Why was (and is) Bill Clinton so popular?

Thomas Frank has published another excerpt from his new book, Listen, Liberal., which I look forward to reading.  This one is about Bill Clinton, and why he is still so popular among working people and minorities despite having done so little for them when in the White House.

I would periodically ask my liberal friends if they could recall the progressive laws he got passed, the high-minded policies he fought for—you know, the good things Bill Clinton got done while he was president.   Why was it, I wondered, that we were supposed to think so highly of him—apart from his obvious personal charm, I mean?

Bill Clinton in 1992

Bill Clinton in 1992

It proved difficult for my libs.  People mentioned the obvious things: Clinton once raised the minimum wage and expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit.  He balanced the budget.  He secured a modest tax increase on the rich.  And he did propose a national health program, although it didn’t get very far and was in fact so poorly designed it could be a model of how not to do big policy initiatives.

Other than that, not much.  No one could think of any great but hopeless Clintonian stands on principle; after all, this is the guy who once took a poll to decide where to go on vacation.  His presidency was all about campaign donations, not personal bravery—he basically rented out the Lincoln Bedroom, for chrissake, and at the end of his time in office he even appeared to sell a presidential pardon.

[snip]  After the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000, the corporate scandals of the Enron period, and the collapse of the real estate racket, our view of the prosperous Nineties has changed quite a bit.

Now we remember that it was Bill Clinton’s administration that deregulated derivatives, that deregulated telecom, and that put our country’s only strong banking laws in the grave.

listen,liberal.9781627795395He’s the one who rammed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through Congress and who taught the world that the way you respond to a recession is by paying off the federal deficit.

Mass incarceration and the repeal of welfare, two of Clinton’s other major achievements, are the pillars of the disciplinary state that has made life so miserable for Americans in the lower reaches of society.

He would have put a huge dent in Social Security, too, had the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal not stopped him.

If we take inequality as our measure, the Clinton administration looks not heroic but odious.

Clinton campaigned for office on the grounds that he was not a liberal.  He showed he was tough on crime by presiding at the execution of a mentally retarded man.  He showed he was independent of labor unions by supporting NAFTA.  He showed he was independent of minority groups by denouncing Sister Souljah, the extremist hip-hop singer, at a Jesse Jackson Rainbow Coalition event.

The thinking of his campaign strategists was that liberal reformers, organized labor and African-Americans had no choice but to vote for the Democrat.  So therefore he should go for the “swing voters”, who were thought to be mostly moderate conservatives.  This also was the thinking of Barack Obama’s strategists.

So why then do liberals think so highly of Clinton?

Frank suggests two reasons.  One is that Clinton presided over relatively good times.  We had virtually full employment during his second term, and the stock market was booming.

The other was the nature of Clinton’s opposition.  There was a constant drumbeat of fake scandals, culminating with impeachment of the President for lying about a sexual indiscretion.  Both liberals and plain citizens naturally assumed that since all the right-wing and Republican charges were either bogus or trivial, there was no real reason to criticize Clinton.

He sold people in the idea of “change” not as something that people could bring about through their own efforts, but as an impersonal force to which people had to adapt whether they liked it or not.  “Globalization” was not a policy, but an irresistible impersonal force.

I voted for Clinton in 1992.  I realized that he was not a liberal reformer.   I saw him as a counterpart to President Eisenhower.  Just as Eisenhower both accepted the New Deal and opposed any additional New Deal reforms, I thought Clinton would ratify the Reagan Revolution and prevent it from going any further.

At the time, that was something I was willing to settle for.  I didn’t grasp that he was taking Reaganism a step further.

I originally liked Clinton for his eloquence.  Like President Obama, he always managed to say the right thing on any occasion.   Like Obama and unlike President George W. Bush, he had an intellectual grasp of the issues, and was able to explain them in a human and understandable way.

It took me a long time to realize that Clinton’s words didn’t match Clinton’s deeds.  I reached the point where I couldn’t stand to listen to his speeches, because he knew how to push the emotional buttons of somebody like me, yet I realized it was all manipulation.

It took me much less time to reach this point with Obama.


Listen, Liberal on Thought Matters | HuffPost Books.

Bill Clinton’s odious presidency: Thomas Frank on the real history of the ’90s on Salon.

Nor a Lender Be: Hillary Clinton, liberal virtue and the cult of the microloan in Harpers.

Withering on the Vine in The Baffler.  [added 3/21/2016]


Photo credit: Presidential Image Gallery, Miller Center, University of Virginia

I added a paragraph and made a few other changes an hour after I published this post.


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