If the WaPo’s Glenn Kessler could fact-check a speech before Mitt Romney gave it, why not a little prebuttal of tonight’s featured DNC speaker? Although many viewers will opt for the opening of the NFL season, a likely female-skewing demo will tune in to hear former Pres. Bill Clinton, a man impeached for lying to a grand jury about lying to a federal judge about his sexual exploitation of his female employees. Unsurprisingly, Bubba was late turning in his homework, but it shouldn’t be difficult to estimate what he will say.
Bill is unlikely to mention that a few years ago, Pres. Obama would have been carrying his bags and getting him coffee, let alone suggest that the incumbent is an amateur. He is also unlikely to focus on Mitt Romney’s sterling business record. Rather, the expectation is that Bill will say the things Barack cannot. Clinton is likely to tell a familiar Democratic fairy tale about how the GOP wrecked the awesome achievements of the Clinton administration so thoroughly that Obama is still trying to get America out of a ditch. Thus, it’s worth noting some of the gaping holes in that narrative.
First, there is the record of the Clinton administration. The WSJ correctly notes that Bill’s record contains a couple of shaky years with a Democratic Congress, followed by relatively beningn partisn gridlock. Official reports back this up. After the passage of the Clinton economic plan (the centerpiece of which was a cliched tax increase on upper-income earners), both Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office continued to forecast big annual deficits. The projected surpluses at the end of Clinton’s tenure were so surprising that the CBO specifically addressed the issue in its July 2000 budgetary update (page 7). The CBO concluded that government policy had very little to do with the projected surpluses (and occasionally shrank them). Those of us who lived through the era know what happened: a tech-driven economic boom (which the CBO notes increased economic inequality) resulted in much higher income and capital gains tax receipts for Uncle Sam. This seismic societal revolution had very little to do with policy and is not reproducible by policy. What the CBO left out of their analysis was a significant reduction in defense spending (from roughly 20% to 16% of outlays between 1992 and 2000). After the Cold War, America chose to do what it usually does after a war: pretend the world has stopped being a dangerous place. That is not all Clinton’s doing, but it is part of his record. In short, Bill Clinton will probably pay tribute to himself tonight for being in the right place at the right time.
Second, to say George W. Bush and the GOP destroyed this utopia is almost equally fanciful. A cyclical downturn emerging at the end of the Clinton era was exacerbated not only by the popping of the tech bubble in the stock market, but also by the economic damage wrought by the 9/11 attacks. This economic pain was mitigated by the Bush tax cuts, which Clinton may decry, but which a Democratic Congress and Pres. Obama extended in 2010. Although Democrats vocally turned on the war on terror the moment the going got tough, the Democrats elected in 2006 never turned off the spending spigot for Iraq, let alone Afghanistan. I credit Democrats for that much, but it is partially on them. Dubya’s big-spending “compassionate conservatism” was not beloved in some conservative circles, but it must also be noted that the Democrat alternative proposals on education and Medicare were invariably more expensive and more intrusive. Lastly, there is the financial meltdown/ housing crisis, which could be debated all week. Here, it sufficies to note that TIME blames Clinton for being too deregulatory, while the Village Voice(!) blames the Clinton administration for “a series of decisions between 1997 and 2001 that gave birth to the country’s current crisis”: plunging Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into the subprime markets without putting in place the means to monitor their increasingly risky investments; turning the Federal Housing Administration mortgage program into a sweetheart lender with sky-high loan ceilings and no money down; and legalizing what a federal judge has branded “kickbacks” to brokers that have fueled the sale of overpriced and unsupportable loans. Whichever explanation of the meltdown you prefer, Bill Clinton’s groping fingerprints are to be found there.
Third, the record of the Obama administration, which Clinton is likely to spin as an effort to return to the awesome policies of Bill Clinton. Despite large Democratic majorities for two years, Pres. Obama has presided over the feeblest economic recovery since the Great Depression. Clinton may claim — as Democrats generally do — that they did not know just how bad things were when Obama took office. Even assuming for the sake of argument this was true, what does it say about the fatal conceit of progressive government? Moreover, Obama partially blames Clinton policies for our current malaise. Obama ran against the Wife of Clinton as the leftist alternative to Clintonism in 2008. He won with a narrower coalition than the one assemble by Clinton in the 90s. Obama and his Congressional majorities rejected GOP input from the very start of the Obama administration. The notion that Obama has tried to govern as some sort of moderate Republican is a joke; just ask Sen. Olympia Snowe. Obama is busy gutting Clinton’s signature policy achievement of welfare reform. Obama has run up crushing debt and has no credible budget plan, but it is probably too much to expect Bill Clinton to repeat his criticism of Obama’s handling of the debt ceiling. Instead, Clinton is more likely to continue touting the watered-down retreads of Obama’s already-failed approach to jobs, even if Obama does not.
Being a good soldier — or being forced into palying a good soldier on TV for the sake of Hillary’s future political ambitions — Clinton is likely to tie all of this to the Obama “Forward” slogan and to paint a Romney victory as a return to the “failed policies of the past.” This would probably be the biggest whopper Clinton could deliver. If the current malaise demonstrates anything, both here and in Europe, it is that the blue social model that dominated the last century is breaking down. Progressives like Barack Obama bitterly cling to their nostalgia for the welfare statism made possible here during a time when America did not face global economic competition, when the actuarial math of public pensions and government health insurance was easier to avoid. Bill Clinton presided over the last gasps of that century. His pleas to go back to the future should be ignored as mendacious fantasy.