Clinton's Failures Are Our Own

As the Clinton presidency draws to a close, let me be the first to offer a post-mortem for progressives.Clinton's two terms in office have been a disappointment and a missed opportunity. But the failure has been not Clinton's so much as our own.Progressives shouldn't expect presidents, entering in shining armor, to push the country to major progressive change. Pushing is the job of movements and organized constituencies. Presidents can ride the waves of public energy well or badly. And they can craft movement demands into a legislative agenda. But to ask a president to initiate a progressive tide is a misplaced hope.Consider the Clinton health-care debacle. Both Clintons -- Hillary and Bill -- should have done better. But, given all we know about campaign financing, the insurance industry, and the structure of free-enterprise in America, did we really expect a president to restructure 1/7th of the US economy without being massively pressured to do it?I'm not pointing fingers. Progressive groups tried -- some tried hard -- to mobilize public opinion around a truly progressive agenda for health care. We made inroads. But we didn't succeed in energizing a core constituency in the streets, and we didn't create a climate in which the "Harry and Louise" ads would be brushed aside by viewers.Much the same happened with Clinton's now-ridiculed "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military. Or with Clinton's about-face on Lani Guinier. Or on welfare reform. Although progressives tried, we just never were able to spark the kind of sustained public mobilization that would force a president to sit up and take notice.The personalities of presidents differ, and this kind of pressure may be especially important for Bill Clinton. Just after the 1992 election, Zach Polett wrote an article in Social Policy about his experience as a community leader with governor Clinton. Polett made two salient points.1. "If you build it, he will come," Polett wrote. And Polett pointed out-prophetically, perhaps, "Clinton doesn't like to go out on a limb; he won't act on a measure, even if he agrees with it, until it has clearly demonstrated popular support. Once he's persuaded public support is there, however, Clinton will take up the banner and get action."2. "Clinton likes to play the role of broker between competing interests. His style is to work hard to move everyone to the center. He wants to work 'both' sides of an issue and keep 'both' sides happy."Was Polett right, or are Clinton's true colors more conservative than he thought? Seeing Clinton's reaction to Seattle's WTO protests might be a sign. The President seemed happy to jump out in front of the media and treat the protesters as radicals who needed to be appeased. He looked pleased to be moving to "the middle" by moving to the left. For a few days he even shocked his advisors with talk of including labor rights in the WTO. Clinton backed away, of course. But then again, so did we.Even our best presidents have operated this way. Franklin Roosevelt didn't push the country to the New Deal; it was the country that pushed him. As a famous -- if possibly apocryphal -- anecdote has it,when Frances Perkins explained the idea of Social Security to Roosevelt, FDR is reported to have said: "OK, now go out and make me do it."That's what we should expect from presidents, and that's what we should look for: people who, under the right circumstances, will craft a savvy legislative agenda out of movement-based demands.Clinton's record is a mixed bag. On the one hand, he held the ground on abortion rights. He looked comfortable around people of color and women with power. On the other hand, he badly fumbled health-care reform, though he first deserves credit for putting it on the agenda. NAFTA was an embarassing default to corporate America, and welfare reform was a travesty. As for Monica and impeachment -- the less said the better.But, looking back, it's clear that, try as we might, progressives never succeeded in pushing Clinton very hard.David Dyssegaard Kallick is senior fellow of the Preamble Center (, and is former editor of Social Policy magazine.

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