Bill of Goods

He gutted welfare, bombed Sudan, rented out the White House to the fat cats. If he were a Republican, liberals would have been appalled.

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During the 1992 election campaign I was talking to Patrick Caddell, the Democratic pollster and strategist who had, for better or worse, invented Jimmy Carter. In those days, the only “Clinton haters” were on the left, with Jerry Brown and Ralph Nader and others warning that a corrupt, opportunist governor of Arkansas might well make a corrupt, opportunist president. Pat Caddell was for Brown, as was I. And I distinctly remember him saying that, on the program Clinton was offering, “it isn’t worth paying the moving expenses to change the occupancy of the White House.”

Eight years on, his words still “resonate,” as people like to say. In all essentials, the Clinton-Gore administration has been Republican, and not all that moderate. On matters of political economy it has pursued the strictest Wall Street and Federal Reserve orthodoxy, with Alan Greenspan the centerpiece as before. If you ask yourself what Bush would have done differently about the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization, you will experience a long pause before you think of anything. In the military and diplomatic relationships with Russia, China, and NATO, the administration has followed a policy of which Henry Kissinger himself might approve. At home, it’s GOP business as usual, with welfare replaced by work (read hunger) incentives; the “war on drugs” delegated to the military; a prison population second to none; executions at a dizzying rate; and endless presidential lectures on morality, school uniforms, and decency in movies and on the Internet. (Remember how the liberals used to laugh at Dan Quayle for criticizing “Murphy Brown”?)

Here we see the flip side of the well-worn “lesser evil” argument: If the Republicans had been trying to implement this program, there would have been tremendous resistance. Take, for example, the crucial “Star Wars” decision, perhaps the biggest single choice (and certainly the most costly) the administration has made. Clinton has conceded the principle of a space-based missile defense, in spite of all the scientic and political evidence that it is a dangerous and destabilizing fantasy. He is, as I write, about to give the go-ahead to the investment as well. Does anyone imagine that the old Cold War right wing could have gotten away with anything so wasteful and irresponsible without igniting a national debate in which Al Gore (with his not-bad record on arms control) would have been on the other side?

It’s impossible to look at the vacuous campaign Gore has been running without concluding that something has gone out of the Democratic Party. In the whole primary “season,” such as it was, the only spark of dissent from the prevailing routine was struck by a conservative Republican from Arizona who was once a wannabe Top Gun in Vietnam. How’s that for irony? And this same Senator McCain — one of the outstanding porkers in the ’80s S&L sty — has actually sponsored legislation to reform the campaign finance racket off which Al Gore dangles as if it were his life support system (which it is).

Paradoxically, the first person to notice the true effect of Clinton was Norman Podhoretz, the leading neoconservative editor and campaigner who ran Commentary for a quarter century. Podhoretz was in favor of the impeachment, conviction, and removal of Bill Clinton for his abuses of power. But in last September’s National Review, he told his readers how grateful they nevertheless ought to be: “It is this scoundrel, this perjurer, this disgrace to the presidency of the United States who has pushed and pulled his party in a healthier direction than it had been heading in since its unconditional surrender to the left nearly 30 years ago.” In a phrase, said Podhoretz, Clinton had “de-McGovernized” the Democrats. Never again would the party show any skepticism about the military-industrial state, or the corporate world order.

Indeed, the very thing about Clinton that endeared him to some liberals — the fierce hatred he aroused on the right (whose famous “coup” would have made Al Gore president in 1999, probably his best chance) — was exactly what made him so toxic. The right detested Clinton because he had stolen and enacted their program and, with the help of Dick Morris, seduced many of their traditional big donors. And he had done all this while being a flagrant and shameless sleaze, thus proving that the right’s agenda had nothing to do with “values”! You’d be pissed off, too, if you were a Republican.

The Clinton years, in other words, have completed and locked in the Reagan revolution. They have also effectively lowered the boom on dissent. It is now more or less axiomatic that “politics” will continue to be conducted in the way creatures like James Carville conduct it — as a managed interface between focus groups and high-tab donors, where the holders of the purse strings get to decide which questions are asked in the opinion polls and which candidates get to be chosen before you and I have any say in the matter. This process was pretty far advanced by 1992. But it’s now so much taken for granted by the Republicrat duopoly that some conservatives even feel safe in questioning it.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that Clinton did all this after reluctantly discovering the limitations of power, or in response to pressure from polls and the center. After all, polls consistently show strong and well-informed majorities in favor of national health insurance, and who’s going to claim that the White House acted to make itself popular on that issue? (Not enough special-interest enthusiasm.) No, we were fairly warned as early as 1992 that Clinton wanted to move the party and the country to the right, and this after eight years of Reagan and four of Bush.

Did he say he wanted to end poverty as we know it? No, he said he wanted to end welfare as we know it. Did he say that the morals of the “greed decade” overclass could use an overhaul? No, he said that the morals of the underclass required strict attention. Did he quarrel with the Dixiecrats? No, he promoted Lloyd Bentsen to treasury secretary after picking a fight with Jesse Jackson over Sister Souljah. Admittedly, he did say that a homosexual American could be allowed to serve in the armed forces, but then…I don’t think I have to draw you a picture. Gays in the military, along with people on death row and in public housing — where warrantless searches were instituted — joined the large number of Americans for whom “the era of big government” was not over, but had just begun. And those foolish enough to believe the promise about health care found themselves handed over to the tender mercies of the HMOs, an ongoing scandal that will now require a great deal more government regulation rather than less.

We are supposedly entering “legacy time,” and I think history will record with some astonishment that this remorseless progress toward a corporate state was accompanied by a chorus of support from the politically correct. During the impeachment battle, for example, feminists rallied around a man who hit on the help and then trashed his conquests if they complained. African American leaders described as “our first black president” a character who as a candidate had made a point of executing the mentally deficient Rickey Ray Rector, who ditched Lani Guinier, humiliated Betty Currie, and vetoed a United Nations resolution calling for international action to forestall the genocide in Rwanda. Liberal academics and intellectuals flocked to a president who had bombed Sudan in dog-wagging style, deceived his Cabinet, taken wagonloads of off-the-record money from Indonesian and Chinese special interests, and rented Mr. Lincoln’s bedroom to the fat cats.

A price has to be paid for all this, and the immediate as well as longer lasting cost is this: American Democratic liberalism has lost its honor and prestige and has proved itself as adept in making excuses for power as any Babbitt in the Nixon era. (Clinton’s fawning speech at Nixon’s funeral, I was told by the late, great, and prescient Joseph Heller, contained all you needed to know about him.)

By riding what would have been Bush’s boom had 1992 not been an election year, Clintonism has obscured much of this for now. I’m sure that there are people reading this and saying to themselves: “Yeah, but what about the Supreme Court and the Christian Coalition? What about a woman’s right to choose?” Those were exactly the things that had liberals waving their arms in panic when Ronald Reagan won in 1980, except that back then they expressed concern about matters like poverty and racism and the arms race and human rights as well. If you look back and think about it, you may agree that neither Reagan nor Bush instituted a microsecond of school prayer or declared a single actual fetus to be a citizen, and that neither would Dole have, and that most certainly neither will this junior Bush. But it’s important for the maintenance of consensus that some people keep on being scared of what might happen and probably won’t; otherwise, they would not be such easy prey for what can happen and actually has. There is even a name for this tactic — it’s called “triangulation” — and eight years of it have been much more than enough.


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