Saturday, October 1, 2011

Panegyrists and Historical Revisionism

In a new opinion piece for The New Republic, Sean Wilentz argues for the greatness of Bill Clinton because he effectively refocused the Democratic Party on its core ideals, lost during the Reagan Ascendancy. In Wilentz's words:
...He made the nation comfortable once again with the idea that the well-being and future prospects of most Americans require strong and effective leadership by the federal government. It was a matter of common sense, Governor Clinton said in 1991: “Government’s responsibility is to create more opportunity for everybody, and our responsibility is to make the most of it.” These are Democratic ideas, and liberal ones. Bill Clinton reaffirmed, updated, and carried them forward into the twenty-first century.
There is no question--in my mind--that Clinton was an effective President. But his effectiveness was mostly a product of his willingness to forego ideological dogma in the name of political expediency. Couple that with Clinton's good fortune to be President during a period of accelerated economic growth--thanks to corrective economic policies undertaken by the previous two administrations--and what do you get? Happy times, no doubt.

The dominant view of the Clinton era holds that Clinton was hardly progressive in his approach to governance. In fact, on some issues, he was almost conservative. Yet, Wilentz argues that:
Clinton aimed to win back alienated traditional Democrats not by shifting to the right, as some pundits have claimed, but by retrieving basic political principles enunciated by FDR and those successful liberal Democrats who followed him.
But Clinton ran as a New Democrat and was the former chair of the Democrat Leadership Council, hardly sound bona fides for a an FDR wanna-be. The DLC openly opposed populist/progressive economic ideas, arguing instead for market-based solutions.

As President, Clinton instituted DADT, signed off on the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and--something most forget--publicly threatened Iraq with military action. His single major piece of "progressive" legislation--health care reform--was a failure.

Wilentz would have us believe that Clinton sought to eliminate and marginalize the "Reagan Democrats," but the lens of history doesn't show us that. In fact, twenty years later, it shows us the exact opposite: Clinton ran and governed very much as a Reagan Democrat.

Cheers, all.

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