Life at the Bottom

Chris Bertram, in the course of knocking Bill Clinton’s accomplishments, argues:

There is a criterion that any progressive government ought to meet. It is one that I might quibble with in a seminar but not in life. A progressive (left, liberal, social-democratic government) ought to alter social arrangements so that they work significantly more to the benefit of the the least-advantaged members of society that they did when that government came to power. Well, The Wire is fiction, and I’ve never visited the West Side of Baltimore, but did Clinton make a difference in places like that? And are the Valleys of South Wales less (or more) hopeless places than they were ten years ago?

Not only is The Wire fiction, but it’s set during the Bush II years and based heavily on reporting that David Simon did in the Reagan-Bush years. In the real world, violent crime dropped substantially in American cities during the nineties. And then there’s the poverty rate. Consider this data from EPI’s report “Reversal of fortune: Economic gains of 1990s overturned for African Americans from 2000-07”:


Again, things got better during the nineties. Did they get as good as they ought to be? No. But if the trends that existed during Bill Clinton’s administration has continued for eight additional years instead of being reversed, things would be much better than they are today.

Meanwhile, Bertram derides “‘in the circumstances’ excusing” on behalf of both Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. But the circumstances are importantly different. In the American context, you can’t change the laws more than congress will agree to change the laws. The positions Clinton outlined were consistently more leftwing than the positions adhered to by the median members of congress (conservative southern Democrats in 1993-94 and conservative Republicans in 1995-2000). If Clinton had staked out a bolder, more leftwing position, it wouldn’t have made any difference. Conversely, had congress enacted Clinton’s health care plan, we’d say that Bill Clinton was, along with FDR and LBJ, one of the three great architects of the American welfare state. That didn’t happen, but not because Clinton was too much of a sellout — it happened because congress wouldn’t approve his proposal.

That made for a disappointing administration in many respects, but not for lack of trying on the part of the administration. And despite Clinton’s difficulty in enacting large-scale semi-permanent institutional change, his tenure in office really did make life much better for people at the bottom.