09/15/2010 03:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

It's Not Just Maddow: Bill Clinton Once Called Himself a Republican

When Bill Clinton complained the other night about Rachel Maddow's characterization of him as "the best Republican president we've ever had," he was right to note that nowadays lots of people on the right think he's a Communist. Of course, that's hardly a compelling basis for judging someone's lefty bonafides. By the standards of today's right, virtually anyone who isn't a right-wing crackpot runs the risk of being branded a Communist.

An arguably better standard for judging Clinton's placement on the American ideological scale is his own words. Here's what he is widely reported to have lamented, in April, 1993:

"Where are all the Democrats? I hope you're all aware we're all Eisenhower Republicans...We're Eisenhower Republicans here. Here we are, and we're standing for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market. Isn't that great?"

And one could reasonably note that Clinton ended up moving further to the right on key issues subsequent to April of 1993.

If you want to argue that Eisenhower Republicans are themselves communists in the eyes of today's right-wing -- well, fair enough. And Maddow was, in part, being provocative. But consider the views of one of Clinton's former chiefs of staff, Leon Panetta, now Obama's CIA chief, on the question of where Clinton fits in ideologically:

When he was making the decisions about the economic plan, his concern was: "How much of a price are Democrats going to pay in this process?" And, "Here I am, a Democratic president with the opportunity to really make a difference in people's lives, and that's what Democrats are all about." . . . He would share that frustration, and I think that's one of the reasons he fought so hard for health care, he fought so hard for the education issues. He fought so hard for issues related to the environment, because in the end, he did balance out. . . He doesn't have to worry about going down in history as just a Democrat turned Republican. I think he can probably go down in history as a Democrat.

That's pretty tepid, no?

Of course, however Panetta or Maddow or Clinton chooses to label Clinton is arguably of little import, ultimately.

But what did strike me as significant about Clinton's comments was that one of the prime examples Clinton gave to defend himself from Maddow's charge was welfare reform, the landmark 1996 legislation that abolished Aid to Families with Dependent Children and replaced it with TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families).

Anti-poverty programs were a bedrock of 20th century, New Deal and Great Society liberalism. In the newly racially charged political environment of the 1960s and 1970s, those programs, pejoratively branded as "welfare," became a focus of right-wing attacks, championed by the likes of Ronald Reagan. In 1992, responding in part to successive Democratic defeats, Clinton had promised to "end welfare as we know it" as part of his New Democrat strategy for taking back the White House. And perhaps he needed to attack welfare -- with all of its racially loaded meanings -- in order to win the Presidency. In any event, the Republicans included welfare reform in their 1994 Contract with America. After they won control of both Houses of Congress that year, Clinton got on the reform bandwagon, albeit insisting on a series of progressive modifications to the Republicans' reform proposals.

But to invoke welfare reform -- which Clinton signed in 1996 not to appease his liberal base, after all, but to undercut possible attacks by his Republican opponent, Bob Dole -- as an implicitly liberal (i.e. non-Republican achievement) is emblematic of how far to the right American political elites have moved on economic issues in the past generation.

Particularly problematic in Clinton's trumpeting of welfare reform as a progressive achievement is his assertion that greatly reduced welfare rolls are a valid metric of success. As Clinton himself undoubtedly knows, just because a person leaves the rolls, it doesn't follow that they're better off.

And as Jim Newell points out, the recent downturn has only exposed the awful consequences of the 1996 eligibility limits for the many people straddling the poverty line.

The Clinton/Maddow spat is just a passing fancy. But the nature of Clinton's defense of himself says something deeply depressing about the shifting center of gravity of political discourse in an era of historically high levels of inequality, as well as elite complacency about that inequality.