No, Bill Clinton Was Not a Progressive President

It was none other than the prolific writer Toni Morrison who opined back in 1998 that Bill Clinton was like the “first Black President” because of the way he was being hounded by Kenneth Starr and the media, and it’s a meme that has caught on over time for people who want to emphasize the ways in which the former President has always supposedly been “down for the cause” of progressive politics. We hear about the wonderful “Clinton economy” in the ’90’s and supposed advances in civil rights and women’s rights during his tenure. But given the fact that William Jefferson Clinton himself is now apologizing for some of the very non-progressive policies he enacted, it’s worth looking at how his actual record stacks up against his often-glorified legacy. (*)

President Barack Obama honors former President Bill Clinton the medal of freedom at a White House ceremony in November, 2013.
President Barack Obama honors former President Bill Clinton with the medal of freedom at a White House ceremony in November, 2013.

Among the policies he’s admitted he was wrong to pursue, there’s the deregulation of Wall Street and repeal of the FDR-era Glass-Steagall Act, massively enhancing the so-called “war on drugs” by attaching ridiculously out of proportion mandatory sentencing requirements, trade agreements such as NAFTA which “painfully drove up drug prices around the world” and devastated Mexico’s agricultural economy, and the signing into law of one of the most bigoted anti-LGBT laws in history. A Huffington Post article cites the example of the former president expressing his regrets as evidence of a Clinton tendency to “own up to his mistakes”, but is that really the case or is he just cynically trying to appeal to the progressive left in the country, given his wife’s urgent need to appeal to them in order to become the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 2016?

When it came to the economy, William J. Clinton was just as much in bed with the corporate masters of Wall Street and the big banks as his successor. It was Clinton who gave Bush Jr. a jump-start on wrecking the economy when he put his signature in 1999 to the Wall Street-backed law repealing the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. The Act, which had come about as a means of preventing Wall Street gamblers from causing yet another economic collapse in the wake of the Great Depression, was the only thing keeping the big banks from merging with one another to become literally “too big too fail.” Likewise, Clinton’s signature to the Commodity Modernization Act in 2000 allowed for the deregulation of the risky derivatives market. Acts such as these, which were among the last of his presidency, “made it easier for banks to practice predatory lending and give risky mortgages to low-income households.” It is often stated in defense of the Democratic President that he was hampered by the fact that he faced overwhelming Republican majorities in both houses of congress which had a negative effect on his policies, but such a defense ignores the fact that he surrounded himself with neoliberal Wall Street insiders as his main economic policy handlers and advisers. Among them were Larry Summers, whom Clinton appointed Secretary of the Treasury, and Timothy Geithner who was the Undersecretary of the Treasury for International Affairs. Not coincidentally, both of these insiders went on the play critical roles in the Obama administration’s response to the economic crisis during the recession in 2009, with Summers as economic adviser to Obama and Geithner appointed as Secretary of the Treasury.

Though Bill Clinton made it a point to demonstrate to Wall Street billionaires they had a reliable guardian of their interests in the White House, this was not the case when it came to protecting the interests of the poor and most vulnerable members of society. And just like the Republicans before him, he was not above employing elements of Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” of appealing to white racist resentment of minorities if it meant furthering his political career. There are several instances of this from before he even became President, most notably during his campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1992 and again, after he attained that nomination, as part of his general election campaign. When accusations of infidelity on the part of the Arkansas governor began making headlines, threatening to sink his campaign before it ever really got off the ground, Clinton decided to flaunt his pro-death penalty credentials by making sure he made a special appearance at the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a partially brain-dead Black man accused of murdering a cop in 1981. After he clinched his party’s nomination, he didn’t truly begin rising in the polls in the general election (he spent much of the summer trailing behind third party candidate Ross Perot and then-President George H.W. Bush) until he quite randomly instigated a feud with African American Democratic party activist and former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson over the latter’s inviting of female hip-hop MC Sister Souljah to speak at one of his Rainbow Coalition events. Clinton took issue with a comment made by Souljah which he purposely took out of context and reinterpreted as a call to kill all white people. (What she actually asked was a rhetorical question regarding so-called ‘black-on-black’ crime: “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” It was an expression of frustration and anger over the state of racial conflict in the country at the time, not a call for the random killing of white people as Clinton implied. Sister Souljah wrote a brilliant response to Clinton’s dog-whistle politics and fear-mongering that went largely ignored by the same media that had shown itself all-too willing to circulate accusations made by a presidential candidate.) The reason Clinton decided to turn this into a campaign issue should be obvious. It was yet the latest step in his stated goal to create a coalition of “New Democrats” to win back disaffected whites who’d moved solidly into the Republican camp decades prior. In some ways it worked like a charm. Another policy proposal highly promoted as part of the Clinton-Gore campaign platform was “welfare-to-work”, a reformist take on Ronald Reagan’s assertion that “welfare queens” were gaming the system and using economic assistance as a means of “rewarding laziness”. Clinton apparently bought what was intended as a racist stereotype hook, line and sinker. Once he became President, he put his promise to “change welfare as we know it” into action by signing the misnamed Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act into law. The law placed stringent work requirements as a prerequisite for applying for (severely reduced) food and money assistance that lasted in most cases two years max. This reform may have “ended welfare as we know it” alright, but did absolutely nothing to eliminate or reduce poverty. What it did succeed in doing is shaming unwed and/or single mothers by appropriating “$250 million over five years for ‘chastity training‘ for poor single mothers“.

Probably his most lasting economic achievement was the signing into law of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), universally opposed by labor unions because of its devastating impact on manufacturing jobs in the U.S., not to mention the absolute catastrophic effect it had on Mexico’s agrarian economy. The only people who benefited from this atrocity, NAFTA, were the wealthiest global corporations and CEOs. Perhaps fortunately for Clinton, the scope of the currently-proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement threatens to eclipse even NAFTA when it comes to “sticking it to the little guy”, making NAFTA look almost like child’s play in comparison.

When it comes to the issue of mass incarceration, the former President is now singing an entirely different tune than the one he sung throughout the 1990’s. Addressing the annual NAACP national Convention in July, President Clinton expressed regret over his despicable 1994 “Crime” laws which vastly expanded the power and presence of police officers in Black and Brown neighborhoods across the country all for the supposed purpose of “getting tough on crime”. “Law and order” politics have always carried racist undertones, especially since the 1960’s when it became “politically incorrect” to publicly admit supporting policies with the purpose of constructing and maintaining racial caste systems. Although it was Republicans who mastered this practice in the post-Civil Rights era, so-called “New Democrats” like Clinton and Vice President Gore were determined to “out-Republican” the Republicans by adopting a southern strategy of their own, and were even more effective at enshrining some insidiously racist political proposals into law. The much-hailed bi-partisan Clinton-GOP “crime” law went so far as to offer financial incentives and increased federal funding for state governments based on the more people they incarcerated without the possibility of parole. As The Guardian reports,

“During Clinton’s eight years in the White House the incarceration figures saw some of their steepest rises in modern times. Though the number had already begun to shoot up under Ronald Reagan’s vaunted war on drugs in the 1980s, Clinton further inflated them.”

The addition of yet another million bodies to satisfy the hunger of the always-expanding prison industrial complex was due to new extreme punitive measures such as a wider array of mandatory minimum sentences for the most minor of drug offenses that no one with a good conscious could possibly have supported. The President and the Congress apparently ignored or simply did not care about the fact that a number of federal Judges were already at the time resigning in protest of having to impose such horrendous mandatory minimums. Also among Clinton’s many pro-mass sentencing policies was the federal imposition of “three strikes” laws which lock people away for life on the committing a third “violent offense”, only the word violent in this case doesn’t mean what it’s supposed to. According to three strikes laws, “drug crimes” are also considered violent crimes. Yes, this includes possession of marijuana. Apparently locking someone up for all earthly eternity for smoking a joint is just what Clinton and his Republican ‘allies’ in Congress had in mind when they committed themselves to saving and protecting America’s inner cities.

Clinton’s immense expansion of Ronald Reagan’s misnamed “war on drugs” and its disastrous impact on ordinary people was not limited to the borders of the United States. As President Clinton himself now acknowledges, it extended southward to Mexico, where Clinton’s signature NAFTA treaty “benefited drug cartels and enabled more drug trafficking.” As drug smuggling increased in Mexico, “corruption, crime and violence” spread across much of Central America.

When it came to social issues, such as same-sex marriage equality and abortion rights (which are possibly two of the only areas where any meaningful differences can still be found between the two major corporate parties, hence the amount of focus on them), the relatively high amount of regard Clinton is held in among liberals is surprisingly undeserved. How is it that in the wake of the recent historic ruling by the Supreme Court that same-sex couples cannot legally be denied a license to wed, many of those who fought the hardest to see their dreams come into fruition are seemingly willing to give a pass to the very same man who signed into law a measure meant to stifle their hopes of marriage equality forever? Yes, it was none other than William Jefferson Clinton, the only two-term Democratic President since FDR (and until Obama), who during the early morning hours of September 21, 1996 signed into law the blatantly discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, codifying into federal law the recognition of marriage as being between one man and one woman only.

The ruins of the Al Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan after it was unjustifiably attacked with U.S. cruise missiles on August 20, 1998.
The ruins of the Al Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan after it was unjustifiably attacked with U.S. cruise missiles on August 20, 1998.

Among the rather lengthy list of official policies President Clinton belatedly admits were in poor judgement, there is notably one key area where he seems to have expressed very little regret: foreign policy. Though he expresses regret over not having “done more” to “prevent genocide in Rwanda” (though in reality the United States helped facilitate the rise of the Rwandan Patriotic Front led by Paul Kagame, whose actions are now acknowledged even by the BBC as playing a critical role in instigating the Rwandan genocide), not a word of regret has been uttered in regards to the bombing of what turned out to be a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998, said to be in “retaliation” for simultaneous attacks carried out on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania weeks earlier. The stated reason the U.S. gave for choosing the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant as the target to be directly hit with cruise missiles was that their “intelligence” showed that chemicals located at the site were suggestive of attempts to construct lethal nerve gas agents. Furthermore, it was said that a notorious terrorist named Osama bin Laden, who allegedly masterminded the attacks on the U.S. embassies in east Africa, was part-owner of this facility. However, the “incriminating soil samples” the Clinton administration claimed as proof that chemical weapons were being stored in the facility have to this very day “never been produced”. And when a proposal was brought before the U.N. to investigate the attack on the medicine factory later that same year, the U.S predictably vetoed it. As evidence came forward showing that the U.S.’s alleged “intelligence” was at best faulty (if not downright fabricated), administration officials quietly “retreated from claims they made earlier that Osama bin Laden” had any “financial relationship” with Al-Shifa. While it appears no one was directly killed when the cruise missiles were launched into the medical facility, an untold number of lives – tens-of-thousands at least – were negatively affected by it. After all, “Al-Shifa was one of only three medium-sized pharmaceutical factories in Sudan, and the only one producing TB drugs – for more than 100,000 patients“. It was also the only factory which specialized in drugs necessary to “kill parasites which pass from herds to herders, one of Sudan’s principal causes of infant mortality.”

Such a legacy of neoliberalism and global disorder, one akin to the legacies of the two presidential administrations to follow, is suggestive of the underlying truth of American politics. When it comes to choosing between one corporate party or another, be it the Democrats or Republicans, the results are for the most part the same or very similar. Though there are often marginal differences in approach and strategy (for example President Obama’s historic attempt at rapprochement with Iran would not likely have occurred under a Romney or McCain administration, or even a Hillary Clinton one for that matter), the end result is usually the same. Those who stand to profit the most from the expansion of the military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex win out in the end and have policies enacted allowing them to get rich off the backs of those whose labor they exploit. Capitalism must continue unabated no matter what the circumstances and without regard for the well-being of the overwhelming amount of the country’s or even the world’s people, so long as Americans continue to be brainwashed into thinking their current two-parties-in-name-only Capitalist regime is interested in anything other than maintaining a permanently oligarchical political and economic system.


* Clinton’s legacy has also benefited from the fact that his presidency was followed by that of Republican George W. Bush, whose destructive ignorance and inarticulateness make even history’s most incompetent politicians look favorable in comparison.

Further Reading:

5 thoughts

  1. You’ve performed a great public service by posting this article. I will never forgive Clinton for NAFTA, 3 Strikes You’re Out, abolishing Aid to Dependent Children established by FDR under the New Deal or for repealing the Glass Steagal Act. In my view, he did far more harm than Reagan and Bush combined.

    1. I am glad you took the time to read it. I remember when I was young and naive and actually believed in the spin that Clinton was some sort of great president for the so-called “middle class”.

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