By Alan Bean
Only Bill Clinton can hold an audience through fifty minutes of uninterrupted wonkery. His speech at the Democratic Convention displayed rhetorical skill, a keen grasp of policy detail and a deep understanding of political reality that only comes with painful experience. They say convention speeches have little lasting impact. Clinton’s performance last night may qualify as the rare exception.
But I’ve got a problem.
Mr. Clinton’s triangulating legacy is a big part of the mess we face as a nation. The Man from Hope mastered the art of the deal. He met his opponents half way. He stole their best material. The new corporate aristocracy could live with a free trading Democrat like this.
Thanks largely to the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the speculative bubbles that followed in its wake, the middle class prospered on Clinton’s watch. But the poor and the vulnerable (the folks Friends of Justice, and God Almighty, cares about the most) have paid a dreadful price for Clinton’s political success.
In 1996, Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Act that ended welfare as we know it. The plan worked reasonably well where job markets were strong. But in many small towns and urban neighborhoods the move from welfare to work, wonderful in theory, didn’t translate to the street. Now that the job market for the poorest 20% has virtually disappeared, Mr. Clinton’s chickens are roosting everywhere.
And that’s just for starters. As Michelle Alexander has pointed out to devastating effect, Mr. Clinton perpetuated and extended the war on drugs, a major driver of mass incarceration. True, this ill-conceived crusade was aided and abetted by the Black Congressional Caucus, the NAACP and the civil rights community in general. No one wanted to stand up for drug dealing thugs. An underground economy born of despair was widely condemned but rarely understood. No one could afford to understand it.
Clinton’s record on immigration was abysmal. This comment from 1996 typifies his attitude:
We must not tolerate illegal immigration. Since 1992, we have increased our Border Patrol by over 35%; deployed underground sensors, infrared night scopes and encrypted radios; built miles of new fences; and installed massive amounts of new lighting. We have moved forcefully to protect American jobs by calling on Congress to enact increased civil and criminal sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers. Since 1993, we have removed 30,000 illegal workers from jobs across the country.
It sounded sensible at the time, unless you were one of the 12 million undocumented workers who came to America looking for a decent job or to be reunited with family. Clinton’s support for NAFTA dispossessed thousands of Mexican farmers, many of whom saw a desperate flight America as the only solution to their dire economic problems. Clinton’s focus on deportation has born poisonous fruit. According to journalist Seth Wessler:
For the last decade and a half, rates of deportation have steadily risen. In 1992, the U.S. government removed 44,000 people, a historical number at the time. In less than two decades, that number has grown ninefold. In fiscal year 2011, a record-breaking 397,000 people were removed from the U.S. because of their immigration status.
Bill Clinton liked immigrants, just like he liked poor Black people; but he was so far removed, socially, economically and psychologically, from the harsh world of poverty that, repeatedly, he backed the wrong policy horse. He failed to understand that, for the vast majority of the American undocumented, there is no legal path to citizenship.
There is a big difference between the Republican Marco Rubio and the Democrat Julian Castro. Because Rubio’s family hails from Cuba, they were welcomed to America just like my white ancestors who arrived in Pennsylvania and South Dakota.
But as Julian Castro shared in his speech earlier this week, his grandmother came to San Antonio from Mexico during a period when you could still cross the Rio Grande with relative impunity. His mother, Maria del Rosario Castro, was a key organizer with La Raza Unida, a Chicano political party that gave Latinos their first entree into Texas politics in the 1960s and 70s. For this, she is frequently despised as an America-hating radical.
Mexican nationals who cross the Rio Grande today live in constant dread of the border patrol, ICE officials and the rest of the bloated bureaucracy currently feeding on the carcass of anti-immigrant fervor. People living in mixed-status families are often afraid to leave their homes for fear of arrest, detention and deportation. When this occurs, it can be weeks, even months, before loved ones know what happened.
Marco Rubio’s family avoided these indignities by virtue of coming to the United States from a communist nation. Refugees from Guatemala, Peru and, yes, Mexico, receive a very different reception. For these brave men and women there is no immigration process, no line to stand in, no legitimate path to citizenship. They either enter America without documentation, or they surrender to a hopeless plight.
I am not suggesting that Bill Clinton is responsible for mass incarceration, mass deportation, or the rapid deterioration of America’s poorest neighborhoods. Facing a tidal wave of intolerance, dread and ignorance, Clinton did what it took to survive politically. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell wasn’t his idea of a sensible policy; it was simply the best idea available at the time.
I have been moved, encouraged, even inspired by the speakers at this year’s Democratic Convention. The party’s unapologetic embrace of marriage equality, the DREAM act, and women’s issues is significant. The party’s rejection of free market fundamentalism and trickle down fantasy is refreshing.
But huge problems remain. We will never comes to grips with the debt problem until we shrink our military to one-third its present size. We cannot justify, on moral or economic grounds, spending more on our military than the rest of the world combined.
Bill Clinton survived by meeting corporate America half way. Neither he nor president Obama can match the Right’s willingness to hew wood and draw water for the big money boys, which is why the Romney campaign is way ahead in the donation game. But will the Democrats construct an economic policy that is sure to anger potential donors?
If we left the decision to Elizabeth Warren, perhaps. If it’s up to Rahm Emmanuel (or virtually everyone else in Obama’s trusted inner circle), you can forget about it. In America, you can be realistic about balancing the budget or you can be in the tank for the multinational corporations, but you can’t be both. A financial culture dedicated to short-term profit regardless of the cost will not tolerate sane economic policy. So long as we’re chasing the next speculative bubble we’re chained to the boom-bust roller coaster.
Could Bill Clinton have succeeded without giving away half the farm to money and militarism while caving in to drug war and anti-immigrant passions?
Can Barack Obama win re-election if he tells us the truth about immigration, the Israel-Palestinian question, the national debt and a thousand other issues?
Can any politician, of whatever ideological stripe, tell the American people that the American dream is gone and it ain’t coming back?
Can we expect to hear our leaders admit that America, for all her military might and financial clout, is no better and worse than any other nation or that, red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in God’s sight?
To ask these question is to answer them.
The sky is not falling any time soon. It is possible that neither global warming nor the next great depression will unfold in my lifetime. But gradually, year-by-year, the earth’s temperature will rise and the plight of the American middle class will worsen. The slow-boil may come too gradually for most of the frogs in the American kettle to realize what’s coming, but come it will.
And that’s why our politics of denial is such a tragedy. Middle-of-the-road politicians keep their heads above water by cutting deals and triangulating. Potential leaders who speak an approximation of the truth are dismissed, by virtually everyone, as crackpots and extremists.
We can no longer blame the Republicans or the Tea Party for our plight. When Bill Clinton moved the Democrats to the political center, the Republicans (and their corporate masters) were forced to the extreme Right. Republican incumbents can no longer cut deals with Democrats without losing the next primary contest to a no-comprises Tea Party zealot. What worked for Bill Clinton will not work for Barack Obama. The Republicans don’t oppose the president even when he steals their old ideas because they are mean or crazy; they do it because they are afraid. If Obama wins re-election we will see four more years of gridlock.
The alternative, of course, is Mitt Romney, a man who has reversed course on every substantive issue from abortion to health care to immigration in order to claim his party’s nomination. Like Bill Clinton before him, Mr. Romney is the victim of American denial. It’s not his fault. There is little he can do but grind his teeth in the night. This is the America we all live in and nobody, me included, knows how to fix it.
Most likely we will never return to an America in which every decade provided greater prosperity than the last. We’ve had a good run since the late 1930s, but the rest of the developed world has caught up with us and, in some respects, is passing us by. We don’t work harder, faster or smarter than other nations, not anymore.
Nor can the world’s economic pie keep expanding forever. An environmental crisis is just around the corner. How sad that Mitt Romney used fears of global warming in a failed attempt at humor, while Barack Obama made only one fleeting reference to the issue. Ten hears hence, the environment will have seized our attention and we will be lamenting our present inattention.
The question is not whether we can return to a world of endlessly expanding prosperity. The question is how we are going to manage the transition from more to less. Will we lapse into total denial? Will we endlessly extol the American Dream circa 1952? Or will we chart a bold new course rooted in community building and an ethic of enough?
Barack Obama’s speech suggests that he knows more than he can say. He made little attempt to inspire. His tone was serious. He made the expected paean to American greatness, but refused to promise an easy future. Instead, he called for cooperation and shared sacrifice. He called on the corporate community to value job security over instant profits.
How did this play in the board rooms of America? Not well, I suspect. But it was good to hear the words nonetheless. The president was rolling the dice, betting that we are ready for that kind of message.
I am. What about you?