Sunday, December 16, 2007

Demystifying the Clinton Legacy

I understand that many Democrats look back through the disastrous last seven years of the Bush administration at the Clinton years through rose-colored glasses; it seems to look better than things have been under Bush. But, I submit that that view is a mythic narrative that never was. I argue that this willful misrepresentation of the recent past, this unwillingness to remember clearly, might propel the Democratic party over the cliff with the Hillary campaign in election '08...

Before we all jump over the edge with Hillary and Bill again, and go "back to the future," as their campaign cutely puts it, let's take a moment to swim through the Bush-induced haze and try to recall the reality of the Clinton era policies. Progressive political analyst Robert Borosage has a recent essay on this subject that is worth reading:

Borosage, "The Clinton Legacy"

In it, he writes:
The Clinton years gain luster in contrast to the foul catastrophes of Bush misrule... But the signature initiatives of the Clinton years -- NAFTA and the corporate trading world, budget surpluses, repealing welfare, posing tough on crime, reducing the size of government, proclaiming the "era of big government is over" -- are part of the problems, not part of the solutions that the next president must face. And as a candidate, Hillary has had to distance herself from many of her husband's core policies.

And here is his big finale, which I think all Dems should think long and hard about before pulling the lever or caucusing for restoration of the Clinton years:
Bill Clinton was a moderate politician caught in a conservative era. He fought a skillful rear guard action in some areas, while co-opting or embracing conservative ideas and policies in many others. The next Democratic president will be elected by a public looking for change in the wake of the catastrophic failures of those conservative ideas. He or she will have the mandate to forge a very different course. Hillary Clinton may benefit in the campaign for our nostalgia for the Clinton years of peace and prosperity. But the next president will succeed only if she or he charts a very different course.

I would simply add that it is important to keep in mind that overall economic inequality under Clinton dramatically increased, not decreased, continuing a trend from the Reagan-era 1980s!

And, since I am at it, please allow me to take on the conventional wisdom non-sense that Clinton is somehow "the first black president" and that somehow he was in tune with black people's interests and actually represented them well as President. This is all a bunch of smelly hoo-ha.

When Toni Morrison made this famous claim in 1998 she based it on the fact that Bill is from a "single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas." She also compared Clinton's sex life, which was scrutinized despite his career accomplishments, to the stereotyping and double standards that African Americans often endure. Often in popular culture, the argument is simplified to mean Clinton's general comfortableness with African Americans and black culture, as well as the association of black manliness with (extramarital) sexual dalliances. These are lame, and maybe even offensive, tropes; Clinton is not black and never has been. His whiteness has been a great advantage for him throughout his life and career as a politician. The reality is that Clinton's use of a compassionate rhetoric toward African Americans, and his ease with black culture, has overshadowed the reality of the policies he advocated as Commander in Chief.

To put it baldly, the policies of the Clinton years were, overall, pretty disastrous for African Americans. There is no doubt about that. Yes, it is true that in the 1990s, the black poverty and unemployment rates went down a small amount, but that was less the result of Clinton policies and more the temporary result of the macro-emergence of new technologies and the economic boom/bubble they caused during the mid-1990s (when the bubble burst it hurt black communities terribly). And also true and to his credit, Clinton affirmed affirmative action and appointed several African Americans to his administration.

So, what is my beef with Clinton's policies toward racial inequality, poverty and discrimination? Well, this is the guy that got back into the 1992 Presidential race in large part by pulling a trick out of the Republican's hat and playing the race card. Remember that Bill Clinton went home to Arkansas to very publicly preside over the state-sanctioned murder (execution) of a mentally-disabled black man, Ricky Ray Rector. Why did he do this? To prove to other white people that he was suitably "tough on crime"; he pandered to prevalent distorted white fears of black crime at that time. This was, really, a variation on the Willie Horton theme employed so effectively by the Bush I election team in 1988. Clinton extended his appeal to his fellow whites by picking silly fights with Jesse Jackson and Sister Souljah. What did black voters get in that election campaign in return? Clinton playing sax on Arsenio Hall and no policies that would actually help the black community. So, mainly a symbolic exploitation of black culture in both positive and negative ways.

Moreover, while in office, it was Clinton who did away with the Democrats' historic commitment to welfare, which has contributed to the struggles of that disproportionate number of African Americans at the bottom of the economic order. He also supported and encouraged a massive expansion of the miserably failed War on Drugs and supported a shocking expansion of the prison-industrial complex; both devastating policies that prey on black communities. Like the Republicans he was working so hard to coopt, Clinton substituted a limited social welfare system with a harsh, punitive culture that placed blame for poverty and inequality squarely on the victims. In addition, Clinton's pandering to unbridled global capitalist interests over the interests of everyday American workers in various trade agreements he signed further leveled a harsh blow to all working-class communities, including communities of color. The administration's failed health care policy also battered poor black communities. Oh yeah, Clinton did NOTHING as the Rwanda genocide raged on, claiming nearly 1 million lives.

Oh, but you say, "But Bill loves black people. He moved his offices to Harlem after he left office." Well, Harlem wasn't his first choice and if you don't think that was a political move, and another one that exploited race for his own political gain, then I've got a HUGE beach-front property to sell you out here in Nebraska! In fact, Clinton's move to Harlem has fueled some bad trends affecting that community. Here is an article on this subject:

"Harlem to Clinton: You're Ruining Us"

The short of it is that 'gentrification since the former president moved in has caused rents to rise by 100 per cent, forcing many poor and working-class black families out.

So, how deep does Clinton's supposed compassion for the struggles of black people really go? He's probably always been in tune with African Americans, you might think, right? Wrong. In 1966, while a student at Georgetown (so not a naive little kid), with the civil rights movement in full swing for many years and the new racial consciousness of Black Power sweeping the nation, Clinton sent the postcard you see to the left to his grandmother. She had given him the cards and he writes that he wanted to prove to her that he was using them. Absolutely no indication is given in the letter that he had any consciousness of the racism of the card. What, then, is the root of Clinton's supposed commitment to black people? Perhaps later on he went through some personal transformation on race that was genuine and true. Perhaps. Or, perhaps it came to be in his political self-interest. The evidence seems to suggest the latter as much as the former.

Now, let me be clear, since this last example might be viewed by some, particularly Clinton partisans, as inflammatory or unfair. I don't mean to write that Clinton cannot overcome whatever racial missteps he might have made in his past, particularly as a young man having grown up in a racist culture. Heck, I know as well as anyone that we are all sullied by white supremacy; no one is clean, or pure, on racial issues in the U.S. And, of course, it is important to keep in mind that the iconography on the card was typical of the region and time period, particularly for folks in his grandmother's age-range. Moreover, Bill was still fairly young at 19. Yet, other young people, on and off campuses across the country, and some much younger than 19, had been active in the civil rights movement, the student movement and anti-war activism for several years by 1966, a reality about which Clinton was no doubt aware. Regardless, my main point is simply that there is no historical evidence to support a claim that Bill Clinton ever was a significant supporter of civil rights or a champion of the interests of black people. Those issues have never been at the forefront of his agenda.

Oh, by the way, what was Hillary Clinton doing during the height of the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s? She was supporting Barry "Mr. Anti-Civil Rights Act of 1964" Goldwater! Again, I applaud her later transformation to the Democratic Party and some form of liberalism, but she deserves no special kudos as a 60s civil rights activist when she was not. She was a Goldwater Republican and grew up in a family rooted in those politics.

But, wait, you say, Hillary is running, not Bill. Why all this talk about Bill in this entry? Well, because Hillary's main mantra is to claim her husband's legacy and that she was somehow a central player in those policies. Moreover, many days, it appears Bill is the one running rather than Hillary. Note his attack-dog performance on Charlie Rose last night, in fact. This is clearly a "two-for-one" deal, so Bill's legacy is open for scrutiny...

I guess what I am saying is that in the end, I am just not buying what the Clinton's are selling. Their kind of Republican-lite triangulation might have made sense in the 1990s, but not in this moment, when the Dems finally have a little wind in their sails and when so many Americans are desperate for a new politic and a more progressive and visionary appeal. Moreover, the claim that African Americans should show any allegiance to the Clintons, or that he is somehow one of them, or that they should welcome a Clinton restoration in politics and policy is, frankly, absurd and more than a bit scary.

And there is one more thing that troubles me greatly: Every Democrat, even the most ardent Hillary supporter, knows several other Democrats that are simply turned off, or at least deflated, by Hillary and the prospect of a Clinton restoration. Seriously. Admit it. We all know 'em, if we aren't them ourselves. No other leading candidate has this strange problem. Couple this with the obvious surge in conservative energy that would inevitably come from a Hillary nomination and you have a recipe for political disaster on the Dem side. So, in fact, the electability argument is also fairly shaky in my mind...

So, what do you think? Feel free to post a comment.

I hope you will also spread the word, pass on this link and help dispel these dangerous myths. Yes, the Democrats need to win in '08, but not at all costs and not when there are other excellent candidates available in the party...

Before it's too late. Wake up, please...

1 comment:

  1. Finally someone not afraid to truly define Bill Clinton. He needs to be asked "What have you done for African-Americans...ever?