The real record of the last Democrat in the White House
July 11, 2003 | Page 8
TWO-AND-a-half years of relentless right-wing attacks by the Bush administration have many people longing for a change. But will electing a Democratic president in 2004 end the assault on working people? JOHN GREEN and ALAN MAASS look at the record of the last Democrat who occupied the White House.
BILL CLINTON was elected in 1992 on a platform of "putting people first." His campaign promised health care reform, gay rights legislation and an end to Republican threats to abortion rights, among many other things. Yet over the next eight years, Clinton left behind a trail of broken promises on all these issues.
With the Bush administration on the rampage at home and abroad, many people have forgotten this. They look back to the Clinton years as a time when the right wing didn't dominate U.S. politics and working people's living standards got significantly better. Actually, these impressions are false. Whether you look at class inequality, or government programs for the poor, or the rights of women and minorities, or military intervention abroad, the generalized ruling-class offensive in the U.S. didn't begin in January 2001, but stretches back through the Clinton years and beyond.
There are differences between what Clinton presided over and what the Bush administration represents today, and these are why so many people understandably hope that electing a Democrat in 2004 will stop the Bush agenda. But these differences are actually smaller than the many similarities that unite the two.
After all, the same arguments were made in favor of voting for Clinton in 1992--that we couldn't afford four more years of Republican attacks from a White House run by George Bush Sr. Remembering the real record of the Clinton administration means remembering that Clinton betrayed almost every hope for a substantial change from what came before him.
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ONE OF the most important issues in Clinton's 1992 campaign was health care reform. When he took office, 37 million Americans were without any form of health insurance, and the crisis of the health care "non-system" was front-page news in the mainstream media. Early on in his first term, polls showed seven out of 10 Americans supporting a system that would guarantee health care for every person.
But the Clinton administration frittered away this support. Its task force for writing reform legislation--chaired by Hillary Rodham Clinton--compromised again and again under pressure from the health care bosses. The resulting proposal was such a mess that Republicans were able to turn public support against it, and the Clinton "reform" plan died before even coming to a vote. By the time Clinton left office, there were at least 3 million more people uninsured in the U.S.
Abortion rights was another important issue in the 1992 election. During Bush Sr.'s four years in the White House, the U.S. Supreme Court had twice come within a vote or two of overturning the legal right to abortion. Clinton did veto some of the most outrageous anti-abortion proposals from congressional Republicans and Democrats--like the ban on the late-term procedure misnamed "partial-birth abortion" by the right wing, which Bush Jr. is about to sign into law now.
But his administration didn't lift a finger to get the promised Freedom of Choice Act passed--even when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Anti-abortionists were able to chip away at the right to choose with one restriction after another--while the Clinton administration continuously gave ground ideologically.
While on the campaign trail in 1992, Clinton criticized Bush Sr.'s racist policy of intercepting and repatriating Haitian immigrants fleeing repression and trying to get to the U.S. Clinton said that he would consider their requests for asylum. But on the eve of his inauguration, he reversed himself and adopted Bush Sr.'s position.
As a candidate, Clinton also appealed for the votes of gays and lesbians by promising to overturn the ban on homosexuals in the military. As president, he agreed to the miserable "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which led to an increase in the number of men and women discharged for their sexuality. And to add insult to injury, Clinton signed the bigoted Defense of Marriage Act that outlawed same-sex marriages.
Both Clinton and Al Gore claimed to be friends of the environment. And with Neanderthals in the White House today who literally deny the existence of global warming caused by pollution, it's no surprise that they're still remembered this way. But the Clinton-Gore record is anything but untarnished. For example, destructive logging in old-growth forests--suspended during Bush Sr.'s term--was resumed due to a loophole in an industry-environmentalist agreement supported by Clinton.
Clinton also signed a law eliminating the Delaney Clause, which prohibited the use of any cancer-causing agents that accumulate in processed foods. Yet within a few months of this decision, environmental groups again endorsed Clinton, arguing that he was the lesser of two evils in the 1996 presidential race.
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ON SOME issues, Bill Clinton isn't merely guilty of breaking campaign promises. In important ways, he and his pals stole parts of the Republican agenda wholesale, smoothed out the rough edges and presented it as their own.
The most obvious example is welfare "reform." In the 1994 congressional elections, Republicans--exploiting discontent with the stagnating economy and Clinton's failure to implement health care reform--made huge gains, winning control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.
For a time, Clinton was considered to have been marginalized by the so-called "Republican revolution." But he staged a comeback in time to win reelection in 1996--by publicly connecting with the outrage at House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Republican right, while quietly adopting large parts of their program as his own.
Thus, with a few months to go before the 1996 election, Clinton agreed to the Republicans welfare "reform" legislation--which tore up decades of government assistance to the poor. The booming economy of the late 1990s hid the impact of welfare "reform" for a time, but its real consequence was to make the lives of the most vulnerable people in the U.S. that much harder--with Bill Clinton's blessing.
Likewise, Clinton adopted right-wing law-and-order rhetoric to pass two "crime bills." The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, for example, limited appeals in death penalty cases, expanded the number of death penalty-eligible crimes, prohibited fundraising for vaguely defined "terrorist" organizations, and loosened rules against the deportation of legal immigrants--foreshadowing the even more repressive provisions of Bush's USA PATRIOT Act.
Corporate America couldn't have had too many complaints about the Clinton administration, either. The Clinton-backed Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996 deregulated the radio market and set the stage for today's media merger mania. Even as it was making a mess of health care reform, the administration pushed through the NAFTA free trade deal over the objections of many Democratic members of Congress and the opposition of organized labor.
By the late 1990s, as the U.S. economy boomed, workers' wages finally began rising after nearly a decade of stagnation since the 1990-92 recession. But this increase barely made up for lost ground--while the already rich became massively richer during the boom. Democrats still celebrate the health of the economy during the Clinton years. But the reality is that working people never shared in the benefits of the longest economic expansion on record.
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GEORGE BUSH has defined himself as a war president, and many people want to get rid of him for his aggressive use of military force around the globe. There are obvious differences between Bush and Clinton on U.S. foreign policy. Under Bush, the so-called "neo-conservatives" have taken charge, with their Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive wars and their combative attitude toward international institutions like the United Nations, as well as traditional U.S. allies.
Nevertheless, the differences are really over methods, not goals. If anything, the Clinton administration was more aggressive in expanding U.S. economic power, using free trade and international institutions like the World Trade Organization, World Bank and International Monetary Fund as a battering ram around the globe.
Nor was Clinton shy about using U.S. military force. Practically his first act in office was to order another bombing campaign against Iraq. The U.S. military and economic war on Iraq, which caused more than 1 million Iraqi deaths, never let up under his reign. In fact, during his eight years in office, Clinton sent U.S. forces into combat situations nearly twice as many times as the four preceding presidents combined had over 17 years.
It is perfectly understandable why millions of people are hoping to stop Bush at the ballot box in 2004. No one connected with Socialist Worker wants to suffer another four years of the Bush gang's reign. But that doesn't justify forgetting the real record of Bill Clinton and Al Gore when they controlled the White House.
The truth is that Clinton represented the right wing of the Democratic Party. He was a hero of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the right-wing grouping that the party formed with the express purpose of shedding the Democrats' image of answering to "special interests," like labor, women's rights groups and racial minorities. Above all, the DLC was formed to make the Democratic Party's commitment to big business more explicit, and Clinton--who himself chaired the DLC from 1990-91, using it as a launching pad for his presidential campaign--carried this out.
This is the record of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party, and people who want to fight for real change in society shouldn't vote for it as the "lesser evil."