You would not know it from home delivery of the New York Times, but if you are fifty or so the best president of your life time was Bill Clinton. Just on the merits this is a very small sampling of what the “Big Dog”, “America’s first black president”, and yes a flawed man, achieved:
- In a bipartisan agreement with a bitter Republican majority that tried to impeach him, he not only balanced the budget, but paid down debt;
- Main Street and Wall Street broadly shared wealth with the middle class;
- A bipartisan majority enacted welfare reform that moved a substantial number of adults into work and out of poverty;
- Despite three millennia of human failure, Clinton’s leadership halted genocide in the Balkans, imposed a just peace, and tried war criminals without massive loss of US life;
- And on and on the Big Dog’s record goes.
No wonder Millennials and young Democrats are skeptical of capitalism and government. They only know the world shaped by the irresponsible GW Bush tax cuts and Obama’s regulatory sclerotic state capitalism. If you have not lived in a free market sustained boom, but rather only in a burst bubble and over reaction you have no experience of the possibilities for the pursuit of happiness in free market America.
A strong broad based boom as in the Clinton years, provides the wealth to fight poverty, promote conservation, build a strong military deterrent, expand real healthcare, and all the other luxuries of modern life. What the Bush and Obama years did with suppressed growth and war is convert the Clinton dynamic of more for all into a fight over diminished national wealth. No wonder our National Parks suffer under either political party. There is simply not enough money to fund our national aspirations.
The secret to the Clinton years was the Democratic Party’s realization after 1980, 1984, and 1988 that open warfare on capitalism and a nostalgic yearning for New Deal federal programs 40 years after the Great Depression equaled lost elections. President Clinton and many Democrats expanded the party to include capitalists.
The party welcomed businessmen and women willing to support civil rights, education, anti-poverty programs, environmental protections, public lands, and other traditional Democratic priorities. Not Steyer capitalists who made billions and suddenly became anti-capitalists, but real talent. And the party during the Clinton years considered reforms to programs based on relevant business principles. Capitalists were not lauded or placed on pedestals, they were just allowed to participate as Democrats.
And as FDR taught in 1932, the country tested their ideas:
This country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit if frankly and try another. But above all, try something.
And what were those bold ideas?
- Pay as you go – for every new federal program or expense, a matching cut or other way to pay for the program;
- Tax rates designed to capture sustained economic growth and enough revenue to pay down debt in good times;
- No new net spending or entitlements while the debt was out of control;
- A focus on data not partisanship. As one of many examples, President Clinton began the comprehensive Head Start study completed under President Obama;
- Despite the poisonous impeachment debacle, a magnanimous President Clinton repeatedly went back to the well of bi-partisanship offering Republicans prized goals if they would meet the Big Dog halfway on Democratic goals.
The economy exploded with sustained growth shared broadly.
The press characterizes the current split in the Democratic party as progressive/liberal vs. moderates. But that is lazy reporting of an bygone battle. The real lesson of the Clinton years is old vs. new. Democrats abandoned obsolete ideas for new relevant ones. They happened to be tempered but pro-capitalist, innovative socially, and cautiously internationalist abroad.
What we need today is fresh new economic ideas. Not the old Clinton ideas or the even older Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren socialist ideas, but new pro-business and pro-worker ideas. Success in business or finance is not the enemy of the Democratic Party. It is the key to opening the bank vault for social justice.