This column is exclusive to Accuracy in Media
After his rousing reception at the Democratic convention, Bill Clinton is now hitting the campaign trail hard for Obama, hoping the political magic he spun in Charlotte can rub off on a seriously wounded president. The convention glow has clearly not worn off, as the wonky but folksy ex-chief of state is getting mobbed by worshipping crowds wherever he goes, especially in those crucial swing states. But can Clinton’s seal of approval on the Obama economy, as some pundits are now predicting, push Obama into the win column in November?
That’s hardly a sure bet, but there is great irony in all this Clinton exuberance. To the extent that he was a successful president—as is clearly the case—his accomplishments came because he ditched his own Obama-style policies and embraced the essence of Reaganomics—major tax cuts, spending restraint, welfare reform, free trade and the abandonment of his own budget-crushing entitlement program, the federal takeover of the health care system.
Clinton, as was apparent in Charlotte, loves to suggest that he was the architect of the successful policies that were passed while he was in the White House. In truth, he led from behind, to pick up a popular phrase of the day, having been forced into glory by yielding to the opposition. He was on the verge of becoming a failed president himself after just two years in office. Even the Democratic-controlled Congress had defeated his much touted stimulus package and an enormous hike in energy taxes. Hillarycare, the forerunner of Obamacare, was dead in the water by the summer of 1994, with the Senate Democrats hoisting the white flag on this signature issue on the eve of the congressional elections.
Clinton’s most significant achievement was a huge but unpopular tax-rate increase, which no Republican lawmaker backed in either chamber (and which Obama is determined to duplicate). So unappealing was his record, the Republicans swept both houses of Congress in November for the first time in four decades. Newt Gingrich, the political warrior who led the GOP comeback, was enthroned as House Speaker, poised to push through his Reaganite Contract with America. Clinton’s first term was in shambles and it was only half over.
A panicky president, consulting Dick Morris (see Behind the Oval Office), then decided to steal from the Reagan playbook, though neither Clinton nor Morris has ever given the iconic GOP president the credit he deserves. Slowly but surely Clinton began tacking to the right, (though he had endorsed one Republican idea earlier, the NAFTA free trade pact). Beginning in1995, he deep-sixed Hillarycare for good, then hinted he would work seriously with Republicans for a balanced budget proposal. In an Oct. 17 fundraiser in Houston, he signaled tax cuts were very much in play: “I think,” he conceded, “l raised them [taxes] too much.”
His most obsequious genuflection to the GOP came in his 1996 State of the Union address when he grandly pronounced—to roars of approval from the Republican lawmakers present—”The era of big government is over.” Rhetorically, Clinton had surrendered to conservative ideology but substance was to follow. In that same election year, he signed, with liberals howling in protest, a historic welfare reform program, designed in large part by Robert Carleson, Reagan’s much heralded welfare expert. The initial results—which Clinton trumpeted at the Democratic convention in 2000—were spectacular, with caseloads beginning to drop like stones.
More Clinton concessions were to come. In August of 1997, the president signed a bipartisan balanced-budget measure, packed with several critical Republican tax-relief measures, including a solid middle class, pro-family tax cut that was in Gingrich’s Contract and had been relentlessly pushed by Christian activist Gary Bauer. (Clinton, in truth, had promised such a cut when campaigning in ’92, but then quickly crawfished after his election.)
Clinton even slashed Reagan’s tax burden on capital gains by nearly one-third (from 28 percent to 20 percent, thus enriching those very millionaires and billionaires Obama so relishes demonizing), embraced a serous decrease in estate taxes, backed several pro-business measures and created the Roth IRA retirement savings account, named after conservative Republican Sen. William Roth. The booming economy was also pushed along by two other little-noted factors: Alan Greenspan’s accommodating Federal Reserve policy and, in the words of former Congressional Budget Office Director June O’Neill, “the absence of legislation that meddled with the economy or that had major, long-run spending consequences on the budget.”
There was yet another beneficent outcome of those Reaganite programs: historic budget surpluses. The general prosperity brought in huge sums of revenues to the federal government. Income tax revenues soared. The cap-gains tax reductions generated billions of dollars more. The Social Security Trust Fund was beginning to overflow due not only to jobs increases but enactment in 1983 of proposals recommended by the Reagan-created Greenspan Commission. The end of the Cold War, again courtesy of Reagan, also permitted the surpluses to mount. According to a jointly authored piece by Clinton’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his defense secretary (The Washington Post, Aug. 10, 2000): “This peace dividend, amounting to about $100 billion a year, has been a major contributor to the balanced budget that our economy now enjoys.”
The truth is that the abundance Americans experienced in the Clinton years resulted from his U-turn on his own high-tax, big government agenda. This political pivot not only secured Clinton his second term—his overriding objective for the switch—but it also had the nice side effect of making the country prosperous. So the question is: why should we be listening to Clinton who is adamantly urging an Obama victory when his own success depended on rejecting Obama policies?