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August 22, 2006

Bill's Misremembered Bipartisanship

Far be it for me to criticize Bill Clinton (or, for that matter, Hillary), but his op-ed today is just nuts. Celebrating welfare reform's better-than-expected results, he generously concludes that "[r]egarding the politics of welfare reform, there is a great lesson to be learned, particularly in today’s hyper-partisan environment, where the Republican leadership forces bills through Congress without even a hint of bipartisanship. Simply put, welfare reform worked because we all worked together. The 1996 Welfare Act shows us how much we can achieve when both parties bring their best ideas to the negotiating table and focus on doing what is best for the country."

Bullshit. Clinton vetoed the first two welfare reform bills the Republican Congress sent him for their unimaginable cruelty -- they were punitive programs, focused on punishing, not uplifting, poor blacks. The third bill sparked the most acrimonious and intense negotiations of the Clinton White House, with the president proving unable to decide his course till the eleventh hour and 59th minute. That's because the bill was never meant to be signed. Here's how Jason DeParle, The New York Times lead reporter of welfare reform, recounts the maneuverings in his remarkable book American Dream:

Gingrich and Dole remained opposed [to passing a plan], and they found a new way to stop it: attaching a "poison pill" that would block grant Medicaid, imposing a huge health care cut Clinton (and his wife) wouldn't abide. Shaw and Haskins couldn't believe it: Republicans were propping up the welfare status quo. A strategy memo from Representative Jennifer Dunn showcased a cynicism stark even by election year standards. Emphasize "the tragedy of welfare and its crushing cruelty for the children," she wrote. But "draw opposition and, probably, a veto." Emphasize the suffering of children, and make sure they suffer some more.[...]
The prospects of a bill improved when Dole resigned from the Senate to campaign full-time; now he could no longer block it. But Gingrich remained firmly opposed. "We're not going to give the president a bill he can sign," he told House Republicans.

Eventually, Gingrich and Co. crafted a bill they thought would split the Democratic Party and sent it to the president. Against expectations, he signed it, gambling that he could repair its most offensive elements during his second-term. On some level or another, he was right. He did improve the legislation. But a bill by Bill -- the welfare reform Clinton wanted -- would have been infinitely better, kinder, more generous, and more successful than the Republican incarnation. Clinton and the Republicans didn't work together -- they worked to undermine him and he sought to foil them. He won. And then he spent the next few years fixing the poison pills and landmines Republicans had added in order to roil the Democratic Party and snooker Clinton. To hold the legislation up as some sort of shining compromise between well-meaning representatives of different philosophies may help Clinton's reputation as a post-political statesman, but it's absolutely false as a characterization of the ugly, cruel, and hyper-partisan genesis of welfare reform.

Cross-posted at Tapped.

August 22, 2006 | Permalink


if you think he misremembered it, the Moose does him one better: "It has been ten years since President Clinton signed welfare reform. At a time when Americans lament dysfunctional government, we should learn from the experience of that legislation accomplishment."

now, it's also been a mere 11 years since the entire government was shut down, the victim of what wittman says was a functional divided government. he has a point. i seem to remember 1995 as a pretty good year all around, and i am open to the idea that slowing down governmental action is a net plus. but man does he have a weird understanding of the world 'dysfunction'.

amusingly, said moose makes use of this momentous occasion to slap the nutroots around a little. what agenda do they have? he asks. the guy willfully ignores what we have to say so that he can continue his intraparty pissing match. what's so damned difficult to understand about a) the revitalization of unions, and hence the middle class, b) universal health care, c) an end to ruinous foreign entanglements, d) cracking down on government and corporate corruption, e) environmental protection...i mean, do i need to list more!?! just because these aren't on the list of the 'vital centrists' doesn't mean it's not a positive agenda.

argh, ok, gotta stop and take a breath. deep breath, and remember this guy isn't screaming on his way down the well.

Posted by: Marc | Aug 22, 2006 11:12:49 AM

sorry, that should have been 'this guy is screaming his way down the well'

Posted by: Marc | Aug 22, 2006 11:14:26 AM

This sounds like a whole lot of splitting hairs. Good reforms got done. What's wrong with feeling good about that? Sausage, anyone?

Posted by: Rick | Aug 22, 2006 11:26:35 AM

Well arguing about whether bipartisanship works may be "splitting hairs", but if you believe that then you'd hardly care about Clinton's editorial. The point being that the Welfare Reform Bill was hardly a careful negotiation, but instead a trick attempted by a very hostile Congress that was foiled by a very partisan President.

Of course, it is a lot more "statesman-like" to write an editorial saying "I worked across the aisle to produce a bill that satisfied all sides" rather than "Republicans played into my hands by letting me sign a mediocre bill that I would be able to liberalize through selective enforcement of its provisions".

Posted by: Tony v | Aug 22, 2006 11:45:41 AM

It matters because it reflects on today and our tommorows. If we, as Democrats, can not remember the past objectively, how on earth are we going to act effectively tomorrow?
In short Clinton is slowing down our momentum going into Novemeber by failing to understand that bipartizanship today means accepting republican policies and ideas and that this acceptance is a receipe for electoral defeat in November, because the voters, democratic, independent and republican, are tired of these failed republican policies and ideas.

Everyone should read the MYDD stratergy memo and clue in.

I don't know what motivates Clinton, but I am beginning to agree with his harshest Democratic critics, that at key moments the big dog has contributed to diminishing the Democratic Party brand with the American voters by putting his needs first regardless of the consequences.
(see here for excellent explanation of this by Gary Wills in the NYRB:

In this respect, Bill is a typical DLC product and needs to be overcome. The fact that he can't think clearly about his own political past is revealing of his character.

Posted by: Northern Observer | Aug 22, 2006 12:02:27 PM

The legislation passed in the '90s was the product of compromise, something that doesn't exist in Washington now because the Democrats have no power base. How those compromises were reached is of secondary importance.

Posted by: Rich | Aug 22, 2006 12:07:12 PM

the guy willfully ignores what we have to say so that he can continue his intraparty pissing match.

Marshall Wittman is not a Democrat. I don't care that the DLC pays him for writing, he's not a Democrat, has never been a Democrat, will never be a Democrat, and AFAIK, he has never said he's a Democrat. Wittman is on the outside of the Democratic party pissing in, and the DLC's sponsorship of the stream raises serious questions about the D in their acronym (as do their policy choices and their other leaders' screeds about the awful Democratic base).

Posted by: paperwight | Aug 22, 2006 12:08:31 PM

Ezra, I just read your piece on Hillary that you linked to above. You write:

"She's a human megaphone, for one, able to focus the press corps on whatever it is she wishes to say that morning. Such a skill would prove invaluable to a legislative leader, allowing her to set the agenda and advance her priorities even from the minority."

I think you might be overlooking the fact that one of the reasons, if not THE major reason the press focuses on her is her "inevitable" presidential campaign and her potential to be the first female president. I believe that a lot of her "star power" is attributable to that and not simply that she was once first lady. The second she announces that she's out of the '08 race, she's just another Senator, whether she's Majority Leader or not. I can't imagine the Time cover "Love Her? Hate Her?" or whatever it is (which I think is pretty sexist, by the way -- am I reading Cosmo?) being repeated if she's "Hillary Clinton, effective Senator" instead of "Hillary Clinton, Presidential boogeywoman." From her perspective then, she might need the '08 race to keep her brand, win or lose.

Posted by: Ryan | Aug 22, 2006 12:17:25 PM

no one would be looking at hillary twice but-for the 'clinton' part of her name. that's as plainly true as the air we breathe.

Posted by: akaison | Aug 22, 2006 12:28:50 PM

It is hard to understand Bill & Hill's motives on this. I can understand compromising on policy, but the DLC seems to intentionally compromise on partisanship, and I see no advantage in it for anyone, even them.

Unless they see what I imagine, that we are approaching a fiscal train wreck, when the only choices are large entitlement cuts or massive tax increases. A lot of people could see the crisis coming for decades, if you presume that Washington will not want to honour the Trust Fund, and never intended to. The Clinton have chosen to be DINOs.

To be fair, the choice is very stark, the politics will be brutal if not violent, I am not certain the nation as we know it will survive the battle, and there may be few established Dem politicos willing to go to the mattresses.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 22, 2006 12:35:30 PM

I wonder if Clinton is not actually misremembering, but trying some election year politicking for the Democrats. He seems to be making a strong distinction between how he - meaning the Demcrats - were able to work with the other side when he/the Democrats were in power. But the GOP government we have now doesn't care about getting things done or doing the right thing, they just want to play their partisan games.

I think it's nice to have a prominent Democrat, and one so closely associated with the DLC, bemoan the present state of extreme partisanship without blaming the Democrats for it.

Posted by: Stephen | Aug 22, 2006 12:37:06 PM

Good reforms got done.

Begs an obvious question. Methinks Rich would have been far happier had either of the first two wefare 'reform' bills been signed.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Aug 22, 2006 12:55:29 PM

Bill Clinton understands politics about as well as anyone who ever drew breath. If he chooses to portray Welfare reform as a triumph of bipartisanship, he has his reasons. One might be to contrast his (and the democrat's) ability to reach successfully across the aisle with the the current president's doltish imcompetence. If the American public likes the idea of bipartisanship, then show them examples of the Democrats acting bipartisanly. But we never forget that they're really a bunch of vindictive, corrupt, backstabbing sons of bitches

Posted by: Paul Gottlieb | Aug 22, 2006 1:22:12 PM

I'm trying to think what an alternate editorial would look like: the Republicans tried to outfox me in 1996, but I got the best of them over the long term, so, therefore, current GOP proposals on welfare should be opposed. Doesn't quite have the same persuasive force, I'm afraid.

Just read this as a welfare policy advocacy piece and not as an historical account, and some of the problems disappear.

Posted by: Brett | Aug 22, 2006 1:46:02 PM

Bill Clinton was a decent President, but let's not forget a HORRIBLE leader of the Democrats. Triangulation worked great for him personally, but wrecked the party.

He took over when the Democrats held the White House, the Senate, the House, most of the state houses, most of the state legislatures and were even in the Courts. He left and the GOP held the White House, the Senate, the House, most of the state houses, most of the state legislatures and dominated the Courts.

And since he left the White House his advice has been routinely horrible - most prominently about the Iraq War. He won't exit to Stage Left - but the Democrats will do themselves no service if they follow him, or elect his wife.

It's more than time for a post Clinton Democratic Party.

Posted by: Samuel Knight | Aug 22, 2006 1:51:26 PM


Uh, no. Don't think. You can only hurt the ballclub.

Posted by: Rick | Aug 22, 2006 2:00:04 PM

And while I'm at it, Paul and Brett come the closest to getting it right here, but ALL of the commenters seem to be missing the point. In this circle jerk you're all having over whether the party benefited or Clinton benefited or if the op-ed was revisionist history, you're ignoring the fact that since Clinton played the politics better than the Brand X guys did, Medicaid worked better, served more people and did so for less taxpayer dollars than it would have otherwise, something neither Reagan nor Bush The Elder nor the Chimp In Chief could accomplish. I'm reminded of the Harry S Truman quote: "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit."

Consensus among the comments, however, seems to be that the more important thing is that the Democratic Party end up looking good. Well, they didn't control Congress then, they don't control it now. Seems to me if the Dems want to look good, they should police corruption within their own ranks (the main reason they lost control in '94) and connect better with the voters. The voters right now want bipartisanship. And if it means you have to call a contentious deliberative arrival at a good piece of legislation "bipartisanship" to win more elections, then you do it. Unless you want you'd rather go back to the professional election losers' method.

Posted by: Rick | Aug 22, 2006 2:22:56 PM

Why is it that those who haven't got a clue as to what the original post was about, let alone the comments, are usually the ones who are the most likely to lecture everyone else about what "the point" is?

Here's an idea. If everyone else is talking about something you aren't and coming to a conclusion that you don't get, maybe the problem isn't with "everyone else."

The Truman quote in particular is quite funny when applied to Bill Clinton. I love the guy, but I've never been fooled into believing that all he does is for pure altruism.

Posted by: Stephen | Aug 22, 2006 3:57:02 PM

Please. It's OBVIOUS why Clinton is trying to paint this picture of working across party lines: A certain senator from New York has been kissing up to Newt Gingrich and others and trying to build a reputation as someone who works across party lines.

Posted by: expatjourno | Aug 22, 2006 4:10:55 PM

Clinton is full of shit. He is the original, DLC, Republican lite, Joe Lieberman prototype. Whenever Billy Bitch had a chance to screw a Democratic constituency group, he would. Just ask the unions and the working classes about the glorious success of NAFTA and GATT. Clinton's idea of "working together" usually consisted of doing whatever the Republicans want. Clinton did what was best for Clinton. He wrecked the party with his triangulation shit. He is the one responsible for the mess it's in now (and finally seems to be digging itself out of, despite Clinton's attempts (aka campaigning for Lieberman) to drag it back down for the sake of his wife).

Posted by: GG | Aug 22, 2006 5:51:40 PM

Methinks Rich would have been far happier had either of the first two wefare 'reform' bills been signed.

It's not about passing any one bill. It's about re-establishing a balance of power that results in legislation that reflects the values of a majority of Americans. That is the how the process of compromise works. As of this moment, there is no such process because the Democrats have zero leverage.

As Bismarck said, politics is about the art of the possible.

Too many of you seem to think that if you don't get everything you want in every single bill that the legislation is a failure. That is precisely the mindset of Bush and the current Republican Congress.

Anyone who thinks Clinton is full of shit is full of shit themselves.

The mere fact that the first two welfare 'reform' bills weren't signed is proof that GG's post is demonstrably false.

Posted by: Rich | Aug 22, 2006 6:42:03 PM

I don't see why we can't have it both ways-- put on a public rhetorical face of bipartisanship for the American people to see, while privately refusing to capitulate to those sons of bitches ever. Whenever there's a disagreement, scream to the heavens that you are being reasonable but those extremists on the other side refuse to meet you halfway because all they do is play politics.

The rethugs get away with this double game on a daily basis. Time to do the same. And more often then not the truth will be more on our side than on theirs. Why is this so hard?

Posted by: the exile | Aug 22, 2006 10:02:53 PM

GG, you need to do a little more deep reading. NAFTA and GATT were excellent treaties that were opposed by labor for fear of job losses that have NEVER been documented. So-called "free-trade" agreements of the current administration bear little in common with NAFTA but the initials, and it is quite simply an unfair comparison. Labor and environmental protections were built into NAFTA, and more were negotiated into it after its passage under amendment provisions smartly included in the treaty. NAFTA also added an additional layer of oversight for anti-dumping and other protections for America (and Mexico and Canada as well). It ain't perfect, but net-net it was good for the U.S. Your words lead me to believe you've only read the propaganda (in opposition), not the actual documents.

Posted by: Rick | Aug 23, 2006 11:00:44 AM

Let's face it - Bill Clinton had and still has charmisma, something that George W is woefully short on. And it's because of Clinton's charisma that the Republicans hated him so much and attacked him for the entire eight years he was in office. Also, Clinton was an excellent speaker, at times a little long winded, but an excellent speaker all the same. No need to tell anyone how that compares to George W.

So it makes no difference what Clinton said in his op-ed. For a guy who lied about his sex life, he still is "believable" when he talks politics and policy.

George W. Bush, however, has lost all credibility, starting with his "I'm a uniter, not a divider", through his lies about Iraq to garner support for his war, and ending with his rhetoric to the press this week in which he claimed he would never criticize or challenge the patriotism of those who disagree with him and that his administration never suggested a connection between Iraq and 9/11.

Because of George W. Bush, it will probably be partisan politics from here on out.

Posted by: Pat | Aug 23, 2006 1:10:26 PM

The majority of people on welfare are POOR WHITES. From Oregon to New Maine, New Hampshire to Florida, Alabama to California. Not Black people, but POOR WHITE AMERICANS. The media have done us a continuous disservice with their portrayals of welfare as a "Black" problem, but then the same can be said of the drug "crisis" this country faces. There are far more WHITE people and abusing crystal meth, heroin and prescription drugs than all the crack addicts combined. This was the case in 1996, and it's the case in 2006, for welfare and drugs.

Posted by: phylastera | Aug 25, 2006 8:34:56 PM

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