Peter J. Boyer on the Strange Death of Clintonite America

Peter J. Boyer of Newsweek argues that the Obama presidency has in many respects represented a rejection of Clintonism. But at this year’s Democratic National Convention, former President Bill Clinton, a hero to the Democratic base and a not inconsiderable number of independents and swing voters, will play a prominent role. President Obama was often critical of the Clinton years during the 2008 campaign, but he has since done his best to associate himself with the Clinton administration’s triumphs — to the consternation of at least some Clintonites:

With a terrible economy as his greatest vulnerability, Obama has lately taken to claiming Clinton’s economic approach as his own (“we’ve tried our plan, and it worked”)—a reach that galls some Clintonites. “What David Axelrod and Obama have done is they have substituted class warfare for Clintonism,” says Doug Schoen, a Democratic political analyst and pollster (including for Newsweek and The Daily Beast) who has advised both Clintons. “At every juncture, they have substituted class-based politics—resentment of the rich, taxing the rich—for fiscal discipline, and prudence.” It is the view of such centrists that Obama missed his chance to make a bold claim to fiscal responsibility when he declined to champion the recommendations of the debt commission that he appointed—the so-called Bowles-Simpson plan. “It was a failure in leadership,” says Rendell. “It was an instance of politics trumping substance.”

My own view is that the Clinton presidency is overrated, thanks to the happy timing of a stock market bubble and the peace dividend. It is true, however, that the Clinton administration was more explicitly pro-market than Democrats in the post-crisis era, and that it made a number of wise decisions that run in the opposite direction as the Obama administration, e.g., having supported an increase in the top marginal tax rates on ordinary income in 1993, which effectively magnified the preference for capital income (which remained at the same top rate), President Clinton backed a steep cut to capital gains taxes in 1997. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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