Clinton has been getting mixed reviews on his legacy in the
mainstream media: commonly he is downgraded for regrettable personal defects
that made him a poor role model and lowered the esteem of his high office;
but he gets good marks for his domestic economic policies that have given
us sustained prosperity, high marks for his foreign economic policies
that have advanced free trade, and a fairly high grade for
his other foreign policies. The only point on which I agree with this
assessment is the first, although it is the least important and, of course,
was used by the right wing to attack and weaken him by outrageous methods
and for the wrong reasons.
first important component of the Clinton legacy is his contribution to
moving the political spectrum to the right. As soon as he hit office Clinton
abandoned any serious populist agenda and policies that would put
people first in favor of catering to the bond market and business
His strategy over his eight years was to preempt Republican positions
on the social and military budgets, deficit reduction, welfare, crime,
capital punishment, the drug war, trade, and foreign policy. This helped
him keep business funds flowing his way, and it kept an important segment
of the corporate media, along with many liberals and pundits, on his side,
but it weakened the support of the abandoned people. This
was important in helping the Gingrich Republicans win in 1994, and it
set the stage for Bush in 2000. So we can even say that the Republican
victories, with their attendant further shifts toward regressive economic
and social policies, were part of the Clinton legacy.
has been noted that the large number of black males excluded from voting
in the 2000 presidential election by imprisonment or former felon status
made a significant difference in the election outcome, arguably a blowback
effect of Clintons hardline policies on crime and the drug war.
Less noted is the fact that Nader might not have run at all if the Clinton
policies had not represented a comprehensive sell-out of populist principles.
That sell-out has been institutionalized, as Democratic National Council
officials, policy-analysts, and policy-makers, several of whom have publicly
criticized Gore for his brief and unconvincing foray into populist rhetoric
during the campaign, are now firmly in charge of the Party and quite ready
to accept the coup detat president and do business with him.
Policies and Principles
record on economic policy was not entirely bad: his tax changes of 1993
reduced by a third or more the regressiveness brought about by the Reagan-era
changes; he belatedly got the minimum wage increased, although not enough
to offset the real decline since 1979; and his revamped National Labor
Relations Board became a pro-labor institution that made a difference
in many cases of union-management conflict (see Tom Robbins, Unfriendly
Relations: Bush Supporters Take Aim at Pro-Labor Board, Village
Voice, January 24-30, 2001).
Some give him credit for the long prosperity and expansion during his
term, but that resulted from the Fed allowing unemployment to fall, the
investment surge based on New Economy technology and development, and
the spending based on the stock market bubble. Clinton had little to do
with this, and the boom had its down side: it was associated with increased
inequality, with only modest real wage increases that came late in the
boom, and it was based in part on a bubble already deflating and likely
to sag further in the near future.
a more durable part of the Clinton legacy was hisand Goresreturn
to Hooverite economics.
Great stress was laid on deficit and debt reduction and, in the end, Clinton
and Gore were both dedicated to reducing the national debt to zero. In
what most economists view as lunatic fiscal policy, the Hoover formula
early in the Great Depression (initially also believed in but gradually
abandoned by Franklin D. Roosevelt) was cutting back government expenditures
to balance the budget. Such cuts are deflationary, and both theory and
empirical evidence tell us that the resultant lower interest rates are
not likely to offset the deflationary effect of the fiscal action.
But Clinton-Gore regularly preached the Hooverite truth, and during the
recent campaign Mr. Gore says hell pursue debt reduction even
if the economy slows, just as a corporation has to cut expenses
if revenues fall off, adding that a recession should be viewed as
an opportunity to push cuts further (NYT, February 8, 2000).
related to this Hooverite principle is that of reinventing government
and privatizing where possible.
Gore was even in charge of a body explicitly charged with the task of
shrinking government, and the Clinton administration pursued this with
enthusiasm. Perhaps their most important legacy in this regard was in
transferring government control of the Internet to the private sector
and assuring that the new communications technologies and media would
be reserved for private use.
instead of using any prospective surpluses to rebuild the weakened safety
net and neglected public infrastructure, Clinton pushed for debt reduction
on the dual Hooverite principles that government deficits and public debt
are bad and should be reduced whenever possible, and that government is
bad and should be kept to minimum size, except for the military establishment,
police, and drug war fighters.
This is a legacy that George W. Bush will find congenial and build on.
Social Security, Clinton held the line against the business and right-wing
assault and demands for privatization and scaling back, but he did this
with damaging intellectual opportunism.
Instead of denying the Social Security crisis as a phony and defending
the system for its efficiency and highly beneficial effects, he agreed
that there was a severe crisiseverybody knows that something
substantial, really substantial, has to be done to reform the Social Security
systemand offered as his main solution federal debt reduction.
This phony solution to a non-existent problem used Social Security to
gain support for Clintons Hooverite fiscal policy.
Medicare crisis, real but less immediately menacing than in mainstream
portrayals, rests mainly on the inflation of private medical system costs.
Clintons inept medical reform plan got nowhere, but did result in
the rapid and not very helpful spread of HMOs. Thus, in his eight years
in office he did nothing constructive to deal with the underlying medical
cost problem, which would involve serious government intervention via
a single payer insurance system and price caps. These were ruled out by
his ties to the insurance and medical industries and his ideological commitment
to Hooverite principle two: government is bad and must be shrunk. So here
also his legacy sets the stage for further attacks on the welfare state
by Bush II.
important part of the Clinton legacy is the greater centralization of
Despite the case carried out against Microsoft and scattered other antitrust
actions, under Clintons rule we have witnessed a new merger movement
of exceptional scope, more far-reaching than the notable movement of the
Reagan years. Huge mergers have been permitted in banking, telecommunications,
the media, pharmaceuticals, autos, retail trade, airlines, railroads,
oil, farming, food, and elsewhere.
This caused Jeffrey Garten, Dean of the Yale School of Management, to
warn that our emerging giantism is a serious menace: Big companies
have a disproportionate clout on national legislation, have become
too large to fail, exert massive pressure on Americas international
behavior, and already [have a] formidable grip on U.S. trade
policy (Business Week, January 25, 1999).
structural changes that reinforce corporate and plutocratic power are
a legacy burden to ordinary citizens that Bush II will be pleased to advance.
the mainstream media Clintons success in getting passage of the
North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and helping put in place the
World Trade Organization (WTO) are regarded as perhaps his finest achievement.
It goes without saying that the fact that Clinton did this against the
strong objections of a large majority of his voting constituents and Democratic
Party legislators was not mentioned in these accolades.
the media accolades are in close accord with the strenuous media support
of NAFTA and the WTO, reflecting the gearing of corporate media perspectives
to the demands of the corporate community more broadly. This legislation
was not mainly about trade, it was about the investment rights
of transnational corporations (whose rights took up the great bulk of
the NAFTA text); and it enlarged those rights while reducing those of
governments to protect their citizens from environmental or other corporate
excesses or to pursue a development path other than via market expansion.
It supported corporate globalization without restraint, and was incompatible
with democratic rule and majority economic welfare.
This was class legislation, supported by an upper and business class media,
and pushed with great energy by Clinton, the corporate communitys
agent on the big issues.
Personal Responsibility Act
landmark in the Clinton legacy was his signing of the 1996 Personal Responsibility
Act, which ended any federal responsibility to poor people and eliminated
a basic element of the safety net.
While the welfare system needed reform, Clintons was inadequate,
savage, and based on an unprincipled persons calculus of political
advantage. It was done in the face of a suppressed internal report that
estimated a million poor women and children would be pushed into the streets
as a consequence of its enactment.
The legislation was not accompanied by the provision of day care, health
care, job training, and job guarantees that would give the act any humane
touch, and while the subsequent economic expansion may have reduced the
human cost of this vicious legislation, by exactly how much is not clear
as followup studies have been made only sporadically, and any reduction
in human pain was inadvertent and not planned for by the acts authors.
have argued that a Republican president could not have gotten this act
passedthat Democratic opposition would have been too strong. But
a Democratic president was able to mobilize enough Democratic votes to
carry the day, as in the cases of the NAFTA and WTO legislation.
So Clinton here again set the stage for further Republican moves, in this
instance to reduce the safety net and strengthen the free market
Control, Drug War, and Anti-terrorism Legislation
apologist Anthony Lewis regards civil liberties as Clintons great
failure as president, noting that he allowed the destruction
of federal habeas corpus,...signed the cruel Immigration Act of 1996 into
law without a protest...[and] carried on the drug war as its futile savagery
became more and more obvious (Ave Atque Vale, NYT, January
doesnt mention specifically or discuss Clintons Violent Crime
Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which provided massive federal
aid to local police and prison construction, helped increase mandatory
penalties for drug-related crimes, and added 16 new crimes to be subjected
to federal capital punishment along with a three strikes provision.
This vicious legislation arguably complemented Clintons economic
policies and eventual signing of the Personal Responsibility Act and aggressive
pursuit of the drug war, which were all going to wreak havoc in the urban
ghettoes and require a law and order response.
The prison population grew by 129 percent in the Clinton years, passing
the 2 million mark in 1999, with blacks comprising 46 percent of those
incarcerated as Clinton was preparing to exit office.
But he was alleged to be disturbed by this disproportionate
rate of black imprisonment, demonstrating his credentials as a friend
of black people.
Anti-terrorism Bill of 1995 went even further than his Violent Crime act,
sharply limiting the writ of habeas corpus and therefore prisoners
ability to pursue their rights in federal courts, and making it a federal
crime punishable by a ten year prison term to support the lawful activities
of any foreign group labelled terrorist by the State Department.
This encouraged FBI surveillance of peaceful humanitarian and solidarity
groups across the country.
The bill also authorized the Immigration and Naturalization Service to
deport immigrants on the basis of undisclosed secret evidence. Clinton
also signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility
Act of 1996, perhaps the most anti-immigrant legislation ever enacted,
which strips federal courts of review authority over the INS and eliminates
discretionary relief for a broad range of immigrants.
Clinton and Gore entered office, one of their first environmental actions
was approving an incincerator project in Ohio that Gore had solemnly pledged
In exiting office, Clinton created a series of protected areas that he
had not seen fit to do anything about earlier and much of which his successor
will find ways to de-protect. In between, the Clinton-Gore performance
was badly compromised, with the environmental community coopted and confused
by rhetoric and minimal performance.
Notable in this history was Clintons July 1996 signing of a bill
containing the salvage provision that gutted protection of
the ancient forests and allowed him to find a few billion feet of
hassle-free timber for noisy constituents out West.
The Administration claimed it had been snookered and Gore
said that this was the Administrations biggest mistake,
but Clinton quietly declined to support a bill that would have repealed
that mistakea bill that subsequently lost by two votes.
(Paul Roberts, The Federal Chain-Saw Massacre, Harpers, June
Clinton administration also did poorly on clean air rules, on international
efforts to control global warming, in regulating the chemical industry,
and in handling the new biotechnology.
As regards global warming, Clinton essentially sabotaged the international
efforts to do something about the problem at Kyoto and Amsterdam.
On biotechnology, the Clinton-era regulators have been servants of the
industry, the New York Times noting recently that when Monsanto wanted
regulation in order to calm public fears, it got it; when it wanted self-regulation,
it got that; and the only thing not in evidence was regulatory interest
in what was best for the general public (Kurt Eichenwald, Biotechnology
Food: From the Lab to a Debacle, NYT, January 25, 2001).
Bush II will perhaps do worse than Clinton on environmental issues, but
the lesser evil was an evil, and a hypocritical one to boot.
foreign policy has followed the main lines pursued by his predecessors,
serving the transnational companies well and treating the military-industrial
It has been somewhat more aggressive in projecting U.S. military power
abroad, reflecting in part the post-Soviet ending of containment, the
self-confidence stemming from uncontested military superiority and the
economic boom, and the Clinton need to prove his credentials as a servant
of the powerful.
result has been policies that have served the powerful, but have violated
international law and wreaked human havoc across the globe.
The United States has been a rogue state, virtually unconstrained in throwing
its weight around in its version of imperialism that blends the threat
and direct use of force with coercive diplomacy, further backed by boycotts,
sanctions, and trade and financial discrimination.
these policies have served the national interest the media
have been kind to Clinton, as they were to his predecessors.
More interesting is how the liberals have found the Clinton policies creditable,
despite the fact that a powerful case can be made that he is a first class
war criminal (see Clinton Is The Worlds Leading Active War
Criminal, Z Magazine, December 1999).
Anthony Lewiss account of the Clinton legacy gives him points for
North Ireland, the Middle East, and Kosovo, and mentions no negatives.
Robert Kuttner and Paul Starr have also found little to quarrel with in
Clinton foreign policy in the American Prospect.
None of these folks mention his Administrations pushing the expansion
of NATO up to Russias borders, his refusal to go along with the
international consensus banning land mines, or his unwillingness to support
an international tribunal not under thoroughgoing U.S. control while happy
to use one in Yugoslavia that is U.S.-dominated.
His failure to pay this countrys UN dues, his contemptuous and opportunistic
treatment of the UN, including the bypassing of the UN and violation of
UN Charter rules in the war against Yugoslavia, doesnt seem to trouble
them at all.
also ignore Colombia, where Clinton has been pouring money into an army
and related paramilitaries that have killed many more civilians and created
many more refugees than Milosevic did in Kosovo before the NATO bombing.
This policy is a rerun of earlier U.S. support of regimes of murder in
Guatemala and El Salvador (among many others). The Salvador analogy is
especially striking as liberals in the 1980s required Reagans certification
of human rights progress as a condition for funding a murderous government,
which Reagan always provided (and the Democrats never challenged).
The liberals followed the same course in 2000, agreeing to Clintons
Plan Colombia, but with human rights certification required.
Following Reagan in his cavalier treatment of human rights, and unreported
in the mainstream media, less than 48 hours before his exit from office
Clintons State Department announced a reinterpretation of the law
that allowed the funding of Colombias army and paramilitaries to
go forward without certification that human rights conditions were being
previously mentioned liberals also dont discuss Turkey, where a
military-dominated government has engaged in an ethnic cleansing of Kurds
in the 1990s that makes Milosevics efforts in pre-bombing Kosovo
look modest by comparison. But Clinton supported these ethnic cleansers
with massive aid and diplomatic support throughout his term, so eye aversion
is again the order of the day.
and others also fail to mention Iraq, where under the harsh Clinton-Blair
sanctions policy more than a million Iraqis, including hundreds of thousands
of children, have succumbed to disease and starvation.
This is the closest thing to genocide that has been going
on over the past decade, but if Madeleine Albright says 500,000 children
deaths in Iraq have been worth it, thats enough for
Lewis, Kuttner, and Starr, as well as the mainstream media.
Kuttner mentions the Russia policy as a failure, but Lewis and Starr dont
and the mainstream media give it modest and distorted attention.
Russias is a social catastrophe of major proportions, with millions
of casualties, and Clintons embrace of Yeltsin and support of a
completely unsuitable set of policies that shattered the country was beyond
irresponsibility, it was criminal.
policy on the Middle East was to give Israel carte blanche, allowing it
to create new facts on the ground in Jerusalem and the West
Bank, and to bully and buy off Arafat while giving the ethnically cleansed
A monstrous policy bound to fail, but Lewis finds it courageous,
and Kuttner, Starr, and the mainstream media give Clinton credit for trying.
is lauded for his humanitarian effort in Kosovo.
Lewis, Kuttner and Starr, and the mainstream commentators take this as
a matter of course. The fact that NATO deliberately raised the bar
to permit bombing, eschewing any kind of real negotiations, doesnt
interest them at all. Nor does the fact that it was the bombing that turned
a crisis into a disaster; nor the fact that NATO eventually turned to
deliberately bombing civilian facilities in Serbia; nor the fact under
NATOs occupation there has been a really massive and ecumenical
The U.S.-sponsored NATO operation was criminal aggression, criminal in
methods, and disastrous in results.
of the three liberals even mention East Timor, where the numbers killed
even before the August 30, 1999 referendum exceeded that of Kosovo Albanians
killed by the Serbs prior to the NATO bombing. Clinton knew the killings
were going on in East Timor long before August 30, but didnt lift
a finger to call off his friends. He only did that, under international
pressure, after the Indonesians had destroyed 85 percent of the country.
This was a war crime by tacit collusion with the criminals, even if it
falls outside the orbit of concern of the liberals and mainstream media.
legacy is disastrous.
Bush will have trouble surpassing Clintons record of devastation
and war criminality abroad.
At home we can expect Bush to build on the Clinton performance, but the
groundwork was well laid.
in Z Magazine
S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
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