Once upon a time there was a Democratic president who, despite his faults, championed the power of markets, technology, and the global economy. He spoke about building “a bridge to the 21st century.” He ratified major trade agreements like NAFTA and the WTO. He supported balanced budgets and signed into law a tough welfare reform. He cut the capital gains tax. He boasted that government spending as a share of the economy fell on his watch. He went so far as to call himself (privately) an Eisenhower Republican.
It wasn’t an accident that Bill Clinton’s policies contributed to a half-decade of prosperity. It wasn’t a coincidence that Clinton, mostly as a result of this prosperity, was and remains popular. It isn’t any wonder that today, almost a decade after he left office, Democrats are clamoring for the ex-president to join them on the stump.
No, what’s surprising is that the Democrats are embracing Clinton while rejecting Clintonism. They’ve forgotten the lesson Clinton learned in 1994. And they’re about to pay for it on November 2.
Indeed, Clinton was still in residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue when the Democrats began rejecting his legacy. The Democrats turned left in 2000, when Al Gore pitted “the people” against “the powerful,” and rogue lefties voted for Ralph Nader. During the Bush presidency, the Nader voters came home, the Netroots stoked liberal fury, and the Democrats abandoned free trade. The party’s economic message became more about redistributing wealth in pursuit of income equality, and less about opening new markets and spurring innovation.
By the time of the financial crisis, the Democrats had convinced themselves that it was 1933. The moment was ripe, the Democrats believed, for the federal government to reassert its authority and push society in a purportedly egalitarian direction, through large-scale intervention in the economy.
The foreign marketplace, which once brimmed with promise for the Clintonites, is now a threat. Construction on the bridge to the 21st century has been indefinitely postponed because someone might make money off it and it might create nonunion jobs. Listen to the current president, and all you hear is antibusiness, trade-skeptical rhetoric. He says the Republicans want to help companies that are “shipping jobs overseas.” Free trade “can grow our economy,” but “our trade deals weren’t enforced very well,” so agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea must be left on the backburner.
For a man who says he’s a “citizen of the world,” Barack Obama seems singularly haunted by the specter of the foreign. Political advertising by interest groups—“could be the oil industry”; “could be the insurance industry”; “could even be foreign-owned corporations”—is somehow a “threat to our democracy.” A Democratic National Committee attack ad uses the phrase “foreign money” twice. Needless to say, none of these charges is supported by evidence. It’s almost enough to make you long for the days of Johnny Huang and the Buddhist Temple, back when Democrats loved international commerce and had no problem taking contributions from foreigners.
The larger context for the “foreign money” canard is the Democrats’ reformed attitude toward globalization. For the Clinton Democrats, global markets brought America riches, ideas, and crosscultural exchange. For the Obama Democrats, global markets bring unemployment, inequality, and American decline. Hence Congress included a “Buy American” provision in the stimulus bill and denied permits to Mexican truckers. Last month the House authorized punitive tariffs if the Chinese don’t appreciate the yuan.
The administration and the Federal Reserve, meanwhile, flirt with trade and currency wars as they depreciate the dollar in hopes of increasing American exports. Once upon a time the global economy was a thriving place with a bright future. As today’s Democrats have it, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. And Americans are victims of forces beyond their control.
What would the economic and political situation be today, we wonder, if the Democrats had stuck to the Eisenhower Republicanism of the only Democratic president to win reelection since FDR? For the lesson the voters taught Clinton is that this really is a center-right country. Conservatives outnumber liberals. The independents who swing elections are a fickle lot who don’t seem to like grand schemes. There’s only so much a center-left president can do in this sort of environment without provoking a reaction. Better to embrace the market—not seek to transform the country—and promote American free enterprise and trade.
Of course, Clinton only learned this lesson after losing Congress in 1994. Maybe history is about to repeat itself. Maybe the presence of Clinton on the campaign trail will shock President Obama and the Democrats into recalling the Third Way. Maybe the president is going to stop talking about government-directed “green jobs” and start talking about privately funded start-ups like Google and Facebook instead.
Or maybe not. In which case, the opportunities for conservatives and Republicans—like the opportunities in the global marketplace—will be endless.