Expectations for Obama

by Chris Bertram on October 30, 2008

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.

{ 86 comments }

1

Mike 10.30.08 at 7:23 am

Actually, it’s easy to imagine that, but first one has to wake up and stop believing that a right-of-centre, corporatist candidate like Obama (or Clinton, or Blaire) is somehow a progressive and represents a ‘left, liberal, social-democratic’ viewpoint. Perhaps when people finally start realising that the same guy is holding both sock puppets, we can start making some progress.

I’ll show you politics in America. Here it is, right here:
‘I think the puppet on the right shares my beliefs.’
‘I think the puppet on the left is more to my liking.’
‘Hey, wait a minute, there’s one guy holding out both puppets!’

— Bill Hicks, Rant in E-Minor, 1997

2

Martin Bento 10.30.08 at 7:43 am

I think your criterion is far too one-dimensional. If Obama restores civil liberties and rule of law, prevents another depression, creates an alternative energy infrastructure, brings Iraq to as decent a conclusion as possible, brings the Bush administration to account for its misdeeds, defuses the Islamic terrorist threat whether or not this involves capturing or killing bin Laden, increases the median household income and security, works with other governments to lay the foundation for a solution to global warming, makes obsolete religious attacks on Darwinism, on gay rights, on abortion and eases racial tensions, he will have accomplished a great deal, much more than I expect of him or think I have a right to, but none of this necessarily means he will have increased the well-being of the bottom ten percent.

I would like to see more from Obama than Clinton too. I would like to see him further left on economic policy and foreign policy, and less conciliatory to the Republicans. His rhetoric is not encouraging, but to a degree circumstances may force his hand. Specifically:

1) Not pushing the “Washinton Consensus” on the world. Since that is no longer the consensus, I think this one is safe, but I’m not clear where Obama will go. I would like more Stiglitz and Reich, both of whom were suppressed under Clinton, and less Rubin and Volcker, but I don’t know if I will get it.

2) A more critical attitude towards free trade. I think this will only come if absolutely forced, but, for the time being, I think free trade is frozen: no major new agreements are coming, and none of the old ones will be substantially renegotiated.

3) Respect for Russia’s security interests and skepticism of reckless entanglements, which means not expanding NATO to their borders, or putting a missile shield in Ukraine. We didn’t accept nukes in Cuba. Not optimistic on this score because I don’t expect:

4) Willingness to confront the military. The military has just asked for another $450 billion, which seems to have no objective but to tie Obama’s hands into funding whatever they want. And he will give it: he can’t afford a fight with the military right off, and will only be able to afford it in the future if he is willing to undermine their prestige, a dangerous course.

5) Bringing the Bush admin to trial. One of the first things Clinton did was shut down ongoing investigations into the first Bush regime. Had he not done that, and knowing what we do now, a second Bush presidency would be almost unthinkable. If Congress leads on this, he may stay out of the way. He should realize that his first time will be associated with hard economic times, and he’s only going to keep the Republicans down if he is willing to rub the country’s nose in the Bush adminstration’s criminality.

6) Increase the capital gains tax. He says he will do this. It’s not just fairness. I suspect there is a correlation between a low capital gains tax and speculative bubbles.

7) Implement his health care plan. When push came to shove, Clinton was willing to toss health care under the bus to save GATT. It is not certain that he could have saved health care at that point anyway, but he could have force the Republicans to vote and put their “fingerprints” on it, which likely could have saved the Dem majority in Congress.

There’s more, but that’s enough for now.
There are others, but that’s enough.

3

bad Jim 10.30.08 at 8:40 am

I would never wish anyone fewer blow jobs.

Obama already comes promising the beginning of an attempt to provide the U.S. with universal health care, so his election alone would imply general agreement with that goal, which should ensure its eventual implementation, finally. (Hurray! In the 21st century the US enters the 20th century!).

We pull out of Iraq, gently, while promising insincerely that we’ll continue to respect it. Afghanistan may prove a more difficult entanglement. We might even wind up requesting that Russia share the burden (how much better is the mess we’ve made now than theirs?)

If our economic straits are as dire as some fear, Obama will qualify as a hero if he merely manages to slow our slide into national penury. Sure, extra points for closing Guantanamo, restoring the rule of law, ending domestic spying, prosecuting this administration for its lawbreaking ways, you betcha, but since I’m already sitting in this handbasket I’d be happy with just a slower ride to hell.

4

Chris Bertram 10.30.08 at 8:42 am

#1 _one has to wake up and stop believing that a right-of-centre, corporatist candidate like Obama (or Clinton, or Blaire) is somehow a progressive and represents a ‘left, liberal, social-democratic’ viewpoint._

Well the weaker than plain-vanilla-Rawlsian criterion I enunciated in one that it would be reasonable to hold even right-of-centre corporatist candidates to, imho.

#2 I’m happy to keep it simple, at least for the purposes of this thread.

5

Farah Mendlesohn 10.30.08 at 9:05 am

The one really good thing the Blair government did was to legislate for civil equality for gay men and lesbians, and more recently for trans-men and trans-women. It’s not perfect, but it was a very real achievement.

6

toby 10.30.08 at 9:20 am

As an achievement of Blair, I would count Peace in Northern Ireland, granting also that he stood on the shoulders of a long line of other dwarves.

Kossovo and the overthrow of Milosovic must count as a Clinton achievement. He is said to have reformed Welfare – maybe he prevented the butchery of the programme by Newt Gingrich and his cohorts.

I expect a bit more from Obama, and Martin Bento’s list looks good.

At least, Obama should be able to shift the Supreme Court centre-left from centre-right. I would like a Constitutional Amendment ruling the Unitary Executive theory of the Bush administation out of court forever. However, maybe Obama and Biden (both being Senators) can repair the rift between Legislature and Executive.

7

Hidari 10.30.08 at 9:33 am

Another feature of the Blair government worth looking out for is that it started off as being extremely right wing…..and then moved further to the right. . I point this out merely because the chattering classes were continually reminding us that after (insert event here), Blair’s government would come zooming out of the red closet and suddenly nationalise the means of production, set up British soviets (complete with focus groups), and begin the dictatorship of the commentariat.

But actually, as Polly Toynbeen has been reminding us recently it’s inconceivable that even the (mainly trivial) progressive changes Blair made in the first four years of his premiership would be put forward by NuLab now. I mean things like the assault on child poverty, the corporate manslaughter bill, the freedom of information act. These were watered down and (in the case of child poverty it is highly unlikely that the ultimate targets will be met), but the key point is that they were set up as goals in the first, ‘progressive’ stage of Blairism.

My point is: don’t be fooled (again). When Obama is first elected he probably will, in the first few years, make moves towards a ‘progressive’ agenda. However, it should not therefore be inferred that he is going to follow these moves up, or that this will be indicative of the fundamental ‘thrust’ of his premiership. Don’t fall for the ‘oh yes he’s reactionary now, but that’s just to show he can govern…wait till the second term! That’s when he will suddenly grow a Zapata moustache and demand to be referred to as Comrade Obama!’.

(I believe that the Clinton administration was the same: any positive moves* he made towards social justice were made in the first two years of his adminstration: the remaining six were basically just managing capitalism and The Empire from a MOR, postmodern, ‘ideology free’ perspective).

*And he mainly manage to fuck them up anyway: cf reform of the health care system.

8

A. Y. Mous 10.30.08 at 9:48 am

The way these wish lists are made up, it seems to me you folks in the West need a legalised corporatisation of your governance mechanisms. You, as voters, are demanding _shareholder’s rights_ from your governments. That’s downright impossible, if not fancy ridiculuous. Maybe an Executive Presidency is the pre-cursor to your Philosopher Kings whose sole purpose in life is to lead you and your fellow countrymen in the righteous path that winds left.

>> However, maybe Obama and Biden (both being Senators) can repair the rift between Legislature and Executive.

Just curious. I know only of JFK. Any other Senators who made it to the White House?

9

vavatch 10.30.08 at 10:10 am

That’s democracy – if Blair or Clinton had said they were going to try and radically change society by tinkering with its fundamentals, nobody would have voted for them except for people who don’t have to suffer the consequences – ie “pointy headed liberals”.

Obama is the next blair or clinton and is not significantly different from Bush – and people want it that way. He’ll happily imply threats to bomb pakistan, endorse wire tapping, bend over backwards to help the “middle classes” he keeps banging on about whilst ignoring people who can’t help themselves – beats me why people think he’s the second coming and beats me why anybody would want that anyway.

10

Iain Coleman 10.30.08 at 10:24 am

If I can go back to not being shit-scared of American foreign policy, that will be a positive outcome for me. Regarding the least well off, Obama is likely to have the will, competence and political capital to give America something resembling a half-decent healthcare system, which will in itself benefit that section of society. As for the problems depicted in The Wire, I don’t see them being resolved without the legalisation of drugs, and it is vanishingly unlikely that anyone who could be elected US President at the moment would take that step.

I was neither surprised nor disappointed by Tony Blair’s government, because I had been paying attention to him in the years before 1997, in particular his strategy of outflanking Michael Howard on the right when he was Shadow Home Secretary. I was perplexed by the left-wingers who thought it was all just a ruse to get into power in order to promote a left agenda, rather than an expression of his genuine politics. I was even more astonished when it happened all over again with Gordon Brown, though at least in his case the disillusionment was a bit more prompt.

Obama is different: he is, however modestly, challenging the prevailing right-wing consensus rather than pandering to it. I don’t expect revolutionary changes under his presidency, but I do anticipate moves in the right direction, and a shift in the centre of gravity of US politics.

With more political capital than Clinton, Obama can at least make substantive changes in areas where Clinton tried and failed – healthcare being a major example. With fewer illicit blowjobs, Obama can continue to be the rock that the right-wing noise machine dashes itself futilely against.

Of course, I wish Mr Obama all the entirely legitimate and above-board blowjobs he can cram into his busy schedule.

11

Charles S 10.30.08 at 10:51 am

toby,

Sadly, unless Scalia finally decides that he wants to become very rich by doing the corporate lecture circuit and abandons the court (which I’d guess has not a chance in Hell of happening) or one of the conservative justices meets a fate that none of us would wish on them, Obama will probably just get to hold the line on keeping the court dominated by Kennedy’s center-right preferences. The justices who are likely to retire are the liberal and centrist justices, not the right wing justices.

I do agree with Chris’s point. While Obama is no socialist, he has not campaigned on a “third way” basis. Obama has promised us card check union elections, a massive increase in the minimum wage (with the minimum wage finally tied to inflation), something vaguely approaching universal health coverage, massive increases in funding to early childhood education, massive increases in support to non-profit community groups, a shift towards independence from fossil fuels, and refundable tax credits for payroll taxes for lower income workers, etc.

These are not the vague nothings that Clinton offered us and mostly failed to deliver. At least several of these policies (card-check, increased minimum wage, health coverage, cuts in payroll taxes), will provide obvious immediate benefits to the working poor. While it is possible that he will fail to bring all of these about, he will enter government with a clear mandate to do these things, and with a Democratic congress eager to prove its effectiveness (with many members already signed on to several of these measures).

I’m am prepared to be very let down by Obama (maybe he won’t carry through on his promises), but that is something that Clinton could never do to me, as he had never promised me anything except to be the Republican-light option.

12

John Smyth 10.30.08 at 11:06 am

Tony Blair biggest achievement by far has been the Northern Ireland peace process which has had a very real effect on the people of NI as well as the rest of the UK and Ireland – imagine how much fun the “War on Terror” would be if you had the IRA still planting the odd bomb in London and shooting soldiers in Belfast. That alone was a huge and (hopefully) lasting achievement.
(Credit of course must also go to John Major who managed to advance the peace process while dealing with an internal Tory revolt AND relying on Ulster Unionists to hold his government together )

13

DC 10.30.08 at 11:06 am

This just published report is a data point that seems rather pertinent:

“…since the late 1970s, inequality of annual earnings – the difference in the amount individuals earn – grew considerably, which contributed to large increases in child poverty, so that by 1997 about a third of all British children lived in relative poverty. ..

However, [the study] concludes that since 2000, wage mobility has risen and wage inequality has fallen….

…the introduction of Working Families Tax Credit in 1999 seems to have increased employment and job retention, increasing the incomes of many low-income families. There is also no evidence that employers have used WFTC to keep pay increases down. This may have been helped by the simultaneous introduction of the National Minimum Wage. “

http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/pressAndInformationOffice/newsAndEvents/archives/2008/LowIncomeFamilies.htm

14

Pete 10.30.08 at 11:07 am

Another thing to list for the Blair government is turning the idea of an independant Scotland from implausible to something which quite a lot of members of the political establishment* talk fairly seriously of. Not yet clear whether this is good or bad overall, but it’s certainly good for students and the elderly in Scotland.

* That is, MSPs

15

Lex 10.30.08 at 11:18 am

@13 – good for said groups as long, of course, as the UK govt keeps subsidising Scotland [as it does Wales, where similar crowd-pleasing generosity is on display]. Good luck with that if you actually had an independent state that had to manage its fiscal affairs meaningfully. So kind of paradoxical, overall, really…

16

Tom West 10.30.08 at 11:20 am

I think that outside of foreign policy, people are vastly overestimating the amount of influence the US president has. Pretty much by definition, while Obama was one of the most left-leaning senators, he’s unlikely to be able to pass policy that is substantially to the left of the median senator.

Remember, this is a system that, even when the senators do agree with your legislation, you generally have to bribe your own senators with all sorts of irrelevant earmarks if you want to get your laws passed.

Outside of foreign policy and the few other elements under executive control, his most effective role is to act as a pulpit to change general social attitudes. In that aspect, I think that he’s likely to be fairly successful.

17

harry b 10.30.08 at 12:21 pm

I agree that NI is a very real achievement, and that Blair didn’t screw it up, BUT, really, Major deserves enormously more credit than anyone gives him (John Smyth’s parenthetical tribute should really be the headline!).

18

Ben Alpers 10.30.08 at 12:57 pm

I am enthusiastically supporting Obama as the lesser evil.

I agree with most of the negative assessments of the Clinton administration above. And my expectation is that Obama = (Clinton – extramarital blowjobs).* That will not be good for the country or the world. But Bush has been much worse and a McCain administration would be a continuation of the Bush years.

The Supreme Court is a fine microcosm of the problem. The likely retirees in the next four years are the Court’s two most liberal members, Souter and Stevens (both Republican appointees, fwiw). My expectation is that Obama will replace them with Breyer-like justices just slightly to their right, but still on what passes as the “left” of this court. McCain would replace them with far-right ideologues like Alito and Scalia, thus tipping the court’s balance decisively to the far right. I don’t want either of these options, but it’s clear which is less bad and it’s important that we get the lesser evil.

___________________________________________

* Incidentally, there’s a good case to be made that extramarital blowjobs saved Social Security. Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton would have almost certainly worked together to privatize Social Security during the last two years of the Clinton administration had Gingrich not decided to put his chips on impeachment instead. So it’s even possible that (Clinton – extramarital blowjobs) < Clinton.

(Where’d my preview go? I loved having it back!)

19

Ben Alpers 10.30.08 at 1:44 pm

Pretty much by definition, while Obama was one of the most left-leaning senators, he’s unlikely to be able to pass policy that is substantially to the left of the median senator.

Obama is not one of the most left-leaning Senators. He was the 21st most liberal Senator in the 109th Congress and, as of June, the 10th or 11th most liberal in the 110th. In short, he’s pretty near the middle of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Not all governing involves passing laws through Congress, as the last eight years have shown. A President Bernie Sanders (to imagine an actual leftmost Senator in the White House) could do many things substantially to the left of the Senate’s center-of-gravity. But there’s no reason whatsoever to think that Obama is interested in doing so.

(And there’s my preview! Huzzah!)

20

Picador 10.30.08 at 2:04 pm

Frankly, I’ll be shocked if Obama even manages (or tries) to undo the damage he’s already done before even taking office: e.g. repealing the 4th Amendment, cheerleading for genocide in Iraq and Afghanistan, promising the same soon for Iran in front of AIPAC…

Has any Presidential candidate in history (other than US Army generals like Andrew Jackson and Dwight Eisenhower) been responsible for so much tragedy before even becoming President?

This is one reason why Senators make bad Presidents. They come in on day one having sold their souls a thousand times over.

21

rea 10.30.08 at 2:21 pm

Any other Senators who made it to the White House?

Nixon, L. B. Johnson, Truman, Harding, B. Harrison, A. Johnson, Buchanan, Pierce, Van Buren, Jackson, Tyler, W. H. Harrison, J. Q. Adams, Monroe

22

matt 10.30.08 at 2:26 pm

For what it’s worth Matthew Yglesias has a pretty good reply to part of this post showing how, while not ideal, those whom we might reasonably think of as the “worst off” in the US improved by a significant margin under Clinton as opposed to Bush I, and lost much of that improvement under Bush II.

23

Rob 10.30.08 at 2:27 pm

Unlike governors who are pure and clean! Like Sarah Palin!

24

franck 10.30.08 at 2:32 pm

Clinton did significantly improve the lot of the poor. In 1992-3, we hit a peak in the number of people in poverty and the poverty rate and at 15%. It declined steadily throughout his term to 12% and dropped from almost 39 million and 31 million. (It has since climbed under George Bush.) Clinton brought the poverty rate down to the levels it had been in the middle 70’s after the Great Society.

It’s a little harder to tell what is going on in the UK.

25

armando 10.30.08 at 2:32 pm

I’d echo what people are saying about giving Blair some credit for the NI peace process. Even if you (rightly, imo) think that Major’s contribution was at least as significant, it is still something worth remembering.

One might also want to add early progressive moves like the introduction of the minimum wage which, again, one might argue were a legacy from the Smith leadership more than a Blair achievement but I’m happy to give points for scoring the goal.

But I think the real lesson to be learned is what Mike #1 says and expanded upon by Iain #10. You should expect a right-of-centre corporatist politician to enact right-of-centre corporatist policies. I, unlike many Labour supporters, was not disappointed that Blair didn’t turn out to be very progressive since “not being too progressive” was a key and explicit feature of his politics.

I think this is a very important point, in fact, that people on the left are somewhat delusional about the extent to which the expect “moderate” politicians to be concerned with social justice. It seems much more like wish fulfilment than anything based on reality. So I guess I would confront Chris statement in #4 head on. Why do you expect a right-of-centre politician to be as progressive as you’d like? If you are disappointed, isn’t it at least plausible that that is because you are vastly overestimating the commitment to progressive ideals from such politicians?

26

Paul Gottlieb 10.30.08 at 2:45 pm

This post reveals a shocking ignorance about how the American political system works. Unlike the Prime Minister, the President cannot introduce legislation, nor does he have a guaranteed majority to vote for the passage of the legislation he favors. Congress is an independent body. Britains seem to have a hard time getting this concept straight. Without a working majority, no President can get legislation enacted. Comparisons between Blair and Clinton are simply inane. Chris also questions whether Clinton’s policies actually did anything to help the poor. The answer to that is an unambiguous yes. Follow this link to see th actual figures http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2008/10/life_at_the_bottom.php

The results are clear and dramatic.

27

lemuel pitkin 10.30.08 at 2:50 pm

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

I reckon the curriculum would include something like the following:

1. Passed NAFTA
2. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”
3. Family and Medical Leave (unpaid)
4. Welfare reform
5. Budget surpluses
6. A modest increase in tax progressivity
7. Consitently competent, well-qualified appointees to federal offices
8. A somewhat more favorable environment for labor, through e.g. the NLRB (this one is debatable.)

1, 4 and 5 are not in any way progressive, of course. 2 and 3 are pretty unimpressive in themselves but could be seen as down payments on broader reforms; 3 anyway is the closest thing to a significant extension of the welfare state in the 1990s. 6 I think is overvalued, 7 undervalued — a various people have pointed out, the Bush years have really made the importance of federal appointments clear. Of course it would be a huge disappointment (to me at least) if Obama didn’t ahve a lot more than this to show for eight years in office. But it isn’t quite nothing.

I agree with Ben Alpers @ 18 about Social Security. But I don’t agree with him that Obama’s record in the Senate is a reason to keep our hopes down. Circumstances are very different now, and Obama is coming in with a huge Democratic tailwind.

28

lemuel pitkin 10.30.08 at 2:52 pm

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

You could hold some on social movements instead, then. Advisor to the crown isn’t the *only* role a political philosopher can aspire to…

29

Ben Alpers 10.30.08 at 2:54 pm

@21 – Many of those Senators didn’t go straight from the Senate to the White House.

Only two sitting U.S. Senators have ever been elected to the presidency: JFK and Warren Harding.

Nixon, LBJ, Truman, Van Buren, Andrew Johnson, and Tyler all served as VP in between their Senate terms and their presidencies (with LBJ, Truman, Andrew Johnson, and Tyler all assuming the presidency due to a presidential death).

Benjamin Harrison and Andrew Jackson both left the Senate some years before their presidency began, though neither served in any political offices in between the end of their Senate terms and their election to the presidency.

John Quincy Adams, William Henry Harrison, James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce all left the Senate before their presidencies and served in major appointive political offices in between their time in the Senate and the White House.

Monroe served as Governor of Virginia and in a variety of appointive offices in between his term in the Senate and his presidency.

One other thing to note: Prior to the 17th Amendment (1914) and direct election of Senators, the office was quite different, so there’s a certain amount of apples-and-oranges to this story.

30

Harry 10.30.08 at 2:57 pm

Well, there’s no doubt that life improved a bit for people in the bottom 1/3rd during the second half of the Clinton years. Do Clinton’s policies have much to do with this? Not at all clear; why, for example, attribute to him responsibility for the economic upturn that began before he won the election in 1992? If Paul Gottlieb is right about how American politics works (which he is, as CB well knows — the attribution of “shocking ignorance” is bemusing) then why not give credit for the brief improvement in the lot of the least advantaged after 1994 to the Republicans who really ran the show?

One thing that we will find out in the recession/depression we are entering is whether TANF has benefitted or harmed the poor. My guess is that it will harm them (though I hope not), and Clinton can take lots of responsibility for that; Bush I would not have abolished welfare as we know it because i) he didn’t want to and ii) he would have faced an opposition from 1994 that would have stopped him even if he’d wanted to.

31

Ben Alpers 10.30.08 at 3:02 pm

Lemuel Pitkin @18:

Don’t forget:

1) The Telecommunications Act of 1996

2) The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998

3) The Iraq Liberation Act of 1998

4) The Gramm-Leach-Billey Act of 1999

5) The Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000

None of these was remotely progressive.

1 and 2 have had dire consequences for our media environment.

3 lay the groundwork for the rush to war in 2002 (and funneled tons of money to Ahmed Chalabi)

and 4 and 5 are the foundation of our current economic crisis.

Nice record!

32

David in NY 10.30.08 at 3:05 pm

Now if Obama will just win!

33

lemuel pitkin 10.30.08 at 3:11 pm

Paul Gottlieb-

In one pararagraph, you go from saying that it’s “shocking ignornace” to imagine the President controls the legislative agenda in the US, to attributing all the 1990s improvment in income distribution to unspecified Clinton policies.

You got it right the first time, I reckon. The late 1990s saw the lowest sustained unemployment and most rapid growth in 20 or 25 years. That’s what drove the rise in incomes at the bottom. But why was growth so good then? There are various possible answers:

1. The dot-com boom. (As we’ve been discussing ins ome other threads, the contemporary US economy seems to have two settings, bubble and stagnation. Bubbles are better.)

2. Greenspan’s willingness, against the wishes of other on the Fed board, to leave interest rates low even as unemployment fell well below the “natural” or “non-accelerating inflation” rate. Which in turn you may attribute to:
a. The federal budget surplus. (This would basically be the only reason to ever have a surplus, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.)
b. The fact that US workers were sufficiently cowed and disorganized that the threat of unemployment was no longer as necessary to maintain workplace discipline or prevent explosive wage demands. (The left-liberal version, argued by the late Andrew Glyn and my old professor Bob Pollin.)
c. The Maestro’s brilliance. (The vogue for this has passed.)

I’m sure Henry or other econ folks can add more. What does *not* explain the late ’90s economic performance, however, is “Clinton’s policies” — at least, until you can say what those policies were.

34

nick s 10.30.08 at 3:12 pm

Congress is an independent body.

In theory. Draft legislation does, however, emerge from the executive branch and land on the desk of the relevant members of Congress.

Britains seem to have a hard time getting this concept straight.

Britons seem to make judgements on such things based upon how they work in practice.

On topic: if you could judge Blair on the first term only, I think the assessment would be different: minimum wage, devolution, Lords reform, NI. Helped by circumstances, yes, which means you can’t make excuses for the years spent sucking up to Bush. Though you wonder whether the authoritarian tendencies of post-2001 Labour would have been as manifest in an alternate universe in which Gore was president. Probably to some extent: the ASBO would have come regardless.

On that note, my gut feeling is that Obama will need to have his small-c social conservatism challenged on the left. I can certainly see the same potential tendency for moral scolding.

35

lemuel pitkin 10.30.08 at 3:17 pm

Ben-

You’re right on telecom. And of course I wasn’t talking about foreign policy — otherwise the Yugoslav wars would have had a prominent spot on the list. If it weren’t for Bush and Iraq, I think that the humanitarian intervention/liberal imperialsm aspect of Clinton’s legacy would loom much bigger.

I don’t agree on your 4 and 5 — from what I can tell, the deregulation they ratified had effectively already happened. (Certainly Glass-Steagall was a ead letter by then.) Obviously Clinton didn’t do anything to reverse it but I don’t think he really advanced the process much either.

Anyway, I was just trying to list what most objective observers would agree were the most important domestic accomplishments of the Clinton adminsitration, for better or worse.

36

Chris Bertram 10.30.08 at 3:33 pm

I posted this comment over at Yglesias, in response to his post. But the second point is germane to some remarks here:

I’m happy to be corrected by those more knowledgeable than myself (probably, that’s most of you). But on a couple of points:

(a) I asked whether Clinton made a difference in places like that. So pointing out that the Wire was set in a different period it hardly to the point.

(b) I wrote about the alteration of “social arrangements” so that they work more to the benefit of the least advantaged. Showing that income figures temporarily trend this way or that (and then extrapolating) is, again, hardly to the point. After all, economies fluctuate. Both the New Deal and the Attlee welfare state were long-term institutional changes.

37

J Thomas 10.30.08 at 3:37 pm

I think the relevant acronym will be OBE — Overtaken By Events.

It doesn’t matter what Obama’s plans are. He’s going to have to move fast and decisively to meet a steady series of interrelated crises.

He can say he wants to keep fighting in afghanistan, but how? He can invite the russians to help, but they’ve already been there. What incentive can he offer them? Afghanistan is a great big strain on our logistics, through countries that don’t like us at all but like our dollars. As the dollars depreciate….

He can say he wants improved medical care. But he doesn’t have the money to do *more* health care. What he might do is cut some of the waste. Single-payer reduces a lot of duplication of effort and provides a brake on costs. It could give us all the bad results that opponents say they don’t like about it — waits for elective surgery, slowed innovation, refusal to do expensive procedures etc. Cutting costs, and getting the burden off business, those are the priorities.

Obama campaigned for military transformation. Change the weapon mix to the sort of wars we’ll actually fight — occupying hostile populations — instead of the wars we don’t much fight, defeating foreign armies. He wants a larger army with new weapons. He can get a little savings by cutting SDI, but not nearly enough. How can he afford it?

Here’s a quick scenario.

Under autarky, when there isn’t enough consumer demand (because too many people want to save rather than spend) government spending can ‘prime the pump’, providing spending that encourages more spending.

But in global markets when foreigners want to save rather than spend, US government spending tends to devalue the dollar. We spend more, the dollar goes down, the cost of imports goes up so people don’t get to spend more. The cost of exports goes down so we export more of what we make ourselves rather than consuming them ourselves. It doesn’t help because the problem isn’t a lack of US spending or a surplus of US saving and the US government doesn’t have the same role in the global economy that it would in an autarkic economy.

In the US economy the Government is the arbiter of rules. It can change the rules, it can drive anybody out of business or subsidise them, and it has as much money as it wants to. In the world economy the US government is just another borrower and currency manipulator. It can write blank checks on the US economy, but that’s more impressive the better the US economy is doing. And the more concerned US businesses get about having blank checks written on them, the more incentive they have to pick up and move elsewhere.

So, what are we going to do? What can we do to get out of recession if Keynes has stopped working? Go metric? Rebuild critical infrastructure? Attack pakistan?

38

SamChevre 10.30.08 at 3:40 pm

Somewhere in the Clinton hall of shame, you need the DMCA.

On the good side, FMLA is important, although it does very little for the bottom 10%.

I would rate welfare reform a big success, and one that long-term will have considerable benefits for the bottom 10%. Changing to a “support upward mobility” model from the old “support stability” model is a slow change, but the results so far are encouraging.

I’m not certain that South Wales (or East Tennessee, or West Virginia) really can be helped much. Once the economic rationale (coal-mining) is gone, there’s just no way of making the economics work. And I’ll second Iain Coleman that decriminalizing drugs would have a larger effect than anything else.

39

lemuel pitkin 10.30.08 at 3:44 pm

Showing that income figures temporarily trend this way or that (and then extrapolating) is, again, hardly to the point. After all, economies fluctuate.

This is correct. An uncharacteristically weak post from Yglesias.

And even if Clinton did contribute the ’90s economy, it matters how. Many centrists (like Brad deLong) would say the causality runs spending restraint –> budget surpluses –> low interest rates –> strong private investment –> low unemployment –> rising incomes at the low end. In other words, the poor benefited under Clinton not because of the ways he was progressive, but because of the ways he wasn’t. I don’t accept this personally, but what’s the alternative if you want to tell a Clinton-was-good-forthe-poor story?

But Chris, I’m still wondering about the conclusion of your post. Why does the status of political philosophy depend on the agendas of heads of state? Are there no other social actors it can address?

40

lemuel pitkin 10.30.08 at 3:47 pm

J Thomas-

A lot more people (like me) would bother reading your comments if you imposed a 250-word limit on them. (Actually, this might not be a bad policy for CT in general.)

41

J Thomas 10.30.08 at 3:52 pm

As we’ve been discussing ins ome other threads, the contemporary US economy seems to have two settings, bubble and stagnation. Bubbles are better.

Yes.

And heroin has two settings, soaring and Jonesing.

Soaring is better.

42

matt 10.30.08 at 3:57 pm

I think someone mentioned it above but pumping up the Earned Income Tax Credit, as Clinton did fairly early on in his first term, was both useful for poverty relief and, I think, plausibly thought to be something that changes “social arrangements” in that it’s the closest thing that we’re likely to have in the US to a guaranteed basic income for the near future. (It’s clearly not one, since someone in the household must work to get it, and it’s not very big, but we should also not underestimate the difference that more income can have on the poor. Even Van Parijs thinks GBI ought, for practical reasons, start out small.) Additionally, during the Clinton years, the IRS had a policy of looking at tax returns that might qualify for the EITC and notifying the person if they didn’t apply for it, sometimes even just awarding it if the person didn’t apply. (This actually happened to me one year.) The policy switched heavily under Bush II, whose IRS made “EITC fraud” a priority in audits, spending dollars to save pennies under the best interpretation possible. None of this should be taken to imply that I think Clinton was a very good president for the least well off. I don’t. Rather, these are just some examples.

43

Western Dave 10.30.08 at 4:01 pm

Don’t underestimate the importance of getting the hell out of the way of the internet. It’s not hard to imagine a very different outcome for the internet, e-commerce, etc. if crazy no-porn in my home types were running the show in the Clinton era. Sometimes it’s what you don’t do that matters. And Clinton was pretty good at not doing stuff.

44

rd 10.30.08 at 4:10 pm

The income gains to the poorest during the Clinton years have been eroded, but they have not been reversed, even after eight years of Bush. It seems a weirdly procedural requirement that gains to the material welfare of the poor are only meaningful if they come about through alterations to “social arrangements,” whatever that signifies. It seems like a formula for redescribing any policy choice you disagree with as trivial, however much the lives of actual people get better.

45

Lee A. Arnold 10.30.08 at 4:42 pm

One thing the post and comments should understand is that there is presently no progressive, theoretically comprehensive alternative to standard economics. So the idea that Obama could zoom-in and fix things, if he were only disposed to do so, is a little unreal.

On the other hand, it is now evident that supply-side-Milton-Friedman-Ronald-Reagan-asset-bubble economics is conclusively disproved, in both its theory and its real-world results. In short, Republican economic ideology is deader than a doornail.

BUT no progressive macro+micro theory has ever arisen. In fact, in the supply-side years the U.S. liberals were forced into what James K. Galbraith called “supply-side liberalism” (in his book Created Unequal:) it is the same causal chain that Lemuel Pitkin listed just above: “spending restraint—> budget surpluses—> low interest rates—> strong private investment—> low unemployment—> rising incomes.” This turns out to be theoretical only, and rather tenuously supported at best. Of course, Dubya blew the projected Clinton surpluses on tax cuts for the rich. But the really weak link is “low interest rates—> strong private investment.”

In the absence of a comprehensive theory, it might seem as if a Democratic majority is doomed to failure. However, it is possible that the real solutions are supposed to be piecemeal.

Consider this: the econoblogs have been examining this disaster since the beginning of the internet, and Democratic policymakers have started to tune in. Politicians are looking for arguments, and in blogs the arguments are starting to become comprehensive, and be comprehensively vetted. This intellectual symbiosis could activate a very careful and complex policy evolution toward full employment, low inflation, and high economic growth under ecological sustainability.

It is not a matter of what “Obama is going to do,” (I doubt whether he himself is so short-sighted to believe that,) but rather what EVERYBODY can do, having a Democratic majority that is connected to the best arguments of the people.

The work doesn’t end with the election, no matter who wins. If you have an issue you care about, then bring together people with smart arguments, make sure all the arguments are nailed down, identify the legislative actors, and convince them.

46

Harry 10.30.08 at 4:46 pm

Its not at all clear that EITC has produced substantial benefits to the worse off, at least directly. It may well have just functioned to subsidise low-wage employers, especially in the period during which there was a jobs boom. I don’t know any careful analyses of this, I’d be glad to be pointed to them.

47

Tom Hurka 10.30.08 at 5:03 pm

Seconding the skepticism about health-care reform: with trillion-dollar deficits Obama won’t be able to do anything. And as others have said, US presidents don’t have much power. FDR wanted a national-health plan, as did Truman; both talked about them in State of the Union addresses. But Congress wouldn’t play ball with them and nothing happened. The US political system just contains too many points, e.g. individual committees, where vetoes can be exercises and reforms blocked. It’s a deeply conservative system.

48

matt 10.30.08 at 5:27 pm

Harry, (46) I can’t vouch for this site (I only have a few minutes to google now) but it matches what I’ve read many other places and have seen said by progressive economists:
“The EITC is the largest poverty-reduction program in the U.S. and is responsible for lifting more children out of poverty than any other federal program, including 2.2 million in 2005.”
That seems like a substantial benefit to me, even if we can completely reasonably think much, much more can be done. That’s from here:
http://www.results.org/website/article.asp?id=359

A discussion from economists at UC Davis (It’s a PP Slide presentation or I’d link to it, too) also suggest that the evidence is that the EITC is a significant reducer of poverty and does not merely subsidse low-wage work. (And even if so, so what? Isn’t that also what, say, a Guaranteed Basic Income like that favored by many egalitarians would do, and be designed to do?) So, I think you’re off point on that. If you have any good evidence otherwise (or reason to think that even if what it did was subsidize low-wage work that would be a particularly bad thing) I’d be interested to see it, since it certainly goes strongly against the consensus.

49

CJColucci 10.30.08 at 5:36 pm

I expect to be disappointed in an Obama administration. Considering the alternative, I look forward to mere “disappointment.”

50

J Thomas 10.30.08 at 7:06 pm

J Thomas-

A lot more people (like me) would bother reading your comments if you imposed a 250-word limit on them.

I’ll try. It takes so much longer to write short posts, and then they’re so much fuzzier. It’s real hard to get a meaning clear unless you say it at least twice at different levels of abstraction.

51

J Thomas 10.30.08 at 7:28 pm

Shortly, I agree with Holbo on his substantive point that Obama will have to deal with great big external events that will matter far more than the moderate goals he talks about now.

I can’t begin to predict what he’ll do because the sorts of things that will be necessary are way outside of the current political discourse. He doesn’t talk about it and he can’t talk about it, it would sound crazy to people who imagine that we’re heading for more of the same, as if the ship will sink very slowly on a perfectly even keel.

Maybe more than one bold strategy will have acceptable results, though probably very different acceptable results. I’m pretty certain it will take something bold. No idea if Obama is up to it but McCain looks pretty clearly like he isn’t.

52

J Thomas 10.30.08 at 7:52 pm

Before Keynes, people liked to think of governments as economic actors like other economic actors. A government needed to balance its books, avoid bankruptcy. Keynes noticed that the government is not like other businesses and it can afford to regulate the economy by doing things that other businesses cannot. In theory the government cannot owe more money to bankers etc than it can afford to pay — if that happened it could tax the banks etc and get the money. Or tax whoever. The government is more like a referee to the game than a player.

But in the global economy that’s not true. If the US government owes money to foreigners it can’t just tax them. (Though it can freeze their accounts if it goes to war with their nations.) If the US government is too bad for US businesses they can relocate. Shop around for the government they want. Capital goes where it wants. Business goes where it wants. Goods go where they want. Only labor is mostly stuck. The US government is now only a player. It can’t do what it used to do, when Keynes was right.

When the government was treated like a business nobody was in control. With Keynes the government had a lot of control and could act to regulate the economy. Now nobody’s in control again.

Fiscal and monetary policies are no longer the answer. They interact in complex ways with the policies of other governments. They are now part of the problem.

53

J Thomas 10.30.08 at 9:04 pm

Is there any precedent for a US government to improve the US economy apart from fiscal and monetary policies? Sure, lots of examples of fiscal spending that improved infrastructure as well as providing fiscal stimulus. But beyond that?

I can think of two giant examples. WWI and WWII. People accepted privations — with rationing to keep them from getting *too* bad — to contribute to winning the war. They bought “savings bonds” without worrying too much whether they’d get full value out of them later. Business invested in capital equipment far beyond peacetime needs. They took on new technology quickly because the war needed it, they didn’t wait until the old stuff was completely amortised.

After WWII they adapted. Lots of shortages. Lots of adaptations. Things were all shaken up, new businesses could fill new ecological niches that they weren’t crowded out of by established companies doing established business. People talked about new technology being more profitable than colonialism. But the USA had a collection of third-world colonies we started developing then. Subject to US law, the natives spoke more-or-less english, rich undeveloped resources — the american south.

Could we do something like that again? Carter called for the moral equivalent of war, and the public wouldn’t follow him. Does it take an actual war to make it work?

54

DRR 10.30.08 at 9:44 pm

It seems like some people are holding Bill Clinton up to heroic standards. No he didn’t implement another “New Deal” neither did anyone else besides FD fucking R. Did Clinton ever have as massive a partisan advantage as FDR or LBJ? Was the climate for liberalism much less the continued ascendancy of a radical conservatism more amicable in his administration compared to the other two. You’re right, Clinton was not FDR or Clement Atlee, much less in a political climate much more hostile to the New Deal itself and with a partisan minority in both houses of congress. It seems if we continue to hold our elected leaders to such standards, we will be contonually disappointed.

And no Clinton didn’t implement welfare reform, he signed it….after he had vetoed the thing twice and it was brought to him yet a third time. Anti Clinton partisans, in a fit of intellectual dishonesty like to pretend that Clinton’s parsed political speech promising to end welfare had anything to do with the bill that eventually came out of the Republican congress. Read the literature on the proposed Clinton welfare reform legislation pre-1994. It was basically smoke & mirrors effort to dissolve welfae as a hot button political issue rather than to significantly alter the program.

In these discussions I’m rarely disabused of the suspicion that the majority participants always assume they would be a better President than whoever was in office, This conceit is especially shallow when the large body of them liken the ability to achieve something in politics to the way The Green Lantern overcomes his foes.

55

DRR 10.30.08 at 9:54 pm

Just for the record, can we get a roll call of all the leaders of the prominent left of center parties in all the major western countries of the last 20 years. The ones where socialism isn’t even a bad word or who even refer to themselves as socialists, along side their radical egalitarian reforms? I’m not talking mincemeat bougoise reforms either of the kind that are a party of the slow incremental and not always upward process in making nation-states more equal, I’m talking significant reform.

56

lemuel pitkin 10.30.08 at 10:08 pm

DRR-

Who are you responding to on this thread, exactly?

57

lemuel pitkin 10.30.08 at 10:17 pm

It was basically smoke & mirrors effort to dissolve welfae as a hot button political issue rather than to significantly alter the program.

If you don’t think the conversion of AFDC to TANF did not “significantly alter the program,” then you just don’t know anything at all about welfare policy.

58

DRR 10.30.08 at 11:11 pm

If you don’t think the conversion of AFDC to TANF did not “significantly alter the program,” then you just don’t know anything at all about welfare policy.

Except that isn’t what I said.

Anti Clinton partisans, in a fit of intellectual dishonesty like to pretend that Clinton’s parsed political speech promising to end welfare had anything to do with the bill that eventually came out of the Republican congress. Read the literature on the proposed Clinton welfare reform legislation pre-1994. It was basically smoke & mirrors effort to dissolve welfae as a hot button political issue rather than to significantly alter the program.

Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it” a politically parsed phrase if there ever was one, and he proposed a welfare reform package that did little to alter the program and was essentially a smoke & mirrors effort to neutralize a hot button issue for the Democrats. It was most similar to the 1988 Moynihan vehicle that was also supposed to have ended welfare as we knew but was more politics than policy. TANF, a much more draconian program was a baby of the 1994 republican revolutionaries. It was not something drafted and then pushed by the administration. The Republicans pushed it in his face, he vetoed it, they pushed it in his face again and he vetoed it again, even as several members of his own party (sans Moynihan and Bradley) were actively engaging in the bipartisan process to make it slightly less brutal and also giving it legitimacy. They pushed it in his face a third time and he capitulated. There was major support for the bill and like any calculating politician he tried to act as if he was an active facillitator rather than a reluctant latecomer. He talked about the things he liked about the bill as well as the many things he didn’t like about the bill and I believe the administration even altered it slightly to dull the sharper edges of it. It helped him get reelected then the economy got hot during his second term and everyone was proclaiming welfare reform a resounding success. That’s the story of welfare reform. I’m not pretending that Clinton was a stalwart defender of the poor, but the issue was a lot more nuanced than the dishonest smear that “Bill Clinton destroyed welfare.”

59

Righteous Bubba 10.30.08 at 11:19 pm

I’m not pretending that Clinton was a stalwart defender of the poor, but the issue was a lot more nuanced than the dishonest smear that “Bill Clinton destroyed welfare.”

Yes, but Bill Clinton destroyed welfare.

60

lemuel pitkin 10.31.08 at 12:02 am

Well, DR, you come across as a native speaker of English so I assumed you used the phrase X rather than Y the way most of us do, to say that the thing in question is not Y.

But now I see the key word was “intended” — Clinton didn’t intend to destroy welfare but he did anyway — he “capitulated” and signed a very bad bill. (Because if he’d vetoed it a third time….) This just isn’t a defense of Clinton; you’re actually arguing for the side you’re trying to argue against.

(And never mind how theat Republican majority came about — Clinton’s decision to pass his first major bill — NAFTA –with majority Republican support and aliente & demoralize the msotimportant instituional supporters of his own party surely had somethign to do with it.)

It actually is perfectly possible to make a moderately progressive case for Clintism as having significant accomplishments — his stewardship of the federal bureaucracy really was praiseworthy — under severe constraints. But you can’t do it by just mindlessly defending every single thing he did.

61

novakant 10.31.08 at 1:40 am

What exactly is Obama supposed to do in order to better the lot of those depicted in The Wire?

62

DRR 10.31.08 at 4:55 am

And never mind how theat Republican majority came about—Clinton’s decision to pass his first major bill—NAFTA —with majority Republican support and aliente & demoralize the msotimportant instituional supporters of his own party surely had somethign to do with it.)

I think we’ve completed the circle, as the idea that Clinton somehow caused, thru NAFTA or whatever the Republican revolution in 1994 is the all time hackish thing said by anti Clinton hacks from the left. And unlike the many other things such people say about him, good faith or not, this one also demonstrates that the person bringing the charge is obtuse to, refuses to deal with or is completely unable to deal actual existing politics.

63

Martin Bento 10.31.08 at 7:52 am

J. Thomas at #37

Yes, that’s pretty much how I see it too. I confess to being bitter about how all skepticism about globalization and its attendent lack of autonomy was chalked up to caveman xenophobia – as recently as about a year ago by people like Delong – in fact, probably still by him. Now we need a Keynesian stimulus and can’t get one. Maybe it’s time for the economists to admit that comparative advantage is not the only issue, rather than Bible-thumping the Ricardo with hosannas about positive-sum games.

But maybe there’s still hope. After all, it’s not just us; all the developed economies need stimulus, and since falls in currency are relative, a fall in all is a fall in none. This would probably require some economic coordination, and it may be that creating a space for Keynesian stimulus with currency controls and other measures to bring the international financiers to heel should top the agenda at the Bretton Woods II conference that seems to be getting talked up (as an idea; I don’t actually know of such a thing).

I also want to name the policy option that dare not speak its name: monetization. Yes, it’s inflationary, but so is lowering interest rates, and we are facing deflationary pressures (credit crunch) and may have more as a by-product of desirable reform (like increasing reserve ratios). We run high deficits and carefully monetize some of them; other major players do the same; this may be an approach. It’s the best one that occurs to me offhand, anyway.

64

virgil xenophon 10.31.08 at 9:05 am

Martin Bento/

Monetization of the debt has been the defacto policy for several administrations it seems to me. In this the gold-bugs seem to have a point, doncha think?

65

Sam Jackson 10.31.08 at 9:49 am

I have a question about NAFTA. Why is it the received wisdom that it is anti-progressive? Does this anti-progressive label apply to all trade that crosses national borders?…or are there particularly odious elements to NAFTA that make it anti-progressive?
Coming from a third world country that has significantly benefitted from trade in the last couple of decades, I don’t see it is a a settled matter. I don’t deny that there are objectionable aspects to international trade. I don’t understand what about NAFTA makes it unambiguously anti-progressive.

66

MarkUp 10.31.08 at 1:48 pm

63> “After all, it’s not just us; all the developed economies need stimulus, and since falls in currency are relative, a fall in all is a fall in none.”

Rare are currency falls all equal, but even if they were, the true ‘test’ is if they hold or climb back at the same rate.

67

J Thomas 10.31.08 at 2:57 pm

I have a question about NAFTA. Why is it the received wisdom that it is anti-progressive?

It’s bad for US workers who lose their well-paying jobs, to be replaced by foreigners who work for less. It’s good for the foreigners for whom “less” is the best opportunity they’ve ever had. It’s good for US consumers who get stuff cheaper, provided they can still afford to buy.

But wait, it isn’t that simple. What if the foreigners who work for less are suffering inflation, so that they have to work hard to produce stuff for export just to buy the same things they used to buy cheaper? Then they aren’t better off. What if the american consumers can’t actually afford the cheap stuff because they’re out of work, and to buy the same stuff they used to buy they have to go into debt? Then they aren’t better off. The people who’d be better off then would be the people who actually benefit, the particular owners who own more and more as opposed to the other owners who own less and less.

68

lemuel pitkin 10.31.08 at 2:59 pm

the idea that Clinton somehow caused, thru NAFTA or whatever the Republican revolution in 1994 is the all time hackish thing said by anti Clinton hacks from the left. And unlike the many other things such people say about him, good faith or not, this one also demonstrates that the person bringing the charge is obtuse to, refuses to deal with or is completely unable to deal actual existing politics.

Let’s see, I rought up NAFTA (not “or whatever”) to note that (1) it was Clinton’s first major piece of legiislation, (2) it was supported by a mjaority of Congressional Republicans and opposed by a majority of Republicans, and (3) it was violently opposed by organized labor, which is (and was even more then) the biggest source of organized mass support for the Democratic party. I suggested that these facts might have some consequences.

To which DRR offers the brilliant rebuttal above — that some unnamed leftists said this so it’s obviosuly false, that it proves I’m a hack or obtuse. Tell me, do these count as winning arguemnts where you’re from?

And for your information, I’ve worked (as in paid work) on 8 or 10 Democratic campaigns, drafted legislation introduced by Democratic legislators, etc. I know plenty about practical politics. If you really think that welfare reform was harmless or unavoidable (you’ve wavered back and forth between the two positions without bothering to provide evidence for either) or that passing NAFTA had no political consequences, you are going to have to offer some actual arguemnts, not just turn up the volume.

69

lemuel pitkin 10.31.08 at 3:10 pm

Why is it the received wisdom that it is anti-progressive?

In practice, it’s a viewed as ani-progressive because organized progressives — most notably labor and the environemtnal movement — are against it.

My point isn’t that passing NAFTA was wrong on the merits. (Probably it was, not so much for the reasons most Dems opposed it as for the devastating effect on rural Mexico of a wave of cheap American farm exports.) My point is that the first major piece of legislation Bill Clinton signed was passed by Republican majorities, and over the opposition of a majority of Dems in both houses and the violent opposition of big parts of the Dem constituency. (It’s a bit as if Barack Obama decided to start his presidency by signing a Republican-drafted Social Security privatization plan.) By doing that, he forfeited labor’s support in the health care fight, and that high-profile fiasco unambiguously was a factor in the ’94 elections. He also left many working class voters severely disillusioned with the Democratic party.

Also, it’s a bit rich to argue, as DRR does, that Clinton ahd no choice but to sign welfare reform because the mean old Republican majority made him, when he had no problem defying a Democratic majority just a few years earlier.

70

MQ 10.31.08 at 4:46 pm

I can’t believe I missed a thread where I was namechecked for “Clintonista apologetics”, along with the extra-contemptuous “by the likes of”!

Anyway, Clinton definitely did much to directly improve the lot of the poor. In terms of total new income transferred to the poor the EITC expansions and the Medicaid expansions that occurred under Clinton were the biggest welfare state expansions since probably the 1960s (the Carter CETA expansions were eliminated quickly, and I’m not counting increases in Medicaid spending due to normal health cost inflation). The elimination of AFDC subtracted much less $ than these policies added.

But the most important issue with Clinton is that he was governing at a time of right-wing ideological dominance. He had very little real freedom of action; in 1992-94 he put all his chips on health care reform, a major left initiative, and was almost bowled over by the political backlash.

It’s quite true that he — along with most of the Democratic party — was to a degree pulled in by right wing ideology, on NAFTA and also on financial market regulation. After 2000, the extent to which the Democrats had allowed the center to shift ideologically became very evident and eventually had very negative consequences, particularly on foreign policy. But we’ve since seen what real right-wing governance looked like, with Bush, and Clinton’s resistance to those currents is quite evident. As I said in the other thread, if 1000 votes had shifted in Florida (or if he hadn’t allowed himself to be entrapped sexually by Starr) Clinton’s political strategy would have paid off massively for America and the world.

I can understand disagreeing with Clinton, but I can’t understand demonizing him. The utopian alternative where we have a True Left president throughout the 1990s doesn’t exist in the real world, and it’s unfair to blame the Clintons for that reality.

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lemuel pitkin 10.31.08 at 5:01 pm

It’s quite true that he—along with most of the Democratic party—was to a degree pulled in by right wing ideology, on NAFTA and also on financial market regulation.

This is an interesting use of “most”. Majorities of Dems in both houses voted against NAFTA, the biggest Dem-affilaited organizations opposed it, and of course so did the vast majority of ordinary Dem voters. You can argue that it was the right thing anyway, of course, but it was a deliberate decision to sacrifice the support of organized labor (among others) in future fights and that had consequences.

i>I can’t understand demonizing him.

Nobody.’s doing that. Nobody.

I would really, really love to see a discussion of this topic where people could acknowledge disagreement simply as disagreement, without characterizing it as “demonizing,” “hackery”, etc.? Or do you really think that any criticism of Clinton from the left is illegitimate by definition?

72

Righteous Bubba 10.31.08 at 5:01 pm

The utopian alternative where we have a True Left president throughout the 1990s doesn’t exist in the real world, and it’s unfair to blame the Clintons for that reality.

Was Hillary presidenting at that point?

Yes, it’s unfair to blame Clinton for what he could not control. He could, however, control his pen. {I know…}

73

MQ 10.31.08 at 6:04 pm

Or do you really think that any criticism of Clinton from the left is illegitimate by definition?

no, I think it’s quite legitimate and even necessary. Just that it goes too far. I’d prefer to see it less personal, more oriented to the general ideological currents — a critique of neoliberalism, basically. Now the flaws in neoliberalism have come quite clear, but I think projecting that back to the choices the party faced in 92 is anachronistic. I also think that although NAFTA (and the whole globalization regime) was flawed, the impact of NAFTA itself on the U.S. labor market has been somewhat oversold.

For one thing, if you make it personal you miss how strongly neoliberalism is influencing Obama today. And your argument against that influence is stronger if you point out how different the situation was in 92 vs. today.

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lemuel pitkin 10.31.08 at 6:27 pm

Just that it goes too far.

What does? Some criticism of Clinton does go too far, but on the other hand, some doesn’t go far enough. So it would help if you could point to something specific in this comments thread, or the original post, taht you object to.

the flaws in neoliberalism have come quite clear, but I think projecting that back to the choices the party faced in 92 is anachronistic.

You really don’t think there were any credible objectiosn to liberalism in 1992? Really?

I also think that although NAFTA (and the whole globalization regime) was flawed, the impact of NAFTA itself on the U.S. labor market has been somewhat oversold.

You are probably right on this point, but it’s irrelevant. The issue is that by beginning his preisdency by *joining with Republians* against his own party on an issue that was a top priority for a lot of the Dem base, he did lot to create the unfavorable political climate of the later 90s.

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lemuel pitkin 10.31.08 at 6:28 pm

Sorry, meant neoliberalism, not liberalism.

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Stephanie 10.31.08 at 8:42 pm

I watched Clinton and Obama rally together a few days ago in Tampa, FL, and they did a great job playing back and forth against each other. Of course, I miss Bill’s big-hearted looseness (as cool as Barack Obama is, he never really seems loose), but I agree that Obama could accomplish nearly as much, if not more.

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Martin Bento 10.31.08 at 10:58 pm

virgil, if we’ve been monetizing all along, why does the national debt go up every year by about the amount of the deficit? You realize monetization erases the debt, right? It’s inflationary, but so is cutting interest rates, and that doesn’t seem to give people heart attacks; you just balance it against other tendencies. And in a recession, especially with a credit crunch, there will be deflationary pressures. While the popular wisdom is that paying off debt in inflation to the currency is irresponsible, it does mean absorbing the cost of the deficit now rather than passing it on to our children. It’s obviously not something you can let get out of hand, but then there are few things you can afford to get out of hand, so that’s not much of a distinguishing characteristic.

But as J Thomas said, the real problem is what it can do to your currency internationally. However a) maybe now the case for getting rid of the free market in currencies that has existed only since Nixon can be heard, b) the collapse of the dollar seems rather in the cards anyway, and c) everyone else is in the same boat, and a degradation of all currencies is a degradation of none, as far as the currency trade is concerned.

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Jeff R. 10.31.08 at 11:16 pm

It’s hard, though, to portray Clinton’s support of NAFTA as an unexpected betrayal of the unions, since it was a position that was clearly advertised during his campaign (and, by bringing Ross Perot into the race to syphon off nativist and protectionist votes from both parties, contributed to his getting elected in the first place.) The time to have abandoned him would have been in the general election, not after. (Or, for that matter, during the primaries…)

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MarkUp 11.01.08 at 1:43 am

LP”…and of course so did the vast majority of ordinary Dem voters.

…and that had consequences.”

+7 points in the next election?

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donpaskini 11.01.08 at 3:46 am

Worth noting that back in the late 1940s and 1950s there were plenty of lefties who thought much the same about Attlee (and I think also Truman) as Chris does about Blair and Clinton – that they had wasted much of their time in power, pursued a wrong-headed foreign policy, and their achievements weren’t that big a deal.

Charles S at comment 11 had a list of what he hoped President Obama would do:

‘a massive increase in the minimum wage (with the minimum wage finally tied to inflation), something vaguely approaching universal health coverage, massive increases in funding to early childhood education, massive increases in support to non-profit community groups, a shift towards independence from fossil fuels, and refundable tax credits for payroll taxes for lower income workers, etc.’

Give or take a little, those are all things which New Labour have done in the UK since 1997.

I think one big challenge for Obama and the Democrats if they win will be keeping their supporters and activists energised and involved.

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lemuel pitkin 11.01.08 at 3:35 pm

+7 points in the next election?

Huh? NAFTA was signed in 1993. The next election was 1994, the biggest loss for Dems in decades. What are you talking about?

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Martin Bento 11.01.08 at 4:43 pm

The NAFTA Clinton ran on and Gore defended in debate had enforceable side agreements defending labor and environmental interests. The NAFTA that passed did not. In fact, the NAFTA that passed permits business to have hearings in secret courts if they feel government rules may have reduced their profits, and overturn national laws. Stiglitz, who was head of the economic advisors at the time, has said that provisions were quietly added at the last minute by lobbyists, and that they were not publicly debated and should have been. He seems to suggest that he himself did not entirely know what was in the agreement. Certainly, Clinton should have known if he did not; the President has to be responsible for knowing what he is passing.

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MarkUp 11.01.08 at 6:53 pm

“What are you talking about?”

Clinton’s #’s. You’d expect that based on what you’ve said, that would have carried over to him in his next election and not just members of Congress who, as you said, voted against it in the 94′ cycle. There was more than just NAFTA that caused the shift is what I’m saying.

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Thales 11.01.08 at 11:15 pm

Grossly exaggerated and frankly downright indefensible remarks such as Picador’s remind me why optimistic American liberals such as myself, who have contributed hard work and money to elect Obama and defeat McCain and the legacy of Reagan and Bush, cannot count on the support of “enlightened intellectuals,” if that is indeed what you aspire to be. If you don’t see the stark differences between Obama and Clinton, let alone Obama and McCain, if you are going to tar someone who *opposed* the (illegal, awful but nongenocidal) invasion of Iraq with cheerleading it because he didn’t lead a foolish charge to yank every American out of there instantaneously, and spit on Obama’s genuine progressive ambitions before he’s had a single day in office, you really do deserve to live under the alternative. Please attempt to accept the good within reach over the impossible perfect, or if you just can’t, stay the hell off my side.

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Coldtype 11.03.08 at 9:12 am

“Perhaps when people finally start realising that the same guy is holding both sock puppets, we can start making some progress”
-Mike

Amen.

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Handmaiden to the Translational Biomedical Sciences 11.04.08 at 7:12 pm

Nobody who gets their ideas about the social problems in United States cities from television shows should express opinions about the consequences for them of Democratic versus Republican administrations. The differences are enormous, and this stretches back at least 50 years. In my , poverty in inner-city neighborhoods declined significantly during the Clinton years, and increased significantly during the Reagan and Bush(es) years. I have seen it with my own eyes in New York and Chicago, and there are also clear statistical patterns. The difference in homelessness alone is staggering. This is why democrats consistently poll so much higher in these areas. Some of the difference may be coincidental: Clinton presided over a large economic expansion, which was slowed or reversed under his successor. But some of the difference has to do with the provision of government resources to the poorest people, not necessarily in cash but also in the funding of social services, which to Bush-43 were primarily an arena to service his religious-right constituency by wasting time with “faith-based” nonsense. Another important contributor to the quality of life in these areas derives from the hope that follows upon some attention and understanding being paid to a population that is so often ignored or denigrated. The problem that so many on the left have–and I consider myself a left-leaning social democract–dealing with “centrist” politicians is that they can’t believe that it makes any real difference to people’s lives when the overall social-economic structure is more or less left in place. This goes back to the days of Roosevelt, but I have heard it expressed much more strongly by British socialists in opposition to Blair than in the USA. I think that this is a problem of failing to take account of the importance of even small material changes for large populations of people at the bottom of the economic ladder. The value of small improvements in the social welfare for such persons is really quite significant, because so many of them live on a sort of economic precipice: an extension of unemployment insurance compensation, for example, is very important for a family living two paychecks away from homelessness. And the belief that one matters to one’s country can make an enormous difference to one’s ability to seek to improve one’s own lot. I don’t mean to undermine continued efforts towards reworking large-scale attitudes towards the social contract. I just want to remind people that the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans in the the US federal government is very, very significant for large portions of the US citizenry, and any diminishment of that is an expression of either obliviousness or callousness. Let’s not let our critical stance get in the way of acknowledging these stark and vital human realities.

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