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19 July 1999

Why Bill Clinton is a hero

The British left accuses the US president of ditching his liberal principles to curry favour with vo

By Robert Philpot

Bill Clinton didn’t stand a chance. Even if he hadn’t signed draconian welfare reform legislation, bombed Iraq and dramatically expanded the number of crimes punishable by death, the left would still have hated him.

Britain’s left had made up its mind about the Arkansas governor before he even swore the oath of office in 1993. The previous autumn, Clinton had become only the second Democrat in nearly a quarter of a century to win the White House. He had done so after a campaign in which he pledged to make education and training a priority, establish universal health insurance and ensure new investment in America’s crumbling infrastructure and inner cities.

Yet the Labour Party showed a surprising reluctance to learn more about how America’s centre-left had pulled off a victory that had eluded Labour only six months previously. While modernisers such as Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown visited Washington, much of the rest of the party felt it had little or nothing to learn from Clinton’s self-anointed new Democrats. Philip Gould, for instance, recalls how the late John Smith responded to a memo about the Clinton campaign with the words: “That’s all very interesting, but I think that next time it will be our turn.”

Clinton had made clear from early in the campaign that he intended to dissociate himself from much of the Democratic Party’s liberal wing. Advertising his support for the death penalty, Clinton attempted to shake the soft-on-crime label that George Bush had so lethally attached to his predecessor as Democratic presidential candidate, Governor Michael Dukakis. Clinton also promised to “end welfare as we know it” and then proceeded to slaughter a sacred liberal cow by decrying “tax-and-spend economics”.

Journalists were quick to label both Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council – the organisation responsible for the new Democrat strategy – as conservative Democrats. The truth, though, was more complex. The new Democrat movement emerged in the early 1990s from the realisation that, as the writer E J Dionne put it, the old ideologies of liberalism and conservatism were increasingly frustrating voters because of the false choices these imposed. The DLC’s 1996 New Progressive Declaration said that progressives needed to move beyond the left’s reflexive defence of the bureaucratic status quo and counter the right’s destructive bid to dismantle government.

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The new Democrats’ greatest achievement has been to break free of the policy shackles, philosophical rigidity and ideological litmus tests imposed by these false choices. In so doing they have shown the way for the centre left to reconnect with lower- and middle-income supporters – Reagan Democrats in America, Essex man in Britain – who abandoned it in the 1980s.

Clinton has long realised two important truths about the post-Reagan American electorate (which are equally applicable to Britain). First, despite years of anti-government rhetoric from the right, voters do want government to do more. Globalisation and rapid technological change have made the notion of unfettered market forces deeply unpopular (if they ever were otherwise) and the desire for a greater level of security more inviting.

At the same time, however, Clinton has been quicker than many on the left to realise that those parties that promote the cause of greater government involvement must also recognise how negatively some voters view this. To challenge these fears, new Democrats have promoted the notion of a new social contract between the state and the individual, arguing that the left’s traditional concern for promoting opportunity needs to be married with a greater sensitivity to the responsibilities that citizens have towards the community. They have also argued for a reinvented government – less bureaucratic, more cost-effective and geared towards the public demand for choice and accountability.

On individual policy issues, new Democrats have demonstrated time and again that once the left is credible on issues where it has traditionally been suspect – such as economic growth, fiscal discipline, crime, defence and welfare – voters are willing to listen to it on those issues such as education, health and the environment where they have a natural affinity for its positions.

Clinton was elected at a time when opportunities for government activism were severely restrained by the $290 billion budget deficit inherited from George Bush. The problem was compounded in 1994 by the Republicans’ takeover of Congress.

These constraints have forced Clinton into some unappetising compromises and dissipated some of the early hopes that liberals held for his presidency, especially the promise of universal health cover. Yet his record should not embarrass the left. On the contrary, the decisions that he took in three areas – taxation, the deficit and welfare – which drew the greatest criticism from the left, may ultimately prove the most important for the progressive cause.

The spectacle of a Democrat promising to cut the taxes of the middle class first brought Clinton to prominence in 1992. While many liberals saw this as a crude attempt to ape the Republicans, his approach has helped to restore some measure of progressiveness in taxation. For while Clinton’s new Democrat advisers urged him to use the tax cut to show his empathy with hard-pressed middle-income families, they also accepted that the cut should be paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy. By campaigning and winning on this dual pledge, Clinton challenged the notion that the left can never win when it argues the case for higher taxation on the rich.

Clinton’s decisions to reduce dramatically the deficit in 1993 and then, two years later, to accept the Republicans’ timetable – though not their method – for balancing the budget were similarly much criticised by the left, who believed that Wall Street was dictating the president’s investment agenda. Yet while it is true, as Clinton himself acknowledged, that deficit reduction crowded out too many of his spending plans, the ultimate results have been highly positive. Restoring economic discipline has been the foundation upon which the sustained economic success of the Clinton years has been built: 18 million new jobs, the lowest peacetime unemployment since 1957, wages rising at twice the rate of inflation and the highest home ownership in American history.

The elimination of the deficit – and the forecast of a $2.9 trillion surplus over the next decade – has changed the debate from what to cut to how to spend. This debate has, again, helped Democrats and hurt Republicans. Despite Republican control of Congress, the president has, since 1997, won funds to make higher education more affordable and provided tax credits for workers who wish to upgrade their skills. Over the past year new Democrats have supported the president as he has pushed plans to hire 100,000 new teachers (coupled with proposals to improve teacher quality). Finally, the president has worked to secure better health care for the uninsured, including the $24 billion won to expand health insurance for children in 1997.

One reason for the Democratic Party’s strong performance in last November’s elections – the first time the party controlling the White House has gained seats in a mid-term election since 1934 – rests with its stance on social security. While Republicans wanted to fritter away the budget surplus on untargeted tax cuts, Clinton has united Democrats around a pledge to save social security first.

Clinton’s approach to welfare reform has always sought a better balance between opportunity, or making work pay, and demands for greater personal responsibility. In 1993 Congress agreed to the president’s request to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, a programme that raises the incomes of the working poor above the poverty line. In 1997 Clinton got the Republican Congress to restore public assistance to legal immigrants, agree that workfare participants should receive the minimum wage and release $3 billion additional funding for welfare-to-work programmes.

The new system looks set to confound Clinton’s left-wing detractors. Two years after the president signed the welfare reform act, 1.7 million people who were on welfare in 1996 had moved into employment, meaning that welfare rolls declined by an amazing 27 per cent during this period. New figures this summer show that between 63 per cent and 87 per cent of families surveyed had an adult employed at some point after leaving welfare.

The Democrats started from an entirely different political and constitutional base from the Labour government. Yet despite years of a hostile Congress and a fluid party system that defies our understanding of party loyalty and discipline, the Clinton administration has transformed America economically for the better and made significant inroads into the decade-old problems of welfare dependency, unemployment and the underclass.

There are obvious parallels in policy and rhetoric between new Labour and the new Democrats, and in the United States the Third Way produces results. For that, the British left should hail, not bury, Bill.

Robert Philpot’s pamphlet “Bill and Tony’s Excellent Adventure: what new Labour can learn from the new Democrats” is published by Progress (0171-463 2130) on 23 July

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