Bill Clinton's odious presidency: Thomas Frank on the real history of the '90s

Welfare reform. NAFTA. The crime bill. Prisons. Aides wondered if Bill knew who he was. His legacy is sadly clear

Published March 14, 2016 3:50AM (EDT)

Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton gives the thumbs up sign as he speaks to a gathering at the University of Toledo in 1992. (AP)
Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton gives the thumbs up sign as he speaks to a gathering at the University of Toledo in 1992. (AP)

Excerpted from Thomas Frank's new book, "Listen, Liberal"

Everyone remembers the years of the Bill Clinton presidency as good times. The economy was booming, the stock market was ascending, and the mood was infectious. You felt good about it even if you didn’t own a single share.

And yet: What did Clinton actually do in his eight years on Pennsylvania Avenue? While writing this book, I would periodically ask my liberal friends if they could recall the progressive laws he got passed, the high-minded policies he fought for—you know, the good things Bill Clinton got done while he was president. Why was it, I wondered, that we were supposed to think so highly of him—apart from his obvious personal charm, I mean?

It proved difficult for my libs. People mentioned the obvious things: Clinton once raised the minimum wage and expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit. He balanced the budget. He secured a modest tax increase on the rich. And he did propose a national health program, although it didn’t get very far and was in fact so poorly designed it could be a model of how not to do big policy initiatives.

Other than that, not much. No one could think of any great but hopeless Clintonian stands on principle; after all, this is the guy who once took a poll to decide where to go on vacation. His presidency was all about campaign donations, not personal bravery—he basically rented out the Lincoln Bedroom, for chrissake, and at the end of his time in office he even appeared to sell a presidential pardon.

It’s easy to remember the official, consensus reasons why we’re supposed to admire Bill Clinton—the achievements which the inevitable Spielberg bio-pic will no doubt illustrate with poignant and whimsical personal glimpses. First was the economy, which did really well while he was in office. So well, in fact, that we had something close to full employment for several years while the Dow hit 10,000 and the Nasdaq stock index went effing vertical—flush times that are almost inconceivable from our present-day vantage point. Yes, the bubble burst soon after he left office, but so what? Surely those glory years of Wall Street trump everything.

The other great source of the Clinton myth is the insane vendetta against him launched by the Republicans—what his former aide Sidney Blumenthal has called the “Clinton Wars.” The attacks began soon after Clinton took office—the Whitewater pseudoscandal actually made page one of The New York Times in 1992—and the Clinton Wars were so outrageously unfair that you couldn’t help but stand behind their victim. Clinton’s enemies spent millions trawling Arkansas for his old paramours. Congress actually impeached the guy for lying about a blowjob.

For many of the authors who have examined the Clinton presidency, the Clinton Wars eclipse everything else. For instance, take Carl Bernstein, the eminent journalist who wrote a meticulously researched biography of Hillary Clinton, Bill’s wife and “co-president.” So many of the pages Bernstein allots to the couple’s White House years are filled with details about Vince Foster and the Travel Office and the Independent Counsels and the Grand Juries and the missing billing records that Bernstein ultimately relegates Bill Clinton’s actual achievements as president to a few desultory paragraphs here and there.

The Clinton Wars were what politics was all about, and Bill Clinton won those wars. The priggish, boorish, pharisaical right raged against him, and he soldiered on. He defied the Republicans and got himself reelected even as his party lost control of Congress. He outmaneuvered the GOP during the budget wars of 1995 and ’96 and convinced the public to blame his rivals for the government shutdown.

Good economic times and victory in the Clinton Wars: These two are enough to secure the man a spot among the immortals. In fact, before the Crash of 2008, my fellow Washingtonians tended to regard the Clinton administration as an obvious triumph. This was what a successful Democratic presidency looked like. This was the model. To do as Clinton did was to follow the clearly marked path of wisdom.

Evaluating Clinton’s presidency as heroic is no longer a given, however. After the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000, the corporate scandals of the Enron period, and the collapse of the real estate racket, our view of the prosperous Nineties has changed quite a bit. Now we remember that it was Bill Clinton’s administration that deregulated derivatives, that deregulated telecom, and that put our country’s only strong banking laws in the grave. He’s the one who rammed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through Congress and who taught the world that the way you respond to a recession is by paying off the federal deficit. Mass incarceration and the repeal of welfare, two of Clinton’s other major achievements, are the pillars of the disciplinary state that has made life so miserable for Americans in the lower reaches of society. He would have put a huge dent in Social Security, too, had the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal not stopped him. If we take inequality as our measure, the Clinton administration looks not heroic but odious.


Some believe it is unfair to criticize President Clinton for these deeds. At the time of his actions, they recall, each of the initiatives I just mentioned were matters of almost universal assent. In the tight little group of credentialed professionals who dominated his administration as well as the city they worked in, almost everyone agreed on these things. Over each one of them there hovered a feeling of inevitability and even of obviousness, as though they were the uncontroversial policy demands of history itself. Globalization wanted these things to happen. Technology wanted them to happen. The Future wanted them to happen. Naturally the professional class wanted them to happen, too.

The term Clinton liked to use to summarize this sense of inevitability was “change.” This word is, obviously, a longstanding favorite of politicians of the left; what it means is that We the People have the power to shape the world around us. It is a hopeful word. But when Clinton said in a speech about free trade in 1993 that

“Change is upon us. We can do nothing about that.”

he was enshrining the opposite idea as the progressive creed. Change was an external force we could neither escape nor control; it was a reality that limited what we could do politically and that had in fact made most of our political choices for us already. The role of We the People was not to make change but to submit to its dominion. Naturally, Clinton thought to describe this majestic thing, this “change,” by referencing a force of nature: “a new global economy of constant innovation and instant communication is cutting through our world like a new river, providing both power and disruption to the people and nations who live along its course.”

Clinton spoke of change the way other politicians would talk about God or Providence; we could succeed economically, he once announced, “if we make change our friend.” Change was fickle and inscrutable, an unmoved mover doing this or that as only it saw fit. Our task—or, more accurately, your task, middle-class citizen—was to conform to its wishes, to “adjust to change,” as the president put it when talking about NAFTA.

The first time I myself tuned in and noticed some version of this inevitability-speak was in 1993, during that fight over NAFTA. The deal had been negotiated by the departed president, George H. W. Bush, but the Democratic majority in Congress had balked at the original version of the treaty, forcing the parties back to the table. As with so many of the achievements of the Clinton era, it eventually took a Democratic president, working with Republican members of Congress, to pass this landmark of neoliberalism.

According to the president himself, what the agreement was about was simple: “NAFTA will tear down trade barriers,” he said when signing it. “It will create the world’s largest trade zone and create 200,000 jobs in this country by 1995 alone.” The stationery of an outfit that lobbied for the treaty was emblazoned with the argument: “North American Free Trade Agreement—Exports. Better Jobs. Better Wages.”

But it wasn’t reason that sold NAFTA; it was a simulacrum of reason, by which I mean the great god inevitability, invoked in the language of professional-class self-assurance. “We cannot stop global change,” Clinton said in his signing speech.

The phrase that best expressed the feeling was this: “It’s a no brainer.” Lee Iacocca uttered it in a pro-NAFTA TV commercial, and before long everyone was saying it. The phrase struck exactly the right notes of simplicity combined with utter obviousness. Globalization was irresistible, the argument went, and free trade was always and in all situations a good thing. So good, it didn’t even really need to be explained. Everyone knew this. Everyone agreed.

Yet there were people who opposed NAFTA, like labor unions, for example, and Ross Perot, and the majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives. The agreement was not a simple or straightforward thing: it was some 2,000 pages long, and according to reporters who actually read it, the aim was less to remove tariffs than to make it safe for American firms to invest in Mexico—meaning, to move factories and jobs there without fear of expropriation and then to import those factories’ products back into the U.S.

One reason the treaty required no brains at all from its supporters is because NAFTA was as close to a straight-up class issue as we will ever see in this country. It “boils down to the oldest division of all,” Dirk Johnson wrote in The New York Times in 1993: “the haves versus the have-nots, or more precisely, those who have only a little.” The lefty economist Jeff Faux has even told how a NAFTA lobbyist tried to bring him around by reminding him that Carlos Salinas, then the president of Mexico, had “been to Harvard. He’s one of us.”  

That appeal to class unity gives a hint of what Clintonism was all about. To owners and shareholders, who would see labor costs go down as they took advantage of unorganized Mexican labor and lax Mexican environmental enforcement, NAFTA held fantastic promise. To American workers, it threatened to send their power, and hence their wages, straight down the chute. To the mass of the professional-managerial class, people who weren’t directly threatened by the treaty, holding an opinion on NAFTA was a matter of deferring to the correct experts—economists in this case, 283 of whom had signed a statement declaring the treaty “will be a net positive for the United States, both in terms of employment creation and overall economic growth.”

The predictions of people who opposed the agreement turned out to be far closer to what eventually came to pass than did the rosy scenarios of those 283 economists and the victorious President Clinton. NAFTA was supposed to encourage U.S. exports to Mexico; the opposite is what happened, and in a huge way. NAFTA was supposed to increase employment in the U.S.; a study from 2010 counts almost 700,000 jobs lost in America thanks to the treaty. And, as feared, the agreement gave one class in America enormous leverage over the other: employers now routinely threaten to move their operations to Mexico if their workers organize. A surprisingly large number of them—far more than in the pre-NAFTA days—have actually made good on the threat.

Mexico has not fared much better. In the decades before NAFTA, its economy often grew rapidly; since NAFTA was enacted, Mexico has experienced some of the feeblest growth of any country in Latin America, despite all the stuff it now makes and exports to the U.S. The country’s poverty rate has not changed much at all while every other country in the region has made considerable progress. One reason for all this is the predictably destructive effect that free trade with American agribusiness has had on the fortunes of millions of Mexican family farmers.

These results have never really shaken the self-assured “no-brainer” consensus. Instead, the phrase returns whenever new trade deals are on the table. During the 1997 debate over “fast track,” restricting the input of Congress in trade negotiations, Al From, the founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, declared confidently that “supporting fast track is a no-brainer.” For some, free-trade treaties are so clearly good that supporting them doesn’t require knowledge of their actual contents. The influential New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, for example, still thought so when the debate was over an altogether different treaty. “I wrote a column supporting the CAFTA, the Caribbean Free Trade Initiative,” he told Tim Russert in 2006. “I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade.”

Twenty years later, the broader class divide over the subject persists as well. According to a 2014 survey of attitudes toward NAFTA after two decades, public opinion remains split. But among people with professional degrees—which is to say, the liberal class—the positive view remains the default. Knowing that free-trade treaties are always for the best—even when they empirically are not—seems to have become for the well-graduated a badge of belonging.


One of the strangest dramas of the Clinton literature, in retrospect, was the supposed mystery of Bill’s developing political identity. Like a searching teenager in a coming-of-age movie, boy president Bill roams hither and yon, trying out this policy and that, until he finally learns to be true to himself and to worship at the shrine of consensus orthodoxy. He campaigned as a populist, he tried to lift the ban on gays in the military, then all of a sudden he’s pushing free trade and deregulating telecom. Who was this guy, really?

How the question used to vex the president’s friends and advisers! There was “a struggle for the soul of Bill Clinton,” said his aide David Gergen just after the Republicans took Congress in 1994. A month later, Clinton’s press people (to quote the hilarious deadpan of the Washington Post) were actually forced to deny “that Clinton lacks a sense of who he is as president and where he wants to go.”

Clinton’s wandering political identity absorbed both his admirers and biographers, many of whom chose to explain it as a quest: Bill Clinton had to prove, to himself and the nation, that he was a genuine New Democrat. He had to grow into presidential maturity. And the way he had to do it was by damaging or somehow insulting traditional Democratic groups that represented the party’s tradition of egalitarianism. Then we would know that the New Deal was truly dead. Then we could be sure.

This was such a cherished idea among New Democrats that they had a catchphrase for it: Clinton’s campaign team called it “counter-scheduling.” During the 1992 race, as though to compensate for his friend-of-the-little-guy economic theme, Clinton would confront and deliberately antagonize certain elements of the Democratic Party’s traditional base in order to assure voters that “interest groups” would have no say in a New Democrat White House. As for those interest groups themselves, he knew he could insult them with impunity. They had nowhere else to go, in the cherished logic of Democratic centrism.

The most famous target of Clinton’s counter-scheduling strategy was the civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, the nemesis of the party’s centrists and the living embodiment of the politics the Democratic Leadership Council had set out to extinguish. At a 1992 meeting of Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, with Jackson sitting to his left, Clinton went out of his way to criticize a controversial rapper called Sister Souljah who had addressed the conference on the previous day. The exact circumstances of Clinton’s insult have long been forgotten, but the fact of it has gone down in the annals of politicking as a stroke of genius, an example of the sort of thing that New Democrats should always be doing in order to discipline their party’s base.

Once Clinton was in the White House, counter-scheduling mutated from a campaign tactic to a philosophy of governance. At a retreat in the administration’s early days, Bill’s chief political adviser, Hillary Clinton, instructed White House officials how it was going to be done. As Carl Bernstein describes the scene, Hillary announced that the public must be made to understand that Bill was taking them on a “journey” and that he had a “vision” for what the administration was doing, a “story” that distinguished good from evil. The way to dramatize this story, the first lady continued (in Bernstein’s telling), was to pick a fight with supporters.

You show people what you’re willing to fight for, Hillary said, when you fight your friends—by which, in this context, she clearly meant, When you make them your enemy.

NAFTA would become the first great test of this theory of the presidency, with Clinton defying not only organized labor but much of his own party in Congress. In one sense, it achieved the desired results. For New Democrats and for much of the press, NAFTA was Clinton’s “finest hour,” his “boldest action,” a deed befitting a real he-man of a president who showed he could stand up to labor and thereby assure the world that he was not a captive of traditional Democratic interests.

But there was also an important difference. NAFTA was not symbolism. With this act, Clinton was not merely insulting an important constituency, as he had done with Jesse Jackson and Sister Souljah. With NAFTA he connived in that constituency’s ruin. He assisted in the destruction of its economic power. He did his part to undermine his party’s greatest ally, to ensure that labor would be too weak to organize workers from that point forward. Clinton made the problems of working people materially worse.

It is possible to regard this deed as fine or brave, as so many New Democrats did, if you understand the struggles of workers as a Depression-era cliché you’ve grown sick of hearing. However, if you understand those workers as humans—humans who contributed to Bill Clinton’s election—NAFTA starts to appear like a betrayal on a grand scale. To this day, for working people, the lesson of NAFTA glares like the headlight of an oncoming locomotive: These affluent Democrats do not give a damn about inequality except as an election-year slogan.

Workers were the first casualties of Bill Clinton’s quest for his New Democratic self. But the journey went on. The next great milestones were his big, first-term legislative accomplishments: the great crime crackdown of 1994 and the welfare reform measure of 1996. Both were intended to swipe traditional Republican issues and to demonstrate Clinton’s independence from the so-called special interests.

Back in 1992 Clinton had briefly departed the campaign trail to return to Arkansas and be visibly present while his state went about executing one Ricky Ray Rector, a convicted killer who was so mentally damaged he had no idea what was happening to him or why. Clinton’s design was to signal his toughness and thus avoid the fate of Michael Dukakis, whose presidential run had been done in by TV commercials suggesting he was too much of a wuss to keep dangerous black men behind bars. In the precise words of Christopher Hitchens, Rector was a “human sacrifice” for Clinton’s presidential ambition.

The reasoning that led Clinton to turn the Rector execution into a ritual appeasement of the electoral gods brought him, in 1994, to call for and then sign his name to the most sweeping police-state bill that postwar America has seen. Among other things, the measure provided for the construction of countless new prisons, it established over a hundred new mandatory minimum sentences, it allowed prosecutors to charge thirteen-year-olds as adults in some cases, and it coerced the states into minimizing parole. It also increased the number of federal death penalties from three to sixty, including some for nonlethal offenses—and this from a political party that in 1972 had called for the abolition of capital punishment in its platform.

This was the age of “three strikes,” of “truth in sentencing,” of “zero tolerance,” and Clinton’s aides referred to their bid for mass imprisonment as “upping the ante,” as though it were a poker game with the Republicans. Winning that game was the subject of boasting for Democrats. Said Joe Biden, then a Democratic senator from Delaware, during the debate on the bill:

The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is now for 60 new death penalties. That is what is in this bill. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party has 70 enhanced penalties.  . . . The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 100,000 cops. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 125,000 new State prison cells.

None of this happened because of an increase in crime, by the way—violent crime had actually crested several years before—but rather to demonstrate Clinton’s hard-heartedness. “The one way Bill Clinton defined himself as a different Democrat was his tough position on crime,” said Senator Joe Lieberman on the occasion of the bill’s passage. “And he has redeemed that promise.”

In an ugly coda that was delayed by about a year, the ’94 law also allowed President Clinton personally to decide the fate of the infamous 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.  The former drug was thought to be the scourge of the planet—and 88 percent of the people arrested for it were black—while the latter, even though it was essentially the same thing, was regarded as just another harmless yuppie crime. Handing down prison sentences of many decades for one drug but not the other was both racist and insanely cruel. But Clinton went out of his way to ensure that this practice continued. The number of young black citizens who, in this manner, lost years of their lives to advance Bill Clinton’s journey to political manhood will probably never be known. Let a thousand Ricky Ray Rectors burn, but please God, get this man reelected.

Unfortunately for Bill Clinton, building the greatest gulag in the world was not enough to demonstrate his disregard for the lives of the poor. The right actually mocked the 94 crime bill as a kind of government handout to the poor. He would have to do more.


Historians of the Clinton presidency generally skip over the punishment craze into which he led the country in the mid-Nineties. It is hard to account for if the framework you’re applying to those years is one in which Clinton was the victim of right-wing persecution. Those who do acknowledge Clinton’s part in the Big Clampdown either depict it as a great success in the fight against crime—which it was not—or else describe it in superficial Washington terms: He got a great big law passed through Congress, thus proving that he could be an effective bipartisan leader.

Besides, in rhetorical terms, Bill Clinton has always been a steadfast opponent of mass incarceration. In 1991, he said he thought it was awful that “we are now the number one nation in the world in the percentage of people we put in prison.” In 1995, just two weeks before he signed the crack/powder cocaine law, he declared that

blacks are right to think something is terribly wrong . . . when there are more African American men in our correction system than in our colleges; when almost one in three African American men in their twenties are either in jail, on parole or otherwise under the supervision of the criminal system.  

In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2000, Clinton said, “the disparities are unconscionable between crack and powdered cocaine. I tried to change that.” In 2008, he said he was sorry for the crack/powder cocaine law. And then, when every presidential candidate began talking up prison reform in 2015, he apologized again, this time saying that the 1994 crime bill was “overdone” and thus implying that he hadn’t really meant to throw so many people in prison.

And maybe that’s what really matters. Maybe that will suffice to get Clinton off the hook on the day when some future Truth and Reconciliation Commission finally starts parceling out the blame for the generation-destroying policies of those years.

But I doubt it. Someday we will understand that the punitive hysteria of the mid-1990s was not an accident; it was essential to Clintonism. Taken as a whole with NAFTA, with welfare reform, with his plan for privatizing Social Security and, of course, with Clinton’s celebrated lifting of the rules governing banks and telecoms, it all fits perfectly within the new, class-based framework of liberalism. Clinton simply treated different groups of Americans in radically different ways—crushing some in the iron fist of the state, exposing others to ruinous corporate power, while showering the favored stratum with bailouts, deregulation, and a frolicking celebration of Think Different business innovation.

Some got bailouts, others got “zero tolerance.” There was really no contradiction between these things. Lenience and forgiveness and joyous creativity for Wall Street bankers while another group gets a biblical-style beatdown—these things actually fit together quite nicely. Indeed, the ascendance of the first group requires that the second be lowered gradually into hell. When you take Clintonism all together, it makes sense, and the sense it makes has to do with social class. What the poor get is discipline; what the professionals get is endless indulgence.

Excerpted from Thomas Frank's new book, "Listen, Liberal"

By Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and "One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.

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