How Bill Clinton Wrecked The Democratic Party As A Legitimate Vehicle Of The Working Class

The New Dems-- The Anti-FDR Wing Of The Party

Even if neoliberalism still drives much of the Democratic Party establishment, you may have noticed that Bill Clinton and his ideas have, at least on the surface, been somewhat marginalized by the Party. Many of the chief architects of Clinton's failed policies-- Dick Morris, Mark Penn, Doug Schoen for example-- are now Republicans. Some would argue that New Dems are essentially Republican-lite careerists, basically the heart of the Republican wing of the Democratic Party.

The jist of Bill Clinton's flashy but small bore centrist economic programs was to turn impoverished communities into markets. The way Alex Pareene put it in his essay, The Disastrous Legacy of the New Democrats, for the New Republic last month, was that "Where once there had merely been marginalized and impoverished people, now there was a market-- that is, the potential for someone else to make a profit off of those people." Worse yet, he explained "Clintonites taught their party how to talk about helping people without actually doing it... [H]istorian Lily Geismer presents it as, instead, a tour of the wreckage of Bill Clinton’s presidency and a window into the blinkered ideology of his broader political movement. Her new book, Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality, should make almost any left-of-center reader retroactively furious about the 1990s and the inability of its architects to foresee the twenty-first century they were creating... Geismer’s work is about the people who emerged triumphant from those battles. It’s about the dog that caught the car, if the car was a large base of suburban professional–class support and the dog was Al From. The men (Geismer makes clear they were nearly all men) who wanted to transform the party largely got what they wanted, and were given opportunities to put their preferred ideas into action again and again. Left Behind asks that we judge these winners not by their political victories, but by whether their ideas actually worked in practice. The judgment is not kind."

The crew that would come to take over the Democratic Party organized themselves, in the 1980s, around the idea that the party had become discredited among the public because it was in thrall to its more liberal elements. These “New Democrats” gravitated toward Gary Hart, who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic Party nomination in 1984, positioned as the candidate of “new ideas” against Walter Mondale, ostensibly the embodiment of stale Great Society liberalism. Hart, along with allies like Representative Tim Wirth, articulated what Geismer calls “larger generational skepticism with large institutions and bureaucracy.” In practice, “large institutions” tended to mean unions and government agencies. The New Democrats were similarly allergic to “transactional politics” and “special interest groups,” which Geismer helpfully defines as “African Americans, women, white farmers, and, especially, organized labor.”
Even by the mid-1980s, Jesse Jackson could correctly note that this definition of “special interests” happened to define them as the Democratic Party’s actual base of support, or, as he put it, “members of our family.” Hart was notably more popular with white pundits than with Black primary voters. But what the New Democrats truly wanted, and truly believed their policy agenda would win, was the white suburban vote. In the wake of Ronald Reagan’s reelection, in 1985, the political strategist Al From founded the Democratic Leadership Council, with an inaugural membership of 41 people, including 14 senators and 17 representatives. Of that group, two members were nonwhite, and none were women. The philosophy of the DLC, shaped by early members like From, the political consultant David Osborne, and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, was to go after the “aspiring middle” electorate in suburbia rather than the working class and dispossessed, and to appeal to it with an agenda that stressed economic dynamism, free trade, embrace of the tech industry, and-- vitally-- the destruction of the welfare state.
This gets to a central tension in New Democrat thought. Seemingly at no point can anyone conclusively decide if their policy agenda is meant to be politically effective-- to win over white suburbanites-- or to implement successful policy, which in this case would mean reforming welfare in a way that would leave poor people better off. Once Bill Clinton was in power, actual “welfare reform,” the destruction of the New Deal–era Aid to Families with Dependent Children assistance program, was passed largely because “end welfare as we know it” was a Clinton campaign trail promise, and Bruce Reed, of the White House Domestic Policy Council, had come to believe that phrase—which he had taped up in his office-- had been vital to Clinton’s 1992 victory. Clinton, then running for reelection, was comfortably ahead in the polls when he signed the welfare reform bill. His political adviser Dick Morris had urged him to sign it as “insurance.”
This reflects, on the one hand, a chilling pattern of cynicism about the effect of domestic policy on actual people, and, on the other, a genuinely naïve faith that “the market” would simply take care of everyone if unleashed to do so. Geismer mainly avoids the useful but oft-abused term “neoliberalism” when describing the New Democrats’ ideology, and instead focuses on their ethos of “doing well by doing good.” Unlike an earlier liberal consensus around “doing well and doing good”-- that is, growing the economy and providing for the downtrodden at the same time-- “doing well by doing good” is a belief that there is no trade-off between making money and improving the world, and in fact that making a lot of money is the best and most effective way to improve the world. It was an unusually durable belief: Even when Clinton’s brain trust found no evidence that was likely to happen, they would simply point to the political efficacy of saying it would.
Well, most of them would. The book might be subtitled “The Betrayal of Robert Reich.” The economist, an early and influential New Democrat thinker, pops up throughout Left Behind. In Geismer’s account, he spent the 1970s and 1980s arguing for a faster, government-directed transition to a tech-and-service economy, and spent part of the 1990s as Clinton’s labor secretary, often trying to make the administration’s reforms and proposals marginally fairer and more generous, only to be foiled at basically every opportunity. At one point, Reich was forced to stop using the term “corporate welfare” in public; Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin thought it might spook the markets. Reich quit the administration shortly after Clinton’s 1996 reelection. Largely except for his example, Left Behind shows us, over and over again, officials coming up with solutions to problems that might work in theory, implementing diminished versions of them, and calling it a great success.
The patented Third Way policy development process was identifying a problem in some public good, attributing the problem to old-fashioned big government liberalism, seizing on a market-friendly alternative without ever stopping to consider whether that alternative could work at scale, and finally replacing the flawed programs with inadequate half-measures while promising that it was now solved forever. This pattern shows up most clearly in one of the book’s strongest (and most infuriating) chapters, on the Clinton administration’s housing policy.
Early on, the Clinton administration signaled that its approach to public housing would be to dismantle it as it then existed. American public housing, characterized by corrupt or incompetent housing agencies and heavily segregated massive housing complexes, was seen as an emblematic failure of Big Government liberalism. The Clinton administration’s approach was to eliminate much existing public housing, and voucherize federal housing support rather than directly provide housing. What that housing policy failed to consider is that humans lived in the homes and neighborhoods in question, which were now being demolished.
The New Urbanism–inspired policy on public housing was something like this: Step One: Make the housing, and the neighborhoods it is in, more pleasant. (Great!) Step Two: Subject it to market forces. (OK?) Step Three: Provide much less housing than you’re removing. (???) In the process of “reinventing” public housing, The Department of Housing and Urban Development urged Congress to repeal a rule that required it to replace one unit of housing for every unit it destroyed. The agency went on to replace existing housing projects in cities like Chicago with significantly less dense developments, with room for far fewer families. If you can see how that might lead to an urban housing crisis, then congratulations: You’re smarter than nearly every Democratic housing policy wonk of the 1990s.
The ostensible goal in providing less housing overall was to let the market do the work of integrating cities like Chicago, but HUD’s voucher program, Geismer argues, assumed that people “would have no reason or desire to stay in the areas where they lived, would not face discrimination in more affluent housing markets, and would be able to move into safe and thriving middle-class communities.” In reality, in part because politicians simply didn’t put protections in place at the federal level, landlords nationwide routinely discriminate against people attempting to use vouchers to access housing.
Thus, the sublime technocratic idea that a lot of mixed-income New Urbanist development would be superior to traditional superblocks-- a perfectly defensible one-- became, after going through the Third Way policy wood chipper, the reality of mass displacement and inadequate housing support for the poor and working class. (The housing debacle also drives home the maddening ignorance and exceptionalism of U.S. policymaking, which never stops to ask if competing ideas-- about housing, health care, industrial policy, transportation-- might be imported from abroad. Seemingly at no point did anyone tasked with “fixing” public housing in U.S. cities stop to ask if perhaps Vienna or Tokyo might have any helpful answers.)
Left Behind should spur serious soul-searching among the American center-left. It is a book about well-intentioned policy not working out, but also about blasé indifference of policymakers as to whether their policies worked or not, and whether the point was for them to “work” for the people affected by policy or for ideas to work in a speech.
The New Democrats offered credit instead of welfare, vouchers instead of housing, and charter schools instead of integrated and equitably funded schools. All of those programs were also ways to use “the seemingly neutral language and techniques of the market to impose meritocratic middle-class norms on poor people of color living in distressed communities.” Clintonites were convinced of their altruism while designing and selling their plans with undisguised nasty paternalism. And it seems they never decided if (or came to an agreement on whether) their program was a genuine effort to address America’s problems or a political exercise in winning a political base.
We can still see in practice how the belief in growth as the strongest driver of positive outcomes, combined with a fierce ideological resistance to “handouts,” leads inexorably and consistently to the foreclosing of most anti-poverty action. The pattern by which Democratic policy proposals get watered down remains consistent. Joe Biden’s progressive domestic policy agenda stalled out last year in large part because Senator Kyrsten Sinema (born 1976) opposed the “pay-fors” (tax increases largely on corporations) and Senator Joe Manchin (born 1947) opposed the economic programs the “pay-fors” pay for.
Geismer makes the case that the Clinton administration was, on the domestic front, even more catastrophic than we recall. If I remembered Clinton as someone with basically no positive record, she describes an administration that could only get away with being so destructive because it believed fervently that it was doing the best it could. The New Markets Tax Credit Program Clinton signed into law a month before leaving office-- “the most significant effort ever to help hard-pressed communities”-- has, between inception decades ago and 2016, “supported more than 5,300 projects in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico,” according to the Tax Policy Center. The very same day Clinton created that program, he also signed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, a piece of legislation that deregulated derivatives trading-- and also contributed directly to the global financial crisis a few years later. The New Democrats successfully created “new markets.” Instead of helping people, they put the entire globe at their mercy.

I don't want anyone to get the idea that the New Dems are a politically spent force. They are very much one of the dominant forces inside the Democratic congressional caucus-- the DINOs. And they completely and utterly control the DCCC, chaired, once again, by a careerist New Dem, this time Sean Patrick Maloney. The New Dems' endorsed candidates become the candidates the DCCC green-lights, supports and finances. So far this cycle, the New Dems have endorsed 15 mostly putrid conservatives, some so bad that if they make it to the general, progressives should avoid voting rather than see them get into office. New Dem candidates in primaries tomorrow are mostly awful, including-- worst of all-- Rudy Salas (CA-22) and Quaye Quartey (CA-27), but also Christina Bohanan (IA-01), Liz Mathis (IA-02) and former progressive Jay Chen (CA-45). Just as bad as Salas, but on the New Dem "watch list," rather than as a full-fledged endorsee, is his Sacramento "Mod Squad" partner, Adam Gray (CA-13).

The other candidates endorsed by the New Dems so far are Hillary Scholten (MI-03), Val Hoyle (OR-04), Nikki Budzinski (IL-13), Jackie Gordon (NY-02), Max Rose (NY-11), Brittany Petersen (CO-07), Yadira Caraveo (CO-08), Greg Landsman (OH-01), Emilia Sykes (OH-13) and Tony Vargas (NE-02).

The others on their "watch list" are Laura Gillen (NY-04), Glenn Ivey (Donna Edwards' opponent), former progressive Heather Mizeur (MD-01), Gil Vilegas (IL-03), Karin Norington-Reaves (IL-01), Brad Pfaff (WI-03), Morgan McGarvey (KY-03), Eric Lynn (FL-13), Jared Moskowitz (FL-23), Randolph Bracy (FL-10), Jevin Hodge (AZ-01), Ruben Ramirez (TX-15, who I think was just defeated in the runoff by progressive Michelle Vallejo), John Lira (TX-23), Jeff Jackson (NC-14) and Don Davis (NC-01), who will spend next year contending with Rudy Salas for the position of worst Democrat in Congress.

Are these candidates better than Republicans? Yes, they are better than the current crop of Republicans, although the difference is so marginal in people like Don Davis and Rudy Salas as to be just about negligible. So if you want a lesser evil, the New Dem candidate is right for you-- especially if you want to see the Democratic Party continue down the path of corporatism, neoliberal hackery and self-destruction. Otherwise, if one of these candidates is what the Democratic Party is offering in your district... bite the bullet and don't vote, vote 3rd party or write someone in.