Feeling his Way

Clinton’s former speechwriter combs the president’s words for clues as to what he will do now that he faces history’s judgment. Will he simply feel the pain of the “forgotten middle class” — or address it?

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

The first time I met Bill Clinton was in a crowded hotel room in Los Angeles, a few hours before he clinched the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992.

I was a survivor of the Democrats’ debacle tour of the 1980s, having worked as a speechwriter for Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988. In spite of that record, I had just been hired as chief speechwriter for Clinton’s general election campaign. I was nervous, but Clinton put me at ease, rising from the couch, calling me by my first name, gripping my right hand with one hand and my elbow with the other.

In a brief talk before putting me to work writing a draft for his victory statement that night, Clinton mentioned that he had just read a book I’d written urging the Democrats to return to their roots as economic populists. “I agree with you about populism,” Clinton said. “But we can’t lead with class struggle. We have to be pro-growth populists.”

Clinton was different from any big-time politician I’d met. Far from a forbidding figure like Mondale or Dukakis, he was more like a brilliantly informed and affable campaign manager. When someone new entered the room, he’d greet him or her by name, offer some physically welcoming gesture — a beckoning wave or an arm around the shoulder — and make a mental note to include the newcomer in the conversation.

When I came back with a draft for the speech, Clinton was seated at a table in an adjoining room in his hotel suite with a small crowd of staff, consultants, and young volunteers swirling around him. He was criticizing his California campaign schedule. It seemed there had been too many sessions with Hollywood liberals and the like. “When are you going to get me with some people with normal lives?” Clinton asked.

The conversation shifted to which groups Clinton should be wary of embracing too openly. Someone rattled off the usual suspects: big government, big business, big money, big media, and big labor.

At the mention of “big labor,” Clinton interrupted. Labor unions, he said, had become less unpopular during the 1980s. At the beginning of the decade, Americans had applauded Ronald Reagan when he broke the striking air traffic controllers’ union. But, by the end of the ’80s, with another air war — the strike at Eastern Airlines — public sentiment had shifted. People sided with Eastern employees and their union against Eastern’s new owner, corporate pirate Frank Lorenzo. The episode was typical of labor’s rebound in public esteem. The unions weren’t fat cats anymore — they were underdogs again.

Clinton pointed to me, the new kid on the block. “David,” he asked, “isn’t that what you say in your book?”

It was. The point about unions hadn’t been central to the book, but Clinton had recalled it almost word for word. He seemed to understand that it was central to my own identity: I much preferred being introduced as a veteran of successful union drives than as a survivor of losing presidential campaigns.

By the time Clinton got to my draft of his speech, he was just as friendly but less flattering. “Take out those references to the Democratic Party,” he said. “People are sick of politics and partisanship. They want unity.”

Hours later, when Clinton got up to the podium, he hardly used any of my draft. But he had won me over. Any politician can say he read your book, but to quote from the paragraphs of which you are proudest — that is the sign of a master of the trade.

Now, Bill Clinton has won re-election by a large margin. Will he take up, in a practical way, his once-central themes of pro-growth populism, social unity, and the forgotten middle class? Just as when I first went to work for him, I comb his words — and his record — for clues as to what he will do now that he faces history’s judgment alone and the voters’ verdict no longer.

Clinton’s “Normal Lives”

The phrase “normal lives,” which Clinton often uses, may be more revealing than he knows. He grew up the son of a widowed mother; he had a stepfather who often mistreated her and ignored him; his half brother later abused drugs. But Bill Clinton rose above it all, attaining a Georgetown diploma, a Rhodes scholarship, and a Yale law degree. Then, unlike most meritocrats, he went home again, becoming one of the youngest governors in Arkansas history. And he has spent his political career figuring out how to reconnect himself and his party to Americans who lead “normal lives.”

Thus, in 1992, Clinton pitched his campaign straight at workaday Americans, the “forgotten middle class.” Unlike most Democrats, he wasn’t afraid to talk about social and economic anxieties. Melding concerns about economic inequality and social breakdown, he warned of an America that was “coming apart when we should be coming together.” Nor did he shy away from racially charged issues, like crime and welfare, that most Democrats had avoided. Instead, he found ways to present black people and poor people as Americans who want to lead normal lives. He’d emphasize that people in the inner cities fear crime more than anyone else and that most people on welfare desperately want to work.

In addition to feeling people’s pain, Clinton stoked their anger with rhetoric that had a class-conscious edge: In the midst of sermonettes about personal responsibility, he’d take aim at a host of targets, from skyrocketing executive salaries to companies that export American jobs.

But Clinton’s populism faded. After the Democrats took a beating in the 1994 congressional elections, Clinton embraced the Republicans’ call for fiscal conservatism, presenting his own plan for a balanced budget and declaring, in his 1996 State of the Union address, “The era of big government is over.”

Clinton may well be more comfortable as a peacemaker than as a populist. Working in the White House, I was often astonished to hear him tell gatherings of state officials that he missed being a governor. Of all the identities Clinton dons and discards, he is most comfortable as a progressive Southern governor who woos business, heals racial rifts, and improves education.

His tenure as governor reinforced lessons Clinton learned growing up in a troubled home — and in a state mired in poverty and segregation. If Clinton has a core, this is it: He wants to bring people together across racial and cultural lines. And he wants to lift them up through education and training.

“The Era of Big Government Is Over”

For Clinton, the model for his second term as president will be his second and third terms as governor of Arkansas. Clinton’s first two-year term resembled his first two years as president: youthful aides, a grandiose agenda, and failed initiatives. Just as the Democrats took a beating in 1994, Clinton himself was thrown out of office after his first term.

Two years later, after apologizing for his mistakes and presenting himself as a chastened centrist, Clinton returned to the governorship. This time, he concentrated on improving education. In classic Clintonian fashion, he combined liberal and conservative goals. Before he increased funding for the schools, he required teachers to pass tougher competency tests. Education reform was a big idea — big enough to win him a national reputation as a successful governor and potential president.

In his second term as president, Clinton will look for big ideas that don’t require “big government.” Look for this consummate campaigner to barnstorm the country urging states to set higher standards in their schools. He’ll push for tax credits or federal aid to help every high school graduate take at least two years of higher education and allow mature workers to get job training or career retraining.

Clinton will also back another issue that appeals to both liberals and conservatives — welfare reform. While urging Congress to fix the harshest features of the law he signed, he’ll also use his presidential pulpit to urge U.S. businesses to hire workers from the welfare rolls. Yet welfare reform may prove more difficult than education reform. Even with the changes Clinton seeks, the new welfare reform law may have harmful effects. Many welfare recipients will be plunged into a glutted job market. And some women and their children may end up on the streets. All this may disrupt the cities and depress wages. And it may force Clinton to do something beyond his cheerful minimalism: confront structural problems in the economy.

Beyond his education and welfare reform measures (along with protecting the environment and streamlining government — two issues on which Vice President Gore is staking a presidential run in 2000), look for Clinton to emphasize cautious, incremental changes, such as gradually extending health insurance guarantees, and proposing more initiatives on social issues, such as further restricting TV violence. Clinton will avoid ambitious public programs — the “tax and spend” bugaboo still haunts him. Instead, he’ll rely on mandates, moral appeals, and tax incentives to encourage everyone from corporate executives to middle-class families to do desirable things, from hiring welfare recipients to sending kids to college.

A second Clinton administration is unlikely to pursue priorities that might rattle Wall Street or the business community. Issues that challenge corporate power — protecting workers’ rights to organize, or cutting corporate welfare — will emerge in public debate or in the halls of Congress only if liberal organizations, such as a revitalized AFL-CIO, push them onto America’s agenda. Clinton remains the man I met in Los Angeles: a careful student of the strength of political forces all across the political spectrum. He is someone who will skim an obscure paperback and remember the polling statistics about public support for business or labor.

If the era of big government is really over, then the era of stronger social movements must begin.

David Kusnet was President Clinton’s chief speechwriter from 1992 through 1994. He is the author of Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties and a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute.


We have about a $200,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, this week so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods


We have about a $200,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, this week so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.