The Clinton Legacy

Max Sawicky and Anne Lewis debate over at TAP Online. My own take, abstracting away from nitty-gritty policy details is this:

Ronald Reagan, as I’ve noted before, stormed the barricades flying the banners of small government and budget cuts. Once in office he discovered, however, that while people thought they thought government was the problem, they actually liked the programs that accounted for the bulk of the budget. Nevertheless, small-government nostrums propelled the GOP to re-election in 1984 and 1988. What Clinton did was lance the boils — the mistaken impression that Democratic spending was primarily responsible for budget deficits and that the unpopular Aid to Families with Dependent Childen (AFDC) program was a major component of federal expenditures — and thus lay the groundwork for bringing people’s first-order love of government into line with their second-order beliefs about the desirability of big government. Unfortunately, this psychic reconstruction only took place after the GOP had seized control of congress, which prevented Clinton from implementing any grand domestic agenda.

The Bush administration’s conduct in office, however, demonstrates the extent to which the reconstruction really has taken place. Since the Bushies don’t care about good policy, we haven’t gotten any good policy, but since they do care about politics, we’ve gotten a lot of policy. The terms of today’s political debate take place on liberal terms — if you have a problem with your health care or your kids’ school, it’s the federal government’s responsibility to solve that problem. It is taken for granted that the environment should be cleaned up through federal regulation. This is liberalism. That administration policies will not, in fact, improve your health care, fix your kids school, or clean your air is noteworthy (this is why you shouldn’t vote for Bush), but not ultimately decisive. The parties are bound to alternate in power, the really important issue is what will the good guys be able to achieve when they have power. Hence, the centrality of the terms of debate. Bush has accepted liberal terms, and Bill Clinton deserves a great deal of credit for that fact.

Now of course it’s hard to totally abstract away from policy specifics. The other big thing Clinton did was convert the Democratic Party from a mercantilist one to an at least sporadically free trading one. I think this was a good thing. Others disagree. And we’ll probably have to agree to disagree.