How Bill Clinton saved liberalism from itself

Clinton aimed to win back alienated traditional Democrats not by shifting to the right, as some pundits have claimed, but by retrieving basic political principles enunciated by FDR and those successful liberal Democrats who followed him. Nothing cost Clinton more political capital inside the left wing of his party than his advocacy of welfare reform. “We should expect people to move from welfare rolls to work rolls,” he proclaimed in his announcement speech. “We should give them the skills they need to succeed and then insist that they move into the workforce to become productive members of society.” These were fighting words to some liberal Democrats. Yet in 1936, in a rip-roaring attack on Republican callousness, FDR had defended those forced on the relief rolls while adding, “Of course we will provide useful work for the needy unemployed; we prefer useful work to the pauperism of a dole.” As a matter of policy, Clinton aimed to return liberalism to its basic ideas, not to forsake its ideals. And in doing so, he would help accomplish the crucial political task of removing from national politics one of the issues that had helped Republicans inflame the middle class against the poor, especially the minority poor, as well as against the Democratic Party.

In order to overcome the Reagan ascendency Democrats needed to advance the rights secured during the 1960s while returning to more traditional political bedrock. To a remarkable extent, Clinton delivered on that promise. In doing so, he made the nation comfortable once again with the idea that the well-being and future prospects of most Americans require strong and effective leadership by the federal government.