The Clinton cul-de-sac
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It’s a narrowly tactical saying, and therefore false in almost every way that matters to ordinary working citizens. But in the American political scene in the last fifteen years, this fallacy has had a destructive effect on liberals and progressives seeking meaningful change.
I’m referring, of course, to the Clintons. The right wing has demonized them to such an extraordinary degree—to this day obsessing about the Clinton presidency even as they make excuses for his deeply corrupt successor—that many well-intentioned Democrats seem to think that the Clintons must be friends of the progressive movement. On the other hand, I have known many an instance when attacking the Bush regime has prompted conservatives to assume that I must be a Clinton supporter. Such is the shallow cul-de-sac that is mainstream political thinking.
It’s no use pointing out here that Clinton was a much better President than Bush. It’s not hard to be better than the worst. The Bush gang’s depredations have lowered the bar to virtually subterranean levels. I have heard comparisons of Nixon, Ford, and even Reagan to the current occupant in which the previous crooks and mediocrities have gained a better rating than Bush. Does that mean these men were good Presidents? Not to a sane way of thinking.
In discussions that I’ve had, Clinton supporters have extolled his charm, his eloquence, his marvelous speaking ability. Frankly, I’ve never seen it. He’s always come off as a facile glad-hander to me, and a very boring speaker, full of general platitudes without fire or substance. His stultifying “bridge to the 21st century” State of the Union speech was not at all unusual for him—a pretentious lathering of rhetorical emptiness that numbs the mind into apathy at best, impotent rage at worst.
But let’s look away from the man and measure the accomplishments. What did President Clinton do?
He went to the mat for NAFTA, and for “free trade” in general, just like the corporations wanted him to. Unions? Forget about it. Clinton never did a thing for them. On the other hand, he was in favor of deregulating the banking industry, part of the short-sighted corporatist strategy that still plagues us.
He jumped on the right-wing anti-welfare bandwagon, helping to craft punitive anti-poor legislation.
He flinched when rightists opposed gays in the military, turning around and establishing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” an unworkable anti-gay policy that plays right into the hands of the hate lobby.
Clinton’s Anti-Terrorism Act foreshadowed Bush policies. It included wiretapping without warrants and giving the State Dept authority to decide what organizations are terrorist and then make anyone contributing to these groups liable to prosecution. It also negated habeas corpus for non-citizen terrorism suspects.
He used military force in Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Sudan. He instigated a long bombing campaign against Iraq that went largely unreported in the U.S., and his sanctions on that country were estimated to have killed a million people, many of them children.
And what about the economic prosperity we supposedly enjoyed under Clinton? The upper five percent became much wealthier under Clinton, and Wall Street prospered. But it didn’t translate into change for working people. Wages stagnated while downsizing and outsourcing accelerated. The internet boom provided a nice illusion for the media to latch onto, but we all know what happened next. Clinton helped facilitate corporatist policies that led to constant mergings, short-term speculation, and corruption. Basically he was bought and paid for by Wall Street.
Under Clinton the Democrats became a minority in the House for the first time in five decades. They lost eight Senate seats, which basically destroyed Democratic effectiveness in that body, and led to further losses later on. Eleven state governorships went Republican under Clinton. The Clinton presidency was a golden age for the right-wing. And did he stand up and confront them? No, he tried to co-opt their power by becoming more and more like them. Principles didn’t matter, only power. And how did this strategy play out? While Clinton played for the ever-shrinking “centrist” vote, and took liberals for granted, the Republicans viciously attacked him on every front, finally impeaching him for lying in a civil suit that they instigated against him for sexual misconduct.
The degraded state of our political landscape today did not just appear out of nowhere. A lot of the reasons that it has gotten this bad can be found in eight years of spineless surrender to the right during the Clinton administration. Clinton was a creature of the Democratic Leadership Council, a conservative group whose goal is to align the Democratic Party with the corporatist agenda, and thus keep the money flowing in. They bought into the rightist mantra that “liberal” is a dirty word, and that progressive politicians are unelectable. They still wield a lot of clout. And their way leads to disaster.
Was there any area in which Clinton held firm for progressive values? I can think of one: choice. Not the greater issues of women’s rights, health, and empowerment; not the needs of poor women with families; but just abortion rights. In a time when we needed someone to fight for us against the rising tide of reaction, this is the sop we were thrown. Is that enough for you? Is being pro-choice, and nothing more, enough to qualify someone as a liberal? I think not.
Since the catastrophe of Reagan, the official definition of the “center” has continued to move farther and farther right. This was a conscious strategy. When outrageous things are said, they begin a process in which the outrageous can become “normal.” By going along with this, Clinton Democrats marginalized liberal and progressive voters. The assumption is that there was nowhere else we could go. (The same attitude was maintained regarding African American voters.) They’d say stuff during election years, but when it came time for action we were ignored. One of the results has been widespread voter apathy. Rather than see this as a problem, both parties have been afraid to expand voter participation. Better the security of low voter turnout than the wild card of an energized citizenry. This dovetails with the strategy of appealing to the “undecided” voter. Although Rove demonstrated that energizing the base can win elections, Democrats don’t seem to have a sense of their base, or rather one should say that their base consists of the corporate donors who are bankrolling them. If the voters turn against corporate interests, what are Democrats to do? Give lip service to the public interest, while placating the corporations, that’s what. And this is exactly what we still see now.
Do you think Hillary Clinton offers anything different in essence than Bill Clinton? Study her words and actions carefully, and you will find no meaningful evidence of such difference. Once again we have sheer opportunism, a consistent placating of the right along with token gestures to the left. I hope we can do better.
When we witnessed the spectacle of Democrats, even progressives like Eric Alterman or Todd Gitlin, become apoplectic about the third party candidacies of Ralph Nader, it’s a symbol of the impotence and weakness of mainstream liberal thinking. What they’re really saying is: “Your vote belongs to us! How dare you waste it on a third party candidate!” A mature adult response would be to question oneself, asking how the Democratic Party can meet the needs of this portion of the constituency that is voting for a third party. What can we do for progressive needs and causes, so as to bring them back into the fold?
But instead, as you know, they pouted, threw tantrums, pointed at Nader and whined that he had thrown the 2000 election to Bush. The immaturity and entitlement of this stance is breathtaking. We supposedly owe them our votes without question, or we’re branded as stupid idiots. But what had eight years of Clinton done for us? What had he done for civil rights, women, the environment, equality, racial justice? All we saw was an opportunist game of double talk and triangulation, in which society became increasingly engulfed by the right-wing narrative. And the Gore that campaigned that year was not the Gore we saw emerge later on.
I’m sure even the majority of us, who voted for Gore, didn’t expect that the Bush administration would be a crypto-fascist coup. The narrative that was sold to us was that he was just another Republican shithead. But even though Bush has been an unmitigated disaster, in the long view we need a much more radical change than electing some cautious establishment figure to the White House. In fact, the focus on the Presidency as an agent of change is misguided in itself. There’s a huge architecture of power that is in place in this country, an imperial power inflated to mammoth proportions during the Cold War, and no one person in the White House will be able to transform it into a true servant of the people. I mentioned how different Gore was as a Vice-President and a Presidential candidate than as a Nobel laureate. We’ve also seen how Jimmy Carter has said and done some wise and sensible things after he was President. While he was President, he had Brzezinski as his Secretary of State, and he made sure that the federal government would survive underground while we all fried to death in a nuclear war. He was a conservative Democrat, not a liberal, and this is what we forget. But it seems everyone changes in the secret corridors of power. If by some freak accident, a man like Kucinich was elected, don’t you think he might get assassinated, or otherwise disposed of?
So the answer is a mass movement of the people. It always has been. If we want politicians to pay attention, we have to be mobilized. This is not easily done. The material comforts offered to the masses by the corporate powers act like a glaze over the mind. The wasteful luxury of our “way of life” is bought at the expense of a lot of other lives in other countries. Most people don’t want to see this, or do anything about it. But besides all this, people are generally busy with their lives, and they’re not going to drop everything to become political activists. How can you blame them? Strategies of engagement need to be fashioned that ask more of people without asking more than they can give. In the meantime, I suspect that things will have to get a good deal worse, economically and otherwise, for the mass of Americans, before a progressive movement will make the kind of gains we need. The rightists are not going away quietly. The polls show them losing at every level, yet they still dominate Washington and the media discourse. The astounding thing is how well progressives have actually done in the last few years, considering the forces arrayed against us.