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The Real Problem With Bill Clinton

by James Petras

Not long ago, in a pre-impeachment-talk era, Forbes magazine attributed Bill Clinton's economic successes to his implementation of Ronald Reagan's agenda. Corporate-sponsored forums praised Clinton for creating a positive climate for business investors. The reality is even worse: Clinton carried out programs and policies that right-wing Presidents only talked about but were fearful or incapable of implementing.

As a Democrat backed by the top leadership of the AFL-CIO, NOW, and the NAACP, Clinton has been able to divide, disorient, and co-opt the major social opposition to the regressive policies now on the books. His political discourse fundamentally shifted the parameters of political debate onto the terrain of right-wing big business interests, and his actions delivered workers, women, and minorities severe body blows on real issues. He has been able to do this, retain multimillion dollar funding from the AFL-CIO, and the vote-gathering support of feminist and minority leaders, by offering them emotional empathy and symbolic support. That Clinton is, at this writing, dependent on congressional liberals for his defense in a sex scandal only worsens the irony.

The rightward shift of public debate is the most basic change wrought by the Clinton presidency: the end of public welfare, the centrality of budget cuts, the shift from public programs to private charity, the acceptance of free trade doctrines, the legitimation of vast inequalities, and the privatization of Social Security.

Welfare: Clinton took the leadership in leaving millions more Americans, mostly children, hungry, while increasing homelessness, when he declared his opposition to Aid to Families with Dependent Children. He takes the credit for reducing welfare rolls without acknowledging that in New York only 29% of former recipients found full- or part-time jobs. Catholic Charities and other food distribution outlets report double digit increases in the number of families seeking basic food items.

Corporate Regulation: Clinton slashed funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Food and Drug Administration, opening the way for blatant corporate abuses.

Inequality: Pro-business tax cuts, and Clinton's policy of promoting corporate deregulation and export subsidies - combined with his opposition to any progressive legislation facilitating union organizing - has widened the gap between capital and labor. The ratio of a CEO's income to that of a factory worker was 141 to 1 in 1988-89; in 1997 it was 326 to 1.

Environment: Clinton's Secretary of the Interior opened vast Alaskan public lands to oil exploration, a move long favored by oil interests and right-wing Republicans. Meanwhile Clinton is footdragging on the oil companies' behalf in the global warming crisis, failing to pursue regulations or laws that would cut dangerous emissions or otherwise implement the international treaty forged in Kyoto.

Health: Today three million more Americans live without any medical coverage than before Clinton's election. His budgets slashed present and future Medicaid and Medicare spending by more than $150 billion - $7.5 billion disappeared from Medicaid in his 1997 budget alone. Clinton led the charge in redefining the health issue from providing universal care to lowering the cost of care, just as he shifted the definition of political success from achieving public welfare to creating a budget surplus.

Education: Early on, Clinton's proclivity for Big Business's deficit reduction agenda took priority over education. As David Gordon pointed out in 1993, Clinton's first budget led to a 6% cut in spending on education and training programs. The cutback in federal spending for higher education and the shift toward supporting private savings for private education in the long term will foreclose opportunities for low-income families.

Social Security: When Ronald Reagan promoted the idea of lowering Social Security payments (not privatization), his popularity dropped 16% overnight and he withdrew the measure. Clinton on the other hand is in the forefront of those claiming that Social Security is in deep crisis and in need of radical reform. This despite even the pessimists estimating that future Social Security spending will amount to only 6% of the Gross Domestic Product, compared to the average of 7.52% for like programs in all advanced industrial countries. In July 1998, a speechifying Clinton tentatively backed the idea of "some form of privatization," abandoning a sixty-year history of universal, publicly backed funding.

On major social and economic issues, Clinton has backed reactionary policies even Reagan and Bush dared not pursue. The tragedy (if not the farce) is that many progressives still look to the party he leads for reforms. Meanwhile, the left liberal weeklies search for the last "real" Democratic senator or congressperson to justify not cutting the umbilical cord and forming a real electoral choice for the presidential elections in the year 2000. The politics of the "lesser evil" has in fact led to the "greater evil."

Issue #220, November-December 1998

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Dollars & Sense magazine, 29 Winter Street, Boston, MA 02108, USA, provides left perspectives on economic affairs. It is published six times a year and is edited by a collective of economists, journalists, and activists committed to social justice and economic democracy.

Copyright © 2002 Economic Affairs Bureau, Inc.