When Bill Clinton ran for the White House in 1992, I was deeply annoyed. He represented so much that we, on the left, despised: the reaction within the ranks of the Democratic Party’s elite that wanted to "save" the party from what it saw as the excesses of a combination of the New Left, the already declining trade unions, and, most importantly, the Rainbow cultivated and mobilized by Jesse Jackson’s two runs for the presidency (1984 and 1988).
The Democratic Leadership Council, the "left-wing" of the Republican Party, wanted to be able to rely upon the mass base of the unionists and people of color, but it did not want the unions and the civil rights organizations dictating its agenda. Clinton was the DLC in 1992. He was despised by the rank and file trade unionists, most of whom turned out to vote for Jerry Brown and Paul Tsongas (who had already left the race) in the Connecticut primary. Brown opposed NAFTA and endorsed the concept of a living wage, both positions anathema to Clinton. Few of us on the left went into that general election, and into the Clinton years, with any illusions.
Indeed, Clinton was true to his word. On "free trade" (NAFTA), Clinton led the way, pushed by the Wall Street moguls who ran his cabinet. His assault on the working-class was brutal, with three bills in particular targeted to hem in the "disposable Americans" from being too rowdy or having any means to social democratic relief; the 1994 Crime Act, the 1996 Welfare Reform Act and the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. The Crime bill sent more police into the streets of a jobless urban America, and it sent those who should have been in school and in jobs to a vastly expanded penitentiary.
The welfare reform bill threw families to the wolves, breaking down the already modest social welfare system in place that helped, in particular, single mothers. There was no compassionate liberalism for this section of the working class. The Glass-Steagall bill was decimated in cahoots with the repellent Phil Gramm; the walls that separated the divisions of finance, real estate and insurance, and between commercial retail and investment banks crumbled and set the stage for the current banking crisis. The victims here are the working-class, who are going to pay the largest share of the skyrocketing national debt.
Ralph Nader’s run for the presidency in 1996 was perhaps his most important gesture, although he did not earn even a million votes. Against the dyspeptic Bob Dole, Clinton had to win (the only primary challenge, briefly, came from the late Bob Casey of Pennsylvania). What protected Clinton were two features: (1) he was an incredibly charismatic person. I saw him in Hartford during his second term, and was surprised by his ability to connect to people even in the superficial way of modern retail politics. (2) the massive attack from the right over his sexual relations with an intern had liberals, and even some on the left, circling the wagons to defend him. The braying of the right was so abhorrent and hypocritical that Clinton gained some measure of forgiveness from those who were otherwise livid with him. It was in this context that Toni Morrison said that he was being treated like a black man: given no quarter, shown no mercy, but treated as guilty as charged without any consideration or process (the O. J. Simpson affair ran from 1994 to 1997, and is the fore-runner of the impeachment proceeding which began in 1998).
But now, finally, Clinton has given us some honesty. He has opened his heart during this primary season, joining Hilary Clinton in pandering to the Old South, the hard-core racist white bloc that was never reconciled to Civil Rights, that continues to blame blacks for the vivisection of their economic fortunes. It is this bloc that handed Hilary Clinton the primaries of Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia and Kentucky. Knowing full well that the world has changed, West Virginia’s senator, Robert Byrd, hastened to endorse Obama even as his state went to Clinton by 40 percentage points.
Byrd is the arch segregationist [and former KKK member] who filibustered the Civil Rights Act for fourteen hours. The New South, energized by the enfranchised black vote, is in formation, but it has not yet made it to West Virginia and Kentucky (black population is 3.3% and 7% respectively). Bill Clinton strode through these white towns, which have voted Republican in the general election since at least 2000. He used coded racist language, that Obama does not speak for "people like you," and suggested that Obama is defined by his race whereas Hilary Clinton is not. These suggestions played well in the electorate, a substantial number of whom said that they would never vote for a black man. This is Clinton’s final legacy: the intensified racism of his policies in office are now openly declared in his gambit against Obama for Hilary Clinton. A man who lied about and then admitted that he had betrayed the trust of a young intern now says that Hilary Clinton has been a victim of "moments of gender bias." Nothing said about his own sexist behavior with women like Paula Jones or his racist and sexist policies while in office.
In the current issue of the "New Yorker," George Packer has a useful article on the shambles that has befallen institutional conservatism. The subtitle of the article asks, "Have the Republicans run out of ideas?" Much the same kind of obituary is necessary for the DLC, which mirrored the Republican idea machine. Packer does not raise this issue. The DLC is equally marooned on ideas that are not so much anachronistic as failures (they were bad ten years ago as well). The Republicans have begun a period of rethinking, but most of their thinkers are allergic to revision. For them it is encore un effort! Much the same for the DLC, whose people are more interested, like Karl Rove, in winning elections than in the importance of governing (Mark Penn is Rove’s DLC doppelganger). Will there be new ideas and policies to befit the structural problems that bedevil the world population, or even just the US population? Will Barack Obama revive a mild version of the New Deal, a green capitalism, or will he too become entangled in yesterday’s bad ideas? This is not on the table. What we have is the enduring racism of the Clintons and their DLC legacy shaping the next Democratic presidency.
If Obama has done one thing that is already monumental it is that his campaign has brought out vast numbers of black voters, inspired by his presence and his message of hope, and they, in their numbers, have offered both a sterling critique of Diebold and a redemption of the hollowed Voting Rights Act. Their numbers made the difference in the special elections in Louisiana and in Mississippi, and it will make all the difference in the general election. This black voting bloc is a standing rebuke to Clinton’s presidency and to the racism of the Clintons. Obama has done this much. What more he can do is to be seen.