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In 1996, the last time President William Clinton spoke at a reelection convention, the United States was enjoying peace and prosperity and he was promising to build a bridge to the 21st century. Having successfully persuaded his party to jettison the repellent liberalism of McGovern, Carter, and Mondale (as well as that of his first two years), Clinton coasted to reelection, the first Democratic incumbent to do so in thirty-two years. In the present day, Clinton has committed himself to the reelection of President Barack Obama, the most liberal Democratic political figure since McGovern, maybe even Henry Wallace. Clinton famously declared the era of big government over, but Obama has presided over its resurgence with a vengeance. Clinton couldn't persuade America to elect his preferred successor amidst unprecedented peace and prosperity, but now he’s asking Americans to re-elect Obama amidst international tensions and a stagnant economy. Clinton may have accused Republicans of living in an “alternative universe,” but his rhetoric suggests he may have finally inhaled. As far as alternative futures go, Obama would have served America if he had emulated Clinton of 1994. Instead, Americans now face a future well-trodden by other nations brought low by excess.
The Recovery America Missed Out On
In 1992, Clinton won the presidency in a three-way race featuring incumbent Republican George H.W. Bush and independent Texas businessman H. Ross Perot. The latter had capitalized on dissatisfaction with Bush, whose foreign policy expertise was unparalleled but seemed confounded by the economic slowdown that had begun in 1991. With Perot establishing the basis for an ostensibly non-partisan critique of Republican principles, Clinton was able to declare himself a “New Democrat,” breaking with the liberal pedigree of previous Democratic nominees. Clinton won by promising to govern in accordance with middle class priorities.
Unfortunately, the twelve year absence from the White House eroded the readiness of the Democratic Party to assume the presidency. Clinton, a masterful campaigner, was notoriously undisciplined. In the first year, Clinton’s vow to focus on the economy “like a laser beam,” was marred by an inability to obtain bipartisan support for his agenda, proposals to permit homosexuals in the military, expensive haircuts, the travel office firings, suspicions of corrupt land and commodity deals, and a close associate’s suicide.
The economy began to recover in 1993, but Clinton nevertheless announced his intent to establish national health care that fall. The resulting plan to place one-seventh of the economy under the control was developed confidentially by a task force led by the First Lady, whose profile galvanized conservative opposition. The long drive concluded in August 1994 when congressional Democrats announced the initiative had failed.
Republican congressional conservatives, led by Representative Newt Gingrich, announced an alternative agenda, the “Contract With America,” and successfully nationalized the 1994 mid-term elections. That year the Republican Party won majorities in the Senate and the House, for the first time since 1954 in the latter.
The degree to which Gingrich and Republican conservatives dominated the subsequent debate left the Clinton memorably protesting, “The president is still relevant here” in April 1995. Drawing on a previous experienced when he was similar rebuked by Arkansas voters after his first term as governor, Clinton regrouped and explored any and all opportunities to co-opt the Republican opposition. Clinton famously “triangulated” a position between conservative Republican and liberal Democrats and then he out-manuevered Gingrich during federal budget negotiations but concluded a deal with him for welfare reform. By summer 1996, Clinton had succeeded in re-positioning himself for re-election.
Arguably, the Republican victory in 1994 saved Clinton from himself.
If Clinton had retained Democratic majorities for the remaining two years of his presidency, it’s unlikely a Democratic Congress would have exercised the fiscal restraint Republicans did. Moreover, Clinton would not have concluded the balanced budget deal, which included a tax cut, in 1997. By 2001, Clinton had presided over three surpluses and an economy growing above four percent for four years. In the aggregate, between 1993 and 2001, the United States experienced 116 consecutive months of economic growth, a decline in unemployment from 6.9 to 4.0 percent, and a reduction in the publicly held debt by $363 billion.
In stark contrast, the Republican “thumpin’” in 2010 prompted no adjustment in Obama’s course. The president failed to develop a working relationship with the minority Republican caucus during his first two years and then relied on his meager experience in the Illinois state senate to size up John Boehner, the new Speaker. Having secured a concession for $800 billion in new revenue, Obama then clumsily requested the Speaker to agree to $400 billion more. The negotiations collapsed and a comprehensive budget deal have remained a remote prospect.
Instead of a budget deal and recovery, America has remained economically debilitated.
As only a foreign observer could observe, “America could be one budget deal away — in the context of economic recovery — one budget deal away from banishing the notion of American declinism.”
The Bullet America Dodged
The Clinton presidency is not the only Democratic template for imagining how a second Obama term would unfold.
Republicans have depicted the 2012 election as 1980 redux given the parallels between Obama and President James Carter. Both won the White House promising a new era in Washington, both tackled peripheral issues (energy, health care) instead of focusing on the health of the economy, and both spurred a resurgence of conservatism. In the election, Reagan trounced Carter and went on to preside over the longest economic boom until Clinton took office.
In 1980, the American economy experienced a sharp recession and Carter was coping with a record high “misery index” and the ravages of stagflation. Carter acknowledged the seriousness of his problems, but the president who declared a “crisis of confidence” could only promise a progress that would come “slowly, … and at the cost of some sacrifice on the part of us all.”
And what were his priorities? Delaying the implementation of a tax cut, increasing the gasoline tax, and introducing national health insurance.
And what was the president’s economic forecast? The Administration lowered five year gross domestic product (GDP) projections downward each year in office, and to underscore its ineptitude, each forecast proved too optimistic.
In its first year, the Administration forecast five-year growth of 5.1 percent; actual growth came in 3.1 percent. By 1980, the Administration forecast five-year growth of 3 percent; actual growth was 2.3 percent.
Upon taking over, President Reagan instituted his economic program of lower taxes and began introducing more realistic five year forecasts immediately. In 1981, the Administration revised the outgoing Carter team’s budget and projected five year growth of 3.8 percent.
The forecast was the last time the Reagan Administration under-estimated economic growth.
In each of the next three years, the Reagan Administration raised their forecasts over the prior year’s; moreover, in each year, economic growth exceeded their projections. By 1984, the Reagan Administration forecast five-year growth of 3.9 percent. Actual growth clocked in at 4.3 percent.
Carter’s economic record may have been abysmal but, unfortunately, his record abroad was even more disheartening.
Camp David Peace Accords aside, Carter presided over discord with American allies and advances by American enemies, such as Cuban intervention in Africa and the communist takeover in Nicaragua.
The hostage crisis in Iran and failed Desert One rescue attempt epitomized Carter’s fecklessness. (The hostage crisis played a major role in undermining Carter’s re-election bid, but the negotiations almost succeeded before the election and would have probably been concluded before the start of a second term.)
However improbable a second term would have been, the question remains whether America would have possessed the capabilities to recover from the damage to its interests from the previous four years is questionable. President Carter initiated the defense build-up brought to full fruition by the Reagan Administration, but he also oversaw the complete evisceration of America’s covert intelligence capabilities. Without these critical tools, America will not have an opportunity to arm anti-communist rebels around the world, including the mujahedin in Afghanistan, whose victory eventually sets in motion the fall of the Soviet Union.
Of the last, Americans need only remember Carter once argued the nation needed to overcome its “inordinate fear” of communism only to undergo a “dramatic change” in opinion after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In contrast, Reagan warned of an “evil empire” only to collaborate with a Soviet leader who would the concede the moral bankruptcy of communism and help consign it to the ash bin of history.
America truly dodged a bullet in having Reagan at the helm instead of Carter.
Bait and Switch
Nonetheless, the above exploration is irrelevant; the alternative future faced today is not the glib aside of a former president but the one of an America unlike the one Reagan or Clinton inherited.
As American scholar Nicholas Eberstadt demonstrates in his latest analysis of government spending, entitlement transfers to individuals have grown 727% between 1960 and 2010, an expansion that inverts the priorities, structure and functions of the federal government in a revolutionary manner when compared to all previous American history.
Obama marks the apogee of the liberal aspiration to expand the entitlement state.
Accordingly, Clinton is so ready to endorse Obama because, perhaps, Obama succeeded where he did not. Forsaking America’s conservative electorate is Obama’s mode of leadership not Clinton’s. Nationalized health insurance is Obama’s triumph not Clinton’s.
Clinton and Obama may helm opposing factions within the Democratic Party, but they are both committed to the success of contemporary partisan liberalism, which depends on expanding entitlements and redistributing wealth. (Tragically, the commitment is bipartisan. Eberstadt additionally notes both political parties have virtually colluded in an “unspoken consensus,” incomprehensibly out-bidding the other with promises to either preserve or increase entitlements.
“The U.S. is a very wealthy society. If it so chooses, it has vast resources to squander. And internationally, the dollar is still the world's reserve currency; there remains great scope for financial abuse of that privilege. Such devices might well postpone the day of fiscal judgment: not so the day of reckoning for American character, which may be sacrificed long before the credibility of the U.S. economy. Some would argue that it is an asset already wasting away before our very eyes.”
Ultimately, the price is an inevitable future -- economic bankruptcy and deconstruction of the American Republic.