The Big Dawg – 2 decades later

Miss me?

Sean Wilentz

20 Years Later: How Bill Clinton Saved Liberalism From Itself

October 3rd marks the twentieth anniversary of Bill Clinton’s announcement of his candidacy for the presidency. The distance of time permits some perspective on what Clinton was attempting to do when he set out on his quest.

Since the end of World War II, every Democrat who has sought the presidency has attempted to update the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. In announcing his candidacy Clinton called his reformed liberalism “a new covenant.” By this he meant a revitalized connection between government and the citizenry that rejected the Reagan Republican idea of laissez-faire, but that also reemphasized what Clinton called “the solid, middle-class virtues of hard work, individual responsibility, family, community, and faith.” The phrase “new covenant” did not stick, but the idea behind it would become the guiding light of the Clinton administration for the ensuing eight years. During that time, it offered Democrats and the nation at large a reopened path to the future that had been blocked since the distempers of the late 1960s and, in particular, since the tragedies of 1968.


In his announcement speech, Clinton offered a fresh political synthesis of liberal themes. He forthrightly endorsed the legacy of the civil rights movement and of the feminist victories of the 1970s, including, on the abortion issue, a woman’s individual right to choose. With a Southerner’s experience, he emphasized how divisions over race, still being inflamed by Republicans in the late 1980s and early 1990s, operated to reinforce privilege. That perception led directly to Clinton’s insistence that the interests of the ordinary middle-class ought no longer to be pitted against aspiring minorities. This false opposition, he said, had for too long been a key to conservative political domination. What he did not say—and did not need to—was that some elements of his own party still beheld Middle America with suspicion, if not contempt, as the caricatured “Reagan Democrats” embittered at the cultural impact of the 1960s and taking refuge in backward provincialism.

Clinton aimed to win back alienated traditional Democrats not by shifting to the right, as some pundits have claimed, but by retrieving basic political principles enunciated by FDR and those successful liberal Democrats who followed him. Nothing cost Clinton more political capital inside the left wing of his party than his advocacy of welfare reform. “We should expect people to move from welfare rolls to work rolls,” he proclaimed in his announcement speech. “We should give them the skills they need to succeed and then insist that they move into the workforce to become productive members of society.” These were fighting words to some liberal Democrats. Yet in 1936, in a rip-roaring attack on Republican callousness, FDR had defended those forced on the relief rolls while adding, “Of course we will provide useful work for the needy unemployed; we prefer useful work to the pauperism of a dole.” As a matter of policy, Clinton aimed to return liberalism to its basic ideas, not to forsake its ideals. And in doing so, he would help accomplish the crucial political task of removing from national politics one of the issues that had helped Republicans inflame the middle class against the poor, especially the minority poor, as well as against the Democratic Party.

In order to overcome the Reagan ascendency Democrats needed to advance the rights secured during the 1960s while returning to more traditional political bedrock. To a remarkable extent, Clinton delivered on that promise. In doing so, he made the nation comfortable once again with the idea that the well-being and future prospects of most Americans require strong and effective leadership by the federal government. It was a matter of common sense, Governor Clinton said in 1991: “Government’s responsibility is to create more opportunity for everybody, and our responsibility is to make the most of it.” These are Democratic ideas, and liberal ones. Bill Clinton reaffirmed, updated, and carried them forward into the twenty-first century.

Nowadays you often see some people on the left bashing Bill Clinton as “the best Republican president” in recent history. They will claim that the Big Dawg “betrayed his base” with NAFTA and welfare reform.

As you can see from the article, Bill Clinton campaigned on a promise to reform welfare. As a candidate he supported NAFTA and the death penalty. he was a founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council – a business friendly organization.

You can disagree with him about those things but he didn’t betray his supporters – that’s what he promised as a candidate. And that’s how he got elected.

The Republicans had won the previous three elections by landslides. They won five of the previous six and if it had not been for Watergate they might have won all six.

Under Bill Clinton we had peace and prosperity. He was the only Democrat elected to two full terms in the White House since FDR. He left office with high approval ratings.

You would think the Democratic party would try to build on that success. But instead they tried to repudiate him and purge the party of his supporters.

How’s that working out?

About Myiq2xu - BA, JD, FJB

I was born and raised in a different country - America. I don't know what this place is.
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22 Responses to The Big Dawg – 2 decades later

  1. myiq2xu says:

    I never understood the irrational hatred for Bill Clinton. Back in the 90’s the GOP hated him no matter what he did.

    Now the left hates him even more. If you point out the peace and prosperity they complain about Rwanda and say the prosperity was an illusion.

    • Monster from the Id says:

      The prosperity was not as widespread as I would have liked, but I do not blame Clinton for that. He spent all 8 years of his presidency sailing into a gale-force reactionary headwind, and reactionary politics works to concentrate wealth into fewer hands. Instead of blaming Bill for that, I blame the reactionaries.

      As for Rwanda, what could he have done about that? We can’t police the whole world, and our attempt to do so since the end of WW2 is one of the primary causes of our ongoing economic crisis. 😦

  2. President Clinton- then and now- just gets it. In a way that the current occupier of 1600 never has and probably never will. I wish I could find a decent vid of his 1992 acceptance speech- but I did find this

  3. Bob says:

    He did not originate from the correct social class or region. The fact that he was a Rhodes scholar Ivy graduate was somehow not salient. The woman who married him was/is viewed similarly.

  4. DandyTiger says:

    That peace and prosperity was just awful. It’s so embarrassing that we had that under a Democratic president. Whew, good thing the Dem party flushed all of the Clinton supporters out of their party.

  5. SYD says:

    Wish there was a “love” button.

    Wilentz is the all time supreme Clinton historian. The man knows his stuff! And he tried to warn the Obots in 2008, too.

  6. djmm says:

    Excellent post, Crawdad! The Democratic Party members with CDS are ungrateful wretches. Or do they intentionally want to destroy the Democratic Party?


  7. ralphb says:

    The Democrats paid a little price in 2010 for their foolishness. I’m hoping that when they are washed away in 2012 the message finally sinks in because I would like my party back please.

  8. kc says:

    thank you for this post–having a down day. My Gators got clobbered last night.

    The ‘elites’ of the left are jealous of Bill. He’s smart, articulate and connects with the very people they look down on and that kills them. Maybe jealousy and insecurity.

  9. Dario says:

    Bill Clinton may have tried to save liberalism within the Democratic Party, but the left wouldn’t have any of it and decided to dig its grave by supporting Obama.

    RIP Democratic Party.

    • Monster from the Id says:

      And ironically, they got a significantly more conservative “Democratic” Prez than Bill was, or Hillary would have been. Obummer talked like a DFH–when convenient–but governs like a Republican.

      Nigerian online scammers must love members of the “creative class”. 😈

  10. ralphb says:

    On the Republican side their establishment is trying to take the Obamacrat’s road to oblivion.

    The GOP establishment trap

    The whisper campaign has started already: Herman Cain can’t be elected president. It doesn’t matter that a poll this week by Rasmussen Reports shows Mr. Cain barely outside the margin of error in a head-to-head match-up against President Obama. In Republican offices in Washington and in state capitals across the nation, party functionaries are talking down one of the most attractive new personalities to emerge in national politics in years. This self-destructive behavior has less to do with electoral pragmatism than it does establishment control of the political process.

    Party officials tend to be afraid of the new guy – especially if he’s outspokenly pure on thorny issues – because they like to go with the most predictable option, which typically means an incumbent or party regular.

  11. WMCB says:

    As you can see from the article, Bill Clinton campaigned on a promise to reform welfare. As a candidate he supported NAFTA and the death penalty. he was a founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council – a business friendly organization.

    Ayup. Bill was a liberal American pragmatic centrist. He didn’t betray shit. He did almost all of what he said he would do, and did it well. And it worked, and this country was grand.

    And they hated him for his blue-collar roots, his connection with the smelly uneducated masses, his common sense, and most of all his effectiveness in proving that their ivory-tower cold war radical chic was a hollow academic circle jerk, and his way worked better.

    He helped people. WITHOUT creating a monster of a technocrat State, and WITHOUT spending a fortune. He proved decisively that you didn’t have to destroy America’s underpinnings, and turn her into something else entirely, in order to save her. He didn’t spend his time pining for revolutions and a glorious workers paradise, he just fixed shit. For everyday folks.

    They will never forgive him for showing up their airy fairy academic pipedreams, and succeeding on the grounds of common sense. Never.

    • Yes indeed. They hated him for being. (I was going to put in for being the smartest, for winning, for getting things done and for being popular with the populace.)

    • djmm says:

      “And they hated him for his blue-collar roots, his connection with the smelly uneducated masses, his common sense, and most of all his effectiveness in proving that their ivory-tower cold war radical chic was a hollow academic circle jerk, and his way worked better.”



  12. Monster from the Id says:

    While I am deeply skeptical of both NAFTA and welfare “reform”, I recognize that even worse versions of those things would have happened if a Republican (or Obama, but I repeat myself :twisted:) had been Prez instead. Prez Clinton faced a situation in which decades of lavishly-funded propaganda had created intractable bias in the USAmerican hivemind against a decent and civilized ethos of common provision, and for the supremacy of the corporate elite. Clinton at least tried to minimize the damage.

    I’d say his single biggest mistake was signing the Telecommunications Act of (IIRC) 1996, which accelerated the consolidation of the already too concentrated Corporate Media into fewer and fewer hands. 👿

    Despite these mistakes, Bill is the best Prez to govern the USA in my adult life (I turned 18 in 1981). 🙂

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