Speaking at Georgetown University in October of 1991, shortly after he announced that he would be pursuing the presidency, Bill Clinton put forward what he called “A New Covenant,” an agenda that proposed an alternative to both “small government” conservatism and “big government” liberalism.
He spoke of a “third way to approach the American family,” one that would do away, once and for all, with “the old big-government notion that there is a program for every social problem.” Most famously, Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it.”
While these proposals were nominally centrist, in practice they relied on right-wing rhetoric that decried “dependency” and lauded “personal responsibility.”
Indeed, years into his presidency, when Clinton finally achieved his professed goal, the legislation he signed was a major plank of the reactionary Contract with America — a platform written in part by Newt Gingrich, who became Speaker of the House in 1995.
“Today, we are ending welfare as we know it,” President Clinton — ceremoniously “flanked by three former welfare recipients” — told the press gathered on the White House lawn in August of 1996. “But I hope this day will be remembered not for what it ended, but for what it began.”
As he spoke these words, the Washington Post reported, “women’s groups and advocates for the poor protested along Pennsylvania Avenue.”
They weren’t alone. Writing in the Post the previous year, Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, called the legislation “fatally flawed, callous,” and “anti-child.” The law, she wrote, would “eviscerate the moral compact between the nation and its children and its poor.”
Shortly after welfare reform was signed into law, Marian’s husband, Peter, resigned from the Clinton administration in protest, calling the bill in a 1997 piece for The Atlantic “the worst thing Bill Clinton has done.”
Stepping up to defend the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act from these attacks was a former lawyer for the Children’s Defense Fund and long-time friend of the Edelman family, First Lady Hillary Clinton.
This defense was far from tepid. It continued even during her 2008 presidential run.
“I agreed that he should sign it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage,” she wrote in her memoir, published in 2003. In 1999, she again invoked the rhetoric of the Right, lamenting that “many of those on welfare had known nothing but dependency all their lives.”
Welfare reform, she would go on to insist in an interview in 2002, had succeeded; the only question remaining was how to sustain this success.
“Now that we’ve said these people are no longer deadbeats — they’re actually out there being productive — how do we keep them there?” Clinton said.
For many leftists, the debate over welfare reform serves as a useful starting point in drawing distinctions between the democratic left and the Democratic Party — distinctions that began to emerge as early as the late 1960s and that became increasingly sharp in the years following Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Throughout the 2016 primary process, Clinton touted her tenure as a lawyer for the Children’s Defense Fund, but she did not focus on the welfare reform law she so eagerly championed in years past; her opponent, Bernie Sanders, was not so hesitant.
“I spoke out against so-called welfare reform because I thought it was scapegoating people who were helpless, people who were very, very vulnerable,” Sanders said while campaigning in South Carolina. “Secretary Clinton at that time had a very different position on welfare reform — strongly supported it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage.”
Sanders also made a striking assertion: welfare reform, he said, “more than doubled” the “number of families living in extreme poverty.” The assertion prompted digging, and analysts largely agree that it is accurate.
“The prevalence of extreme poverty rose sharply between 1996 and 2011,” note Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. “This growth has been concentrated among those groups that were most affected by the 1996 welfare reform.”
These facts, Sanders insisted, should not be overlooked, even as Hillary Clinton and her campaign attempt, from time to time, to adopt a more progressive posture.
“It’s important,” Sanders noted, referring to the record of presidential candidates. “If people are going to elect a president, they want to know, ‘What is the history?'”
Throughout the primaries, much ink was spilled — and is still being spilled — in attempts to diagnose the Left’s wariness, and often deep dislike, of Hillary Clinton. Some have, falsely and in bad faith, painted the socialist left as sexist and racist, arguing that the foundation of left opposition to Clintonism is burgeoning white male status anxiety.
Others have taken a different track, pointing to the perception that Hillary Clinton is a liar as the reason she is viewed so unfavorably. This has been a topic of particular interest to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.
In April, Kristof called the notion that Clinton is “fundamentally dishonest” a “bogus narrative.” He was recently back at it, this time to compare Clinton’s “fibs” with the “huge lies” of Donald Trump.
While this kind of discussion may be entertaining for the commentariat — it seems to have sparked a debate of sorts, with the Washington Post‘s Daniel Drezner countering that Clinton is the “the bigger and badder liar” because, unlike Trump, she is aware of the truth — it contributes almost nothing of use.
And, of course, it distracts from the more central reasons leftists oppose Clinton — the main one being her actual record, as Politico‘s Bill Scher correctly observed back in May. Given her time in the public eye and in public office, this record is extensive — one that cannot be erased with a few months of campaigning.
This is not to say that the honesty question is irrelevant or unimportant. But the theme underlying much of the focus on values and public perception is that Clinton’s lack of appeal, particularly among young progressives, is somehow due to her reputation as a liar, and not due to her record and views.
“Clinton and the political movement she represents are simply despised by a great many leftists, with much justification,” summarizes The Week‘s Ryan Cooper. “Democrats have been promoting milquetoast domestic policy, and capitulating to or participating in belligerent militarism, for an entire generation.”
Cooper actually understates the case. With their championing of welfare reform, NAFTA, and the omnibus crime bill in the 1990s, along with their continued support for interventionist wars abroad and pro-business “trade” agreements, Democrats have moved rightward along with the Republicans, who have gone completely off the political spectrum.
But one need not look back in time to find reasons to reject Clintonism. In 2016, Hillary is actively courting the favor of conservative billionaires and, according to recent reports, the contemptible Henry Kissinger, who she touts as a personal friend. Despite purporting to be in favor of campaign finance reform, she has accepted millions in donations from Wall Street and hedge funds.
And, having also received a significant sum of campaign cash from the insurance industry, she has rejected what was previously a key plank for many in the Democratic coalition, single-payer health care.
Clinton’s record, in short, betrays a series of rightward sprints on matters of extreme consequence, sprints that were often accompanied by the crass, reactionary, and hostile rhetoric that has come to characterize the anti-poor, fanatically pro-business Republican Party. And though in 2016 Clinton has put forward a new image, the substance of her politics remains fundamentally unaltered.
In many ways, though, it is unfair, and unproductive, to focus solely on Hillary Clinton; many of these critiques, after all, can apply to the Democratic Party as a whole, which has flippantly abandoned any explicit working-class agenda in favor of stale, top-down incrementalism that is compatible with the views of its donor base.
“Look at prominent Democrats like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy, New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker, or Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel,” writes Fredrik deBoer. “Each has, to one degree or another, criticized unions, pushed for lower corporate taxes, and undermined public schools. Like Clinton, each enjoys cozy relationships with economic elites. And these aren’t random minor-league politicians, but the kind of prominent leaders who help define the party.”
One figure not mentioned in the piece quoted above is New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who essentially summarized the prevailing outlook of the Democratic Party when he remarked to the Washington Post, “For every blue-collar Democrat we will lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two or three moderate Republicans in the suburbs of Philadelphia.”
Having long ago done away with efforts to broaden their appeal among the working class by putting forward an ambitious agenda and rejecting the status quo, Democrats’ principle concern these days is how best to publicly square a progressive exterior with an interior dominated by the wealthy.
In Trump, Democrats have, deBoer notes, found a much-needed excuse to avoid confronting the crises within their own party. But they are there, and they are very real.
Nonetheless, many leftists will hold their noses and vote for Hillary Clinton in November, largely for strategic reasons. But in advocating lesser evilism as a voting strategy, Noam Chomsky often makes another crucial point: that electoral politics should make up only a tiny part of efforts to change society.
“The electoral season in the United States, the quadrennial extravaganza, typically tends to draw energy away from activism because people are caught up in the hoopla,” Chomsky has said, expressing a view that Adolph Reed has called “electoralitis.”
Democrats, for their part, have long been infected by electoralitis; they have come to view the election of more Democrats as an end in itself, not as a means to push for a more equitable society. But, long-term, we must be focused on more than merely defeating Trump; we must also defeat the appeal of Trumpism.
For that to happen, we need a strong left with a working-class core.
Corporate centrism may be enough to pull off an electoral victory this time around, but it is not nearly enough to address unprecedented income and wealth inequality, environmental degradation, or — for obvious reasons — the corporate capture of the political process.
If recent history is any guide, it is unlikely that Democrats will change course in any meaningful way, having been restrained by their own ideological and financial commitments. For that reason, it will be necessary to revisit, and to take very seriously, the words of Michelle Alexander: “I hold little hope that a political revolution will occur within the Democratic Party without a sustained outside movement forcing truly transformational change. I am inclined to believe that it would be easier to build a new party than to save the Democratic Party from itself.”