WITH AMAZING SPEED, the euphoria of Bill Clinton's January inauguration turned to slush. Clearly President Clinton is already on the defensive. His most stinging defeat came on April21, when Republicans in the U.S. Senate crushed his weak stimulus package through a filibuster. But Clinton could not—or did not—organize his Democratic forces in Congress for a decisive confrontation; the $16 billion plan became a mere $4 billion extension of benefits to the long-term unemployed.
Many observers, including ourselves in our previous editorial (ATC 44), had expected Clinton's initial economic package to be enacted without much Congressional resistance, given the weak-to-absent recovery. Instead, perceived as weak, Clinton has been unable to get Democrats to accept his leadership and operate in a disciplined manner. Unable to defend his own, woefully inadequate stimulus package from the frenzied worshippers of the golden calf of deficit reduction, Clinton has seen his plans unravel.
Clinton's fiasco, of dumping Lani Guinier's nomination to head the Justice Department's civil rights division, did more than make the President look like a fool.
It proved him to be hostage of right-wing veto power, incapable of making a political fight on anything, even when the African-American political establishment, civil rights advocates and liberals were prepared to-mobilize in his support. Guinier's crime, as judged by political-correctness standards of the right wing, is her theories on how existing voting rights legislation might be employed to make minority political more substantive than purely formal.
The speed with which Clinton wimped out of any open debate, that hearings on her nomination would have provided, on the failures of the electoral system as presently constituted handed the right wingers their victory without even forcing them to fight for it.
The early political successes of the Clinton administration were signing a family leave bill that Bush had twice vetoed, reversing Executive Orders that had restricted women's access to abortion and announcing that the United States will sign the international biodiversity treaty to protect endangered species. But in comparison to the domestic agenda that Clinton promised to carry out, these are minor victories—and new polls show his approval ratings in the mid-thirties.
Within the month of the stimulus bill fiasco, Clinton suffered another defeat. His plan to give businesses a tax break to encourage new investment—a plan that was not supported by business—was killed in Congressional committee. Making his weak political position even worse, moreover, in order to reduce the deficit Clinton proposed an energy tax that would represent one of the largest tax increases in U.S. history.
Clinton now appears on the defensive on every front. At the beginning of June administration officials announced Clinton has decided to delay increasing the minimum wage (now at $4.25) until next year, and will propose something less than the $1-an-hour raise he contemplated when he took office in January. Why? His advisers acknowledge the proposal antagonizes business executives and conservatives in Congress.
If there's one thing Clinton hates, it's a fight over principle. Although he promised to rescind the Executive Order that hounded gays and lesbians out of the military, Clinton allowed Congress and the military to orchestrate hearings that overwhelmingly want to maintain the ban By mid-May Congressman Barney Frank, one of the few openly gay representatives, urgently called for a compromise on this issue—before Congress legislates homophobia!
The only decisive action the administration has taken was the use of psychological terrorism and overwhelming firepower resulting in the massacre of a religious cult in Waco, Texas. (Unlike certain other religious fanatics, the Branch Davidians to our knowledge were not firebombing medical facilities that provide abortions or assaulting those who work at them.) In all matters Clinton is guided by the light of "realism:" Clinton now carries out Bush's policy of surrounding Haiti so that refugees cannot flee the country's repressive military; he has backed away from the demand that those who use public lands pay above-cost fees. He has delayed until September the promised announcement of health care reform, the wretched managed-competition scheme that will enhance the health, mainly, of giant insurance corporations.
The overwhelming problem facing the Clinton administration—just as it defeated the Bush administration—is the U.S. economy, which is in the middle of a "jobless recovery" In other recoveries, as the economy grows, factories and offices start rehiring. We are nearly now two years into a recovery that continues to be fiat. Layoffs at big corporations are continuing. So we still have 73% unemployed.
During the late '80s the big companies were laying off, but the small companies were hiring at the rate of 175,000 a month. In February 1993, the economy added 365,000 workers—but that included a good chunk who are part-time, or temporary workers. Currently small companies would need to increase their hiring by about 400% in order to bring the unemployment rate down to six percent But when Clinton raised the idea of cutting capital gains taxes for small businesses that used their capital for investment, business wasn't even interested!
Today the United States has a divided and poorly paid work force. Unionization in the private sector stood at 12% in 1991. One out of five full-time workers earns poverty level wages. The earning power of the minimum wage has dropped 23% over the last decade. Forty-three percent of the young workers (between 18-23) are locked into minimum wage jobs. And the majority of the 37 million people who don't have any form of health insurance are working people. Part-time work is growing rapidly. Today it is 25% of the total work force by the end of the decade the figure will balloon to a full 4O%.
Early on in his administration Clinton talked about the need to rebuild the U.S. infrastructure. He talked about money for mass transit, highways, job training, fiber optic networks. Certainly, after the Reagan-Bush era starved the cities, cutting aid by 81%, the infrastructure of all our metropolitan areas is literally falling apart But Clinton could not sustain the fight for a paltry $16 billion—yet if we were to compare the amount of money other industrialized countries put into their infrastructure, we'd realize what a drop in the bucket Clinton's already abandoned goal was. To spend at the British level, we'd need $100 billion a year, to compare with Germany we'd need $200 billion, to equal Japan we'd need $300 billion.
For twelve years the right wing had a good friend in the White House. That stamped the Reagan/Bush era as one in which the rich become much wealthier and those in charge of enforcing civil rights used their power to subvert those rights. But this relationship is not intrinsically necessary for today's neoliberal economic order. Neoliberalism can be implemented under either hard-right Republican meanness or smiling Democratic "shared sacrifice." Bill Clinton campaigned successfully by splitting the difference; his problem in office is that holding together a governing coalition on that basis is a little harder.
The simple fact is that the ruling class in this country—that is, the super-rich who own the major corporations and the banks—have no interest in sharing any-thins with the rest of us, or even in sparing Clinton from political humiliation.
The President's announced program for universal inoculation of children in this country against deadly diseases was blocked when the pharmaceutical giants complained that a government inoculation program would not pay them enough for the vaccines. Proposals for the mildest, token raise in marginal tax rates for the rich and the corporations are virtually dead on arrival. It's clear that the political establishment and the powerful sections of capital want no interference with their free-market prerogatives, even for purposes of economic stimulus.
In this political situation, Clinton had two choices. The first was to water down his own program to essentially nothing, to get something passed through Congress purely for appearance's sake. The second was to force a fight by taking a populist message to the people. Since the last thing Clinton wants is for people to begin fighting for themselves, he logically and inevitably chose capitulation and face-saving
Caught in the traps of its own making—particularly the loony logic of deficit-cutting in a time of lingering recession—the Clinton administration may already have entered its phase of disintegration. It's still early to say if this will be irreversible. What's already clear is that this administration is no friend of the movements; that any hopes that it might carry through any bold problem of economic reconstruction are pathetic illusions; and that the sooner activists at the base of labor, people of color and feminist struggles recognize this, the better.
July-August 1993, ATC 45
The September/October 2017 Against the Current (#190) features: