05/14/2014 04:36 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2014

What Progressives Owe Bill Clinton

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If progressive Democrats are really interested in restoring upward mobility and reducing inequality, they need only look to the Clinton years for a template of what needs to be done.

With a comprehensive strategy for private sector growth and restoring faith in government, Bill Clinton produced a high growth, high employment, high-income economy that strengthened the middle class and reduced poverty and inequality.

In the 1980s, the American people had lost faith in the Democratic Party's ability to govern our country, manage our economy and keep our country safe. In the three presidential elections preceding Clinton's victory in 1992, Democrats won a smaller percentage of electoral votes than any party had won in three consecutive elections since the advent of modern parties in 1928. Progressive Democrats were an endangered species, and respected political pundits talked about a Republican "lock" on the presidency. It's no stretch to say that Clinton saved the Democratic Party and progressive governance from going the way of the Whigs.

So what did Clinton do and how did he do it?

Because he believed ideas and policies matter, he offered an agenda that recommitted Democrats to our party's first principles: opportunity for all, responsibility from all, and a community of all. Perhaps most important, he understood what too many Democrats forget, that private sector economic growth is the prerequisite for opportunity for all.

The cornerstones of his economic policies were fiscal discipline to create a firm foundation for investment and growth, investments in people and technology to create new jobs and prepare Americans to fill them, and to expand trade to open markets for American products abroad.

He complimented that growth strategy with policies directly aimed at reducing poverty and inequality - like expanding the earned income tax credit, reforming welfare to move people from dependency to work, and implementing empowerment zones and a "new markets" initiative to help communities that lagged behind the general prosperity. His education reforms - promoting tough performance standards, charter schools, and more access to college - aimed at equipping tens of millions of Americans with the tools they needed to get ahead.

Still, other Clinton initiatives strengthened our county's social fabric and sense of national community. Americorps reminded Americans of their civic responsibilities to serve their communities and to give something back to the commonwealth. Community policing helped reduce crime, particularly in our central cities, improving the quality of life and enabling urban areas to become centers of economic activity again.

The result was unparalleled prosperity. During his eight years, the economy created nearly 23 million new jobs and unemployment fell to as low as 3.9 percent, even as the percentage of Americans participating in the labor force was higher than it was before or has been since. When President Clinton left office the median family income was at a record level, higher than it's been since, and all Americans, rich and poor, benefited from that growth. In fact, Americans in the lowest economic quintile saw their average incomes increase more than those in the highest quintile. Nearly eight million Americans - 100 times the number in the Reagan Administration - escaped from poverty.

But what about the future? Do the New Democrat principles and the Clinton template still apply?

In a word, yes. Of course, times have changed. America has seen dramatic changes demographically, socially and technologically since Clinton left office. The challenges are different today than they were in the 1990s, and they will require new and different policies to meet them.

But the core principles Clintonism can inform and guide those new policies. Its animating principle of opportunity for all, its ethic of mutual responsibility, its core value of community, its global outlook, its emphasis on economic growth and empowering government, and its embodiment of values like work, family, faith, individual liberties and inclusion - are as viable and useful for meeting today's challenges as they were for meeting the challenges of the 1990s.

Today's progressives owe an enormous debt to Bill Clinton. He rescued their movement from an existential threat by demonstrating that a progressive Democrat with sensible policies appropriate for their time can grow the economy, create jobs, raise incomes, reduce poverty and inequality, and restore faith in government. That's a foundation Democrats can build upon in 2016 and decades ahead.

Al From is founder of the Democratic Leadership Council and author of The New Democrats and the Return to Power.