside a challenge from New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. Labor ignored the fact that Gore, as the official in charge of the administration’s “reinventing government” program slashed the federal workforce by 17 percent (377,000 workers).21 Only a few months later, the AFL-CIO and Gore found themselves again on opposite sides of the vote for permanent normal trading status with China. To date, the federation remains firmly in Gore’s camp.
Feeding the prison industrial complex
While Clinton and Gore presided over a retreat of government responsibility to meet human needs, the administration continuously expanded the government’s policing of every aspect of life. Two-thirds of congressional Democrats supported Clinton-Gore’s 1994 Omnibus Crime Control Act. This $33 billion monstrosity expanded the use of the federal death penalty to 60 crimes, appropriated $10 billion for a vast expansion of prison building, and offered money to localities to hire 100,000 police. In 1996, Clinton’s Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act greatly curtailed death row prisoners’ habeas corpus appeals and established arbitrary time limits on death row appeals. On Clinton’s watch, the U.S. prison population nearly doubled and the number of executions jumped to its highest level in four decades.
With Clinton’s full support, a spate of bills supposedly directed at fighting terrorism took away ordinary people’s civil rights. Under the 1996 “antiterrorism” legislation, Americans can be prosecuted for raising money for organizations the government considers “terrorist.” Hundreds of legal immigrants who have lived in this country for years have been arrested and deported because immigration officials found that they were convicted of petty crimes years ago. As in Third World dictatorships, suspects can be arrested, charged, and convicted on the grounds of secret testimony that the defendant’s lawyer can’t challenge.
The Clinton-Gore agenda reeked of an authoritarian moralism that meted out punishment to ordinary people who didn’t conform to the administration’s approved standards of “personal responsibility.” Clinton’s Housing and Urban Development Department in 1995 announced a “one-strike-and-you’re-out” policy of expelling whole families from public housing on the mere suspicion that one family member was using drugs. The 1996 welfare reform law requires women to disclose the identity of their children’s fathers under penalty of losing benefits. This dovetailed nicely with the Clinton-Gore crusade against “deadbeat” dads. Clinton filled his 1996 reelection campaign with proposals the Christian Right could endorse: V-chips in televisions, teenage sexual abstinence, and school uniforms. Twice, Clinton signed bills censoring content on the Internet and cable television. Both times, the Supreme Court overturned them. All of this from a man who told his impeachment inquisitors to keep their noses out of his personal life.
Civil rights: Lots of “dialogue,” little action
It hardly needs to be said that the Clinton-Gore administration’s law-and-order policies–and their crusades for “personal responsibility”–fell the heaviest on African Americans, Latinos, and other racial minorities. This was no accident, because abandoning any notion of government action to correct racial injustice has been central to New Democrat politics from the start. In fact, the conservative Democrats who launched the DLC saw it largely as a vehicle to counter Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. At best, the Clinton-Gore administration has promoted a “race-neutral” approach to social policy that simply tried to avoid issues of racial discrimination. At worst, it pandered to racism by scapegoating Black welfare recipients or Latino immigrants. On several occasions, it took actions it knew to be discriminatory.
Clinton signaled his retreat on civil rights early when he abandoned Lani Guinier, his original choice to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, in the face of a hysterical right-wing campaign branding Guinier a “quota queen.” When conservatives and the Supreme Court attacked affirmative action programs, Clinton-Gore again retreated. While claiming a posture of wanting to “mend” rather than “end” affirmative action, Clinton ordered the end of dozens of federal affirmative action “set-aside” programs. “I’ve done more to eliminate programs–affirmative action programs–I didn’t think were fair,” Clinton boasted in one of the 1996 presidential debates, “and to tighten others up than my predecessors have since affirmative action’s been around.”22 Clinton operatives actually sabotaged the 1996 campaign against an anti-affirmative action California ballot initiative. If Clinton’s Democrats took a strong stand against the initiative, they argued, it would only energize conservative voters, whose turnout could jeopardize Clinton’s reelection support in California.23
While refusing to take any risks to oppose racism, the Clinton-Gore administration acted consciously to perpetuate racism in other cases. The administration pressed the Congressional Black Caucus to drop from the 1994 crime bill a “Racial Justice Act” that required assurances that the death penalty wouldn’t be administered in a racially discriminatory way. And the administration refused to change federal drug sentencing laws on crack cocaine that overwhelmingly discriminate against Black offenders. In light of this sorry record, it was hard to take seriously Clinton’s 1997 “Presidential Initiative on Race.” Clinton established a commission of respected individuals who could have used their positions to call for a national commitment to fight racism. When the commission finally issued its report in 1998, it included few specific proposals. The administration hoped for such an outcome, as one commission member, former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean–a Republican–pointed out: “Race is very divisive. As the year wore on, people became–not the board, but the people in the Administration–became concerned. We were not encouraged to be bold. My recommendation was much bolder than anything contained in this report.”24
Clinton and Gore’s record on issues of civil rights for other oppressed groups offers no cause for celebration either. To win support from women’s organizations, Clinton had pledged to appoint a significant number of women to top-ranking positions in his cabinet. When women’s groups pressed Clinton to appoint more women than he initially announced in 1993, Clinton attacked them as “bean counters” who were “playing quota games.” On the election trail, Clinton had pledged to pass a “Freedom of Choice Act” to guarantee the right to abortion. But after his election, he barely mentioned it again. Clinton twice vetoed congressional bans on so-called partial-birth abortions. Yet he allowed congressionally imposed restrictions on abortion for federal employees, District of Columbia residents, and Medicaid recipients to pass.25 In 1998, he proposed a $22 billion expansion of child-care benefits. When the GOP Congress voted it down, he stopped talking about child-care benefits. Finally, all of the attacks on working people Clinton sponsored–from welfare “reform” to Medicare cuts–disproportionately affect women.
It’s likewise with Clinton and Gore’s positions on gay and lesbian rights. Clinton didn’t answer to the Christian Right, and he appointed a few openly gay advisers. But on most of the main issues on which the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force lobbied, the Clinton administration was on the other side. Clinton’s 1993 “don’t ask, don’t tell” surrender to Pentagon bigots led to a 70 percent increase in discharges of gay service members over the Bush administration’s final year. In 1996, Clinton signed the GOP-inspired Defense of Marriage Act, barring states from approving same-sex marriage. He then touted his support for the bill in ads on Christian radio stations during his 1996 reelection campaign. Despite this, the HRC made Clinton the honored guest at its annual 1997 dinner.26
Cold War lite
In 1993, the Clinton administration inherited a favorable position for the U.S. as a world power. Two years after the disappearance of its chief military rival, the Soviet Union, the U.S. stood alone as the world’s superpower. As the only military power with a global reach, it spent more on intelligence services than most countries spent on their entire military apparatuses. The U.S. and its allies accounted for 80 percent of world military spending.27
The time was ripe for a “peace dividend,” a major cut in military spending that would free up resources for spending on health care, education, and other social needs that had taken a backseat during the Cold War. Instead, Clinton took the opposite course. Clinton’s plan for the post—Cold War military adopted most of the outgoing Bush administration’s assumptions. It preserved a Cold War—sized military after the Cold War. The U.S. now spends about 85 percent of what it did at the height of the Cold War to maintain a military with the power to intervene anywhere in the world. In 1998, Clinton announced a six-year boost to the military budget of $112 billion, including a go-ahead to the Pentagon’s biggest boondoggle, a “national missile defense” system. Ironically, the $112 billion figure corresponded almost exactly to a 1996 General Accounting Office estimate of the cost to make decrepit U.S. school buildings livable for the nation’s school children.
When Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush’s advisers recently attacked the Clinton-Gore administration for presiding over a decline in military “readiness,” former Reagan administration Pentagon official Lawrence Korb rose to their defense. Korb noted that military budgets under Clinton and Gore actually spent more than President Bush had planned had he won the 1992 election. The budget for training, readiness, and maintenance is actually 40 percent higher per person in uniform than it was under Bush, Korb pointed out.28 Six of Clinton’s eight budgets called for increases in military spending.
Clinton-Gore dispatched troops around the world far more than any other modern administration. Before launching the 1999 war against Yugoslavia, Clinton sent U.S. forces into combat situations 46 times. This compares to only 26 times for Presidents Ford (4), Carter (1), Reagan (14) and Bush (7) combined.29 Clinton, the one-time anti—Vietnam War protester, continued Bush’s 1992 invasion of Somalia, invaded Haiti in 1994, bombed Serbia in 1995 and 1999, Sudan and Afghanistan in 1997, and Iraq almost continuously throughout his administration. To force North Korea into negotiations, Clinton threatened in 1994 a war that could have provoked a nuclear conflict. In 1995, the U.S. aided its Croatian ally in the ethnic cleansing of more than 170,000 Serbs. And it has remained the main enforcer of genocidal sanctions on Iraq, which have killed more than 1 million Iraqis since 1990. In June 2000, the Congress passed the administration’s request for $1.3 billion in aid to the Colombian military.
The administration’s support for sanctions in Iraq and for the death squads in Colombia belied all of its talk about establishing a foreign policy based on human rights. But this had been clear from the start. After denouncing the Bush administration for ordering the forcible repatriation of Haitians fleeing persecution from their country, Clinton did an about face. Bush’s policy became Clinton’s policy. Blasting Bush for “coddling dictators” in China, Clinton in 1994 removed any human rights considerations from U.S.-China trade. Clinton supported the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia to the bitter end in 1998. And his administration in 1997 lifted the ban on weapons sales to Latin American governments, including present and future military regimes. Given this record, it should come as no surprise that Clinton’s “humanitarian” war against Yugoslavia in 1999 produced a catastrophe for ordinary Serbs and Kosovar Albanians alike. “If there is a Clinton Doctrine–an innovation by the present administration in the conduct of foreign policy–it is this: punishing the innocent in order to express indignation at the guilty,” wrote one establishment critic of the NATO war.30
The dead end of lesser evilism
As the Clinton-Gore administration headed into its final year, journalist William Greider wrote:
[Clinton’s] accomplishments, when the sentimental gestures are set aside, are indistinguishable from George Bush’s. Like Bush, Clinton increased the top income tax rate a bit, raised the minimum wage modestly and expanded tax credits for the working poor. He reduced military spending somewhat but, like Bush, failed to restructure the military for post—cold war realities. He got tough on crime, especially drug offenders, and built many more prisons. He championed educational reform. He completed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was mainly negotiated by the Bush Administration. On these and other matters, one can fairly say that Clinton completed Bush’s agenda. It is not obvious that a Democratic successor in the White House would be much different.31
Greider’s criticisms may make liberals blanch, but he’s right. The Clinton-Gore administration pushed through conservative policies–like ending welfare and running a balanced budget–that Republicans could never have won. By all rights, he gave liberals as many reasons to oppose him as they had to oppose Bush. Yet, in every election year, Democrats and their liberal defenders urged a vote for Clinton and the Democrats. The Republicans, they said, would do much worse. Clinton may not be so great, they said, but he was the “lesser of two evils.”
Had Reagan or Bush tried many of the policies that Clinton passed, liberal organizations would have mobilized millions to protest–as they did in the late 1980s when a right-wing Supreme Court threatened to repeal Roe v. Wade. But with their “friend” Clinton in the White House, they stood by
waiting and hoping and beseeching, working on the inside, faxing and phoning and producing yet another study or poll. Meanwhile, they preach[ed] the gospel of the lesser of two evils, that ever-downward spiral that has brought us to this pass and that will doubtless end with liberals in hell organizing votes for Satan because Beelzebub would be even worse–think of the Supreme Court!32
As Clinton’s Democrats moved even closer to the Republicans, the liberals clinging to Clinton’s coattails swung to the right with them. The range of mainstream political opinion narrowed. The Democratic Party that had been identified with Medicare and Social Security became identified with “free trade” and “tough-on-crime” measures. With the Gingrichites waiting in the wings, the Democrats assumed their core constituents would support them no matter what. So Clinton and Gore didn’t worry as they produced one betrayal of workers after another. Such was the logic of “lesser evilism.”
But in the Clinton-Gore administration’s final days, a growing number of activists realized that we don’t have to swallow whatever a Democratic White House dishes out. Labor and student organizing against Clinton-Gore’s globalization agenda and the swelling movement against the death penalty mark two important pressures on Democrats coming from the left. Rumblings of labor and environmentalist support for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader challenged the notion that these constituencies “have nowhere else to go” but the Democrats.
The Democrats will no doubt play the “lesser evil” card in the 2000 presidential election. Many of those who today express disgust with the Gore-Bush choice may hold their noses and vote for Gore–if only from fear that a President George W. Bush will pack the Supreme Court with hard-right justices. If Gore manages to win the 2000 election, activists have no reason to breathe easy. As eight years of Clinton-Gore attacks have shown, the lesser evil is still an evil.