"We know how to do this," Hillary Clinton says on the campaign trail, "we've been here before." Clinton argues she represents both the "experience and the change," but from the campaign's beginning, she has presented herself as a restoration, offering a way back to the sun-filled years of peace and prosperity of her husband's presidency.
That she's benefited from her husbands' political legacy goes without saying, but what is striking is how irrelevant -- if not simply wrong-headed -- his policy legacy is to the challenges we now face.
The Clinton years gain luster in contrast to the foul catastrophes of Bush misrule. Hillary has benefited greatly from the experienced political team, the money and machinery put together in those years. She's inherited widespread support among African Americans and working families, who remember the rising wages and high employment of the last years of Clinton (before the dot.com bust). Her husband is a beloved, if yet undisciplined, surrogate on the campaign trail. Each Bush debacle reinforces her claim that "we can make this work again."
But the signature initiatives of the Clinton years -- NAFTA and the corporate trading world, budget surpluses, repealing welfare, posing tough on crime, reducing the size of government, proclaiming the "era of big government is over" -- are part of the problems, not part of the solutions that the next president must face. And as a candidate, Hillary has had to distance herself from many of her husband's core policies.
Corporate trade accords and deregulation of capital and banking were a centerpiece of Rubinomics, the Clinton economic policy of former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. But banking deregulation contributed directly to the mortgage and credit crisis. Unsustainable global deficits have decimated U.S. industry and undermined the dollar. Our economy is dependent on the "kindness of strangers," primarily Chinese and Japanese central bankers. Wages are stagnant; health care and pension promises are being abandoned. A new global economic strategy is imperative. And Hillary gets it: She's called for a "time out" on trade accords, questioned the value of restarting the current global round, and promised a revision of NAFTA.
Balanced budgets -- even paying down the national debt with budget surpluses -- are another sacred idol of Rubinomics, one to which Democrats still pledge fealty. But economic growth -- with rising employment, wages and thus tax revenues -- is vital to balancing the budget. With this troubled economy headed towards recession, with both consumers and lenders tightening their belts, Democrats should be arguing for making the investments vital to our future -- e.g. a bold plan on conservation and new energy, rebuilding our collapsing infrastructure, investing in everything from pre-K to broadband -- as essential to getting the economy going.
Bill Clinton's commitment to bankers' fiscal austerity kept him from arguing for the public investments we need. And of course, his surpluses set up George Bush's raid on the Treasury to pay for tax cuts for the rich. Hillary pledges to balance the budget in each speech, but she's laid out an investment agenda on energy, health care, housing and more that hints she may understand that balanced budgets are the result of economic growth, not the cause of it.
Clinton celebrated the decline in the size of government, with his "reinventing government" looking for ways to privatize and outsource federal work. The results wasted billions, reduced government efficiency, and set the stage for Halliburton's plunder and Blackstone's crimes. Now even Hillary calls for an investigation and rollback of privatization. The next president will, one hopes, once more celebrate public service.
Clinton is praised for disarming "law and order" as a Republican political weapon, putting police on the street and championing harsh sentencing laws from the death penalty to three strikes and out. But the results - in a starkly discriminatory system of criminal injustice - have been truly calamitous to the African-American community, laying waste to the lives and hopes of young men, undermining families, and crippling communities. Now even conservative Republican governors seek ways to lower sentences, let nonviolent prisoners out of jail and balk at enforcing death sentences too often racially skewed.
Clinton's repeal of welfare succeeded in reducing the number of people on welfare, if not the number in poverty. Now, however, the neglected second part of the promise -- making work pay -- is the central challenge. The next Democratic president will be seeking ways to build a public social contract - living wages, health care, public pensions and mandated sick days -- to replace the private benefits that corporations are abandoning.
Clinton hailed America as the "indispensable nation," sustained daddy Bush's military budgets and Cold War weapons systems, defended and exercised the prerogatives of an imperial presidency. After the Bush debacles, the next Democratic president would be well-advised to change course dramatically. Clinton slighted global warming while in office, unwilling to challenge the Congress over Kyoto or CAFE standards. The next president will lead a major drive for energy independence and make America a leading force in the global effort to address catastrophic climate change.
Bill Clinton was a moderate politician caught in a conservative era. He fought a skillful rear guard action in some areas, while co-opting or embracing conservative ideas and policies in many others. The next Democratic president will be elected by a public looking for change in the wake of the catastrophic failures of those conservative ideas. He or she will have the mandate to forge a very different course. Hillary Clinton may benefit in the campaign for our nostalgia for the Clinton years of peace and prosperity. But the next president will succeed only if she or he charts a very different course.