A quarter-century ago, Bill Clinton was seeking reelection after spending the first two years of his presidency raising taxes, instituting gun controls, and attempting to create a national health-care system. He had pushed this aggressive agenda despite having been elected with only 43 percent of the vote. It happened due to a split in the non-liberal, non-Democratic electorate—a split that had stripped more than one-third of the uninspiring sitting president’s vote away from him and deposited it instead in the political coffers of an insurgent billionaire lunatic whose innovative anti-establishment approach would finally bear fruit five elections later in the unexpected victory of Donald Trump.
There Clinton was, only the second Democrat in the Oval Office since 1968; indeed, Republicans had resided in the White House for all but four of the preceding 24 years. The circumstances of his ascension to the presidency suggested he might have proceeded prudently and cautiously. Instead, Clinton went for it—and the American electorate responded as soon as it could to his centralizing ambitions by handing control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans in 1994 for the first time in 40 years and installing the GOP as the majority in the Senate as well.
He had overreached, and he knew it. At an October 1995 fundraiser in Houston, Clinton startled the crowd when he acknowledged that “there are people in this room still mad at me at that budget because you think I raised your taxes too much. It might surprise you to know that I think I raised them too much, too.” Washington Democrats who had voted for those increases understandably responded to this apology with shock and some outrage (after all, they also had constituents). Their response led Todd Purdum, then the White House correspondent for the New York Times (and the boyfriend of Clinton’s press secretary), to declare that “the president seldom gets in more trouble than when he tries to explain himself too much to an audience he wants to win over.” This was a foolish bit of analysis, since this was exactly the trouble Clinton wanted to get in. Clinton wanted people to know he thought he had governed too far to the left in his first two years and had learned his lesson.
That became clear three months later, when he stood before the Congress during his State of the Union address in January 1996 and declared, “The era of big government is over.” He celebrated bipartisan efforts at spending restraint: “I compliment the Republican leadership and the membership for the energy and determination you have brought to this task of balancing the budget. And I thank the Democrats for passing the largest deficit reduction plan in history in 1993, which has already cut the deficit nearly in half in three years.” The end result was, Clinton said, “our new, smaller government.”
Clinton then sought to incorporate classic conservative thinking into the reelection message the State of the Union was designed to be. “Self-reliance and teamwork are not opposing virtues; we must have both,” he said. “I believe our new, smaller government must work in an old-fashioned American way, together with all of our citizens through state and local governments, in the workplace, in religious, charitable and civic associations. Our goal must be to enable all our people to make the most of their own lives—with stronger families, more educational opportunity, economic security, safer streets, a cleaner environment in a safer world.” This was Tocqueville as filtered through Ronald Reagan, and it served as an almost explicit rebuke to the two most memorable Democratic speeches of the previous generation, both delivered at conventions featuring presidential candidates who went on to lose in landslides.
In 1980, Ted Kennedy had announced to the throng in New York, “Programs may sometimes become obsolete, but the ideal of fairness always endures….We dare not throw out our national problems onto a scrap heap of inattention and indifference….For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” The dream is the heart of the progressive project—the never-ending journey toward perfectibility through centralized action. Three months later, Jimmy Carter lost 40 states.
And in 1984, Mario Cuomo had electrified the party faithful in New Orleans by declaring that Democrats “believe we must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound one to another, that the problems of a retired school teacher in Duluth are our problems; that the future of the child—that the future of the child in Buffalo is our future; that the struggle of a disabled man in Boston to survive and live decently is our struggle; that the hunger of a woman in Little Rock is our hunger; that the failure anywhere to provide what reasonably we might, to avoid pain, is our failure.” The smoothness of the rhetoric belied the radicalism of the message—for if the country is the family, who are the parents? The answer: Government is the parent. Nearly four months later, Walter Mondale lost 49 states.
By rejecting the statist utopianism of Kennedy and Cuomo and echoing instead communitarian notions of self-reliance and mediating institutions, Bill Clinton broke with six decades of Democratic orthodoxy in a desperate effort to save himself. And in so doing, as I wrote a day after that State of the Union address in 1996, Clinton had “announced the surrender of modern liberalism and conceded victory to conservatives.” Those words appeared in the editorial of the Weekly Standard, the magazine I had co-founded four months before to chronicle the new political era that had begun with the 1994 midterm wave.
The editorial was titled “We Win.”
Later in the year, Clinton signed the welfare reform bill of 1996. Designed to move people “from welfare to work,” this legislation featured the first statutory limitation of the dole since the beginning of the New Deal. The “thought experiment” of ending welfare as we know it was introduced into the national discussion by the conservative libertarian Charles Murray in his 1984 book Losing Ground. He called it a thought experiment because the very notion seemed all but fantastical at the time. Twelve years later, it was the law of the land—and the president who made it so was elected for a second term.
Republicans in Congress had voted for the welfare-reform bill in large majorities, in part because the ideas undergirding it had already been implemented in a Republican state. Wisconsin, then under the leadership of Governor Tommy Thompson, had served as a test case for the efficacy of the program, as it had for school choice—which was a cause as well for Michigan Governor John Engler, who also privatized many state services.
Thompson and Engler were two among a throng of Republican reformists at the state and local levels—elected officials who were advocates for and stewards of more precise, more targeted, more specific programs. Governor Lamar Alexander had pushed for new types of public-private partnerships in his once-backward, then suddenly tech-forward, Tennessee. In Indianapolis, Mayor Steve Goldsmith used innovative technologies to cut costs and improve efficiency. And in New York City, Rudy Giuliani and his team introduced a stunningly successful series of creative crime-control measures that led to the most dramatic decreases in crime in the city’s history and perhaps in all of recorded history.
These men were not libertarians in the mode of Ron Paul, who loathed government in all its forms. They were pragmatists who found liberal nostrums tiresome and useless, and who deployed the quality Alexander Hamilton called “energy in the executive” in their efforts to bring private-sector “best practices” thinking to governance itself. One of their number, George W. Bush of Texas, would successfully leverage the newly enhanced reputation of Republican state officeholders into the White House.
So yes, the right (broadly understood) had “won,” and won in two ways. Conservative thinkers and scholars had spent decades slowly and painstakingly and successfully making the case against the sclerotic centralized government in Washington whose policies had sapped individual initiative, had imposed regulations that stymied innovations and made it more difficult for small businesses to prosper, and had become “the problem, not the solution.” Charles Murray’s welfare-reform revolution was one example of that, as was the broken-windows theory developed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling beginning in 1982 and eventually incepted the anti-crime initiatives that saved America’s cities.
Simultaneously, Republican politicians, who were aligned with conservatives but by no means orthodox followers of conservative ideology, showed undisputable competency in the task of managing government at the state and local levels at the very moment that Democrats nationwide had come to appear hapless (in handling crime in particular) and corrupt (with leaders in the House and Senate embarrassed by petty financial malfeasances).
Meanwhile, liberal clichés about supposed right-wing idiocy were collapsing under the combined weight of historical evidence and the unambiguous failures of left-leaning policies. Crime had made cities, laboratories of Democratic governance, nearly unlivable. Welfare created multigenerational dependency. The liberals whose policies had led to this pass were mostly uninterested in self-reflection; instead, they archly deemed Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts a grave danger to the public weal and his defense spending a danger to the world. Then the economy exploded and the Soviet Union died—and by 1998, Clinton was talking and acting more like a neocon hawk than a conflict-resolution nonsense-peddler at Harvard. In effect, then, Clinton got himself elected president from a losing team and decided to plant the winner’s flag to stay in power.
And after Clinton’s declaration and subsequent electoral success in 1996, the affirmations of the moral and spiritual glories of centralized state action that had once been so eloquently voiced by Kennedy and Cuomo had ceased to play much of a role in our political conversation. His party went along with him, even staying at his side and saving him from disgrace and removal due to an embarrassing sex scandal.
But what exactly had we won? Big government did continue to exist, without question, and was even expanded during the Republican presidency that followed Clinton’s—with No Child Left Behind advancing Washington’s role in education and a prescription-drug benefit expanding out federal entitlements. Following 9/11, the national-security state grew as well. To be sure, there was no sense that its expansion, however urgent it might have seemed, had been deemed necessary to secure the progressive goal of perfecting society. Still, whatever progress had been made toward that fusion of Tocqueville and Reagan was halted by the national emergency. The Republican interest in pursuing innovative and effective local government policies began to atrophy. Mitt Romney tried a health-care mandate in Massachusetts while Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal pushed charter schooling in Florida and Louisiana, but aside from them, the reformist spirit that had energized the party in the 1990s seemed to die out.
The departure from the scene of state and local innovators came at the same time that Republicans in Washington had to confront their own failures in governance. The idea that Republicans were better managers of government than Democrats was belied by the inability to secure victories in Iraq and Afghanistan, by the incompetence with which national disasters (primarily Hurricane Katrina) were handled, by congressional sex scandals involving teenage pages, and ultimately, by the financial meltdown of 2008 that everybody saw coming and no one seemed to have a clue how to prevent. Democrats took the House back in 2006, presaging Barack Obama’s landslide victory in 2008.
Obama restored his party’s pre-Clinton focus on top-down national solutions to pressing problems. His nearly billion-dollar stimulus was, at the time, the most expensive piece of legislation ever passed. He followed it with a partial nationalization of the auto industry, new federal regulatory controls on the banking and financial-services industries, and finally, Obamacare.
Over the course of Obama’s first two years, the grassroots resistance on the right to the expansion of centralized government grew until the midterm election of 2010 delivered a “shellacking” (Obama’s word) that gave control of the House of Representatives back to the GOP after four years and effectively halted the Obama agenda in its tracks. The new Republicans sent to Washington by this energized electorate believed their task was not to govern differently but to anti-govern—to fight governance itself.
Twice, in 2011 and 2013, they forced the shutdown of the government itself. First, they did so to block the previously mechanical raising of the debt limit (necessary simply for the government to pay its weekly bills) as a form of protest against spending—and to show they had come to fight. The second time, they did so based on a cockamamie four-part scheme that was supposed to compel Barack Obama to withdraw or end his health-care plan.
The right’s refusal to capitulate to Obama, and Obama’s unwillingness to find means of compromise with them, led the frustrated president to seize on extra-constitutional means—back-door legislation through executive order—to implement the policies he wanted, especially on immigration. “I have a pen and a phone,” Obama said, as though his will were a proper substitute for the political consensus required to pass a policy proposal in Congress and send it to the president’s desk for his signature.
The dialectic here—the president and the party hungry to use government versus the party and the movement that had lost all faith in government—was toxic, and it began to throw off toxic dividends. Many Republican voters and conservative thinkers began arguing that the GOP was traitorously selling the country down the river. They were either losers, dupes, sellouts, or double agents for American liberalism and leftism garbed in conservative clothing.
Meanwhile, Democrats disappointed that Obama’s election and reelection had not transformed the country the way they had hoped it would began to argue that long-lasting social, cultural, economic, and racial trends were simply too deep-rooted and too heavily defended by the wealthy and powerful to allow for any meaningful change. How could anything get better when the chasm between the rich and the not-rich continued to grow ever wider? How could minorities succeed when “white privilege” created impregnable barriers to their advancement? How could the planet itself survive when capitalist overlords rendered serious action against climate change all but toothless?
That sense of crisis accelerated with the election of Donald Trump. Time was running out, or maybe already had. The phone call from the murderer of their hopes and dreams was coming from inside the house. Whatever residual restraint remained from Bill Clinton’s calculated retreat from big government all but faded away. Leading Democratic politicians embraced so-called “modern monetary theory,” according to which massive government debt would be a net positive for the economy rather than a path to national suicide. They began to believe that Obama had been too prudent and too cautious, that his stimulus bill had been too small, and that he should have pursued cradle-to-grave national health care (as if that bill could have been any larger in 2009 or Medicare for all could have been achieved in 2010). They advocated for massive tax increases on the wealthy, massive programs to lower the global temperature, massive everything. The Democratic presidential debates of 2019 and 2020 were dominated by straight-faced discussions of statist policies like these and others that would have struck an average 1996 Bill Clinton voter as nothing less than insane.
Joe Biden won the nomination and the presidency in part because he did not participate in the promulgation of these extreme policies. He used that fact to his advantage against Trump. “Your party wants to go socialist,” Trump said. Biden responded, “I am the Democratic Party right now.”
And he is. Joe Biden was sworn in on January 20, only three days shy of the 25th anniversary of the Bill Clinton State of the Union address. He is not a socialist, though many in his party are—and their unbridled support for any and every measure that both seems to empower their friends and enrage the right is providing him with momentum. He is an old-fashioned, old-time Big Government Democrat in 21st-century garb. He wasn’t always. In 1996, Biden was one of 24 Democratic senators (out of 48) to support Clinton’s welfare-reform bill, saying on the Senate floor, “We must replace the culture of welfare with the culture of work.” But in 2021, his stimulus bill features a one-year revivification of pre-Clinton welfare policy at the federal level, offering direct federal support without any time limits or work requirements—the two key elements of the changes Clinton and Co. borrowed from the Republican policies in Wisconsin. Word from Democratic wonks is that the administration will try to make the change permanent next year. And he is reaching back beyond Obama, beyond Clinton, and beyond Jimmy Carter to find his inspiration in Lyndon Johnson’s effort to remake America as the Great Society.
But, as Biden would say, here’s the deal. Lyndon Johnson won the 1964 election with 61.1 percent of the vote. Biden won 51.3 percent. Democrats came out of that election with 68 Senate seats; right now, Democrats have 50. Biden’s party has a five-seat majority in the House. After the 1964 election, Democrats had a majority of—wait for it—155.
So, yes, the era of big government is back.
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