I appreciate the opportunity to debate Nelson Lichtenstein, who has gone to the trouble of writing a book about Bill Clinton’s presidency. From that I assume we’d agree at least that it was a consequential eight years—yes, fabulous!—though he evidently sees a tragically missed opportunity to transform capitalism where I see a rare period of effective public problem-solving joined with Democratic political success.
I’ll grant him this: Clinton didn’t set out to transform capitalism, and I suspect that is the root of the progressive left’s critique of him and of radically pragmatic Democrats like me.
My defense of Clinton emphasizes outcomes; Lichtenstein seems more interested in Clinton’s presumed intentions and backstage ideological disputes in the White House. I contend that Clinton’s policy innovations worked in practice, or at least reinforced positive trends already underway in the early 1990s. He thinks they were flawed in concept. That’s a conundrum for the left, because if Clinton’s ideas were so bad, why did they work so well? The litany of governing successes is long: the strongest economy and fairest income distribution in decades; a big drop in both poverty and welfare dependency; major public investments in education, children’s health care, and making work pay, alongside the last balanced federal budget we may ever see; and the intelligent use of trade and diplomacy to consolidate the spread of liberal democracy after the Cold War ended.
Lichtenstein glibly asserts that “many of those policy initiatives ended in failure” without telling us which ones he means or how they failed. The impression of a failed Clinton presidency may be taken for granted in faculty lounges, but it’s not the public’s verdict: Gallup reports Clinton left office with what is by today’s standards an astounding public approval rating of 65 percent. In grading presidents’ performances, the voters get a vote too.
Lichtenstein acknowledges that Clinton emerged on the national stage as a leader of the New Democrat movement, but then claims that he “was hardly a creature of that political tendency.” It’s true that Clinton was intellectually voracious and absorbed ideas from all quarters. But the rationale for his 1992 campaign came straight from the New Democrat playbook. Clinton spent more than two years in intensive study, debate, and wonkish brainstorming around the country on trips organized by the Democratic Leadership Council and the Progressive Policy Institute. The exercise centered on two questions: Why were Democrats failing to win the presidency, and how could they offer voters a forward-looking alternative to the stale orthodoxies of the left and right?
It’s not easy to change a flailing party’s direction and rejuvenate its public image, but Clinton and his allies did. Lichtenstein may not like how we did it, but he offers no alternative theory for why Democrats back then were hemorrhaging voters (especially the working-class voters who were the mainstay of the New Deal coalition) or alternative prescription for rebuilding their electoral appeal.
“It’s the economy, stupid” was a useful slogan, but Clinton also ran on a platform of new ideas and modernizing reforms. Integral to his 1992 victory were his popular plans to “make work pay” and “end welfare as we know it”; to “reinvent government,” not just expand it; and to challenge young people to give back to their country through national service rather than demanding new rights and entitlements. Lichtenstein’s dismissal of such ideas as “small-bore” reflects an economic determinism pervasive on the left but not shared by most U.S. voters. On the stump, I witnessed the excitement Clinton’s new ideas generated among the young, African Americans, blue-collar voters, and independents.
I was somewhat confused by Lichtenstein’s attempt to link Clinton’s supposedly “neoliberal” economic policies with what he calls “a modest welfare state.” In fact, “ending welfare as we know it” was Clinton’s most radical policy change, one that prompted the resignation of several top advisers. Nor was it intended to shrink the welfare state.
The impetus for welfare reform didn’t come from economists, but from governors and mayors frustrated with a failed federal policy that locked low-income families into intergenerational dependence and excluded them from economic participation. Starting with the passage in 1993 of his dramatic expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which put billions into the pockets of America’s working poor, Clinton in fact expanded overall social spending.
Now for the most wrongheaded part of Lichtenstein’s argument. As though reading teachers union talking points, he calls public school choice a “stalking horse” for conservative demands for public subsidies for private schools, which are mostly religious. The exact opposite is true. The progressive abandonment of millions of low-income Black and Hispanic parents with kids in charter schools has created the vacuum that Republicans are filling with universal voucher laws in red states. These parents, and thousands more languishing on long waiting lists, are angry because Democrats have cravenly joined the unions in trying to stifle the growth of better schools for their kids.
Charters were pioneered by Democrats in Minnesota, California, and Colorado, and endorsed by Clinton and President Obama. They are public schools, and the only “threat” they pose to traditional district schools is outperforming them in closing educational achievement gaps. According to a comprehensive 2023 report from Stanford University, “The real surprise of the study is the number of charter schools that have achieved educational equity for their students: we call them ‘gap-busting’ schools.”
There’s a bitter irony here: Progressives, who demand radical changes everywhere else, defend a K-12 status quo urgently in need of an upgrade. With no school reform agenda of their own, it’s no surprise that polls show Democrats losing their historical advantage on education.
This goes to the heart of the left’s beef with Clinton. He was willing to acknowledge when public sector systems fail and to try new approaches. Progressives reflexively circle the wagons when those systems come under fire, seeing demands for reform as “triangulation” or ideological attacks on government. And when they do admit to some public dysfunction, their answer is usually to pour more money into broken systems.
Clinton understood that if you want Americans to support a more active government, you need to show a radical commitment to making it work better. By the time he left office in 2001, public trust in government had actually started to rise. You’d think he’d get more credit from progressives for that.
Their main complaint, though, is about the relationship between the economy and government. For today’s progressives, the only issue that counts is whether you want to aggressively use government to trammel corporate power and pursue their idea of a more equal society. That message splits Americans along the diploma divide: It gets many college-educated white activists and professionals all steamed up but falls flat with the presumed beneficiaries of progressive social engineering—working-class Americans.
Despite all the progressive prattling about the inequities of “late-stage capitalism,” white non-college-educated Americans are firmly in the Trumpian populist camp, and Black and especially Hispanic working-class voters are drifting to the right as well. These voters, like most Americans, aren’t ready to trade market competition and free enterprise, which they rightly link to America’s world-leading living standards and technological prowess, for democratic socialism. They aren’t fixated on government redistribution in the name of equality or social justice; they’re aspirational and want to see a dynamic, growing economy that creates abundant opportunities for good jobs and careers for those who work hard and play by the rules.
As Democrats contemplate how to regain the allegiance of working-class voters, they’d do well to recall that Clinton was the last Democratic President to win them. It’s never easy for parties to learn from their failures, but what’s their excuse for failing to learn from their successes?