In Maria’s thread below, commenter Iain Coleman writes:
My hopes about Obama are limited to my expectation that he will be much like Bill Clinton, but with a bit more political capital and fewer illicit blowjobs. If Obama can just achieve that much, I will be delighted.
Much concurring and Clintonista apologetics followed, from the likes of commenter MQ.
Well like Coleman, I’m not an American, nor an American resident. But, of course, I have lived under the Blair government, which overlapped with Clinton’s and shared some of its (non-blowjob) characteristics. And I’m inclined to say, “not good enough, people”. It is an exaggeration to say that every child can recite the achievements of the Attlee government in Britain or the New Deal in America, but if we had decent education systems, it wouldn’t be. It is hard to imagine even a well-educated child in a social-democratic future being able to tell us what Clinton or Blair managed in their time (except, of course, the bad stuff, in each of their cases).
There’s also a good deal of “in the circumstances” excusing in that thread. Well the circumstances included the post-Cold War dividend, with which they did almost exactly nothing. Clinton managed capitalism a bit better than the Republicans; Blair cemented the post-Thatcher consensus, spent some extra money in public services rather ineffectively, tried to micro-social-engineer using a confusing system of tax credits that no-one understands, and increased the independence of the Bank of England. Well, terrific.
There is a criterion that any progressive government ought to meet. It is one that I might quibble with in a seminar but not in life. A progressive (left, liberal, social-democratic government) ought to alter social arrangements so that they work significantly more to the benefit of the the least-advantaged members of society that they did when that government came to power. Well, The Wire is fiction, and I’ve never visited the West Side of Baltimore, but did Clinton make a difference in places like that? And are the Valleys of South Wales less (or more) hopeless places than they were ten years ago?
Clinton’s eight years and New Labour’s eleven were disappointing. They led (or will lead) to cynicism and demoralization and to renewed periods of conservative government. People can thrash around and find this or that good thing that they did (and no doubt will in comments) – but on the criterion I just gave their achievements were nugatory.
So I don’t think it is too much to hope that Obama will do better. Because doing better wouldn’t be doing much. And if Obama can’t do just a bit better, then we had better just stop all those seminars on theories of justice and “realistic utopias” and so forth, because it will be hard to imagine the possibility of any government making significant progress toward the goals we pointy-headed liberal academics discuss in seminars.