The Clinton Years (Part Three)
The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
Summary: Part One of “The Clinton Years” examined Bill Clinton’s legacy through the lens of their foundation work and stubborn insistence on the private sector’s ability to cure everything from poverty to climate change. Part Two went back to the beginning to uncover the roots of Clinton’s neoliberal philosophy that would guide his decades in public service. In this final episode of the series, the rubber meets the road as we review the policies, laws and moments that have come to define the decade of the ‘90s and how Clinton’s legacy has negatively reverberated over time, contributed to the conservative makeover of the Democratic Party and planted the seeds for the culture wars of today.
For Chapter One, visit the essay for The Clinton Years (Part One), and for Chapters Two through Four, visit the essay for The Clinton Years (Part Two).
In some ways, this episode covers familiar territory as much of Bill Clinton’s legacy was re-litigated during both of Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential bids. Her husband’s well publicized blow up at Black Lives Matter protesters along with the work of folks like Michelle Alexander and others helped shine a light on the pernicious criminal justice policies of the Clinton administration.
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Less understood is the negative and enduring impact of Clinton’s economic policies, a reflection of how indoctrinated into the cult of neoliberalism both parties and the mainstream media have become over the years. Many of the seeds planted by the Reagan administration, which still receives the bulk of the criticism from the left, were sown by the Clinton White House.
You know, I’ve spent a lot of time ripping Milton Friedman to shreds. (Gasp. No. Really? We hadn’t noticed.)
I’m a true believer that he has been one of the most destructive forces in U.S. politics and, as a result, in the world—to the extent that what happens here affects the entire planet. And there are many who think that Reagan was the poster child for neoliberalism and Friedman’s free market ideology. In reality, it’s Clinton.
Friedman didn’t believe in deficits.
He believed in school choice.
Wanted to end welfare.
Open up trade that allowed workers to work to the lowest common wage denominator.
As painful as it is to admit, that’s not Ronald Reagan. It’s not even George Bush. (Either of them.)
The most significant, pure, free market neoliberal to ever hold office is Bill Clinton. End of story. And it’s because of his record that I, among others, can so confidently look neoliberalism and free market ideology in the face and say it doesn’t work. It’s a fantasy. We tried it. It failed. It fucked poor people—especially people of color—for a generation or more.
We’ve bookended Bill Clinton’s career in the first two episodes documenting his rise as governor of Arkansas and visionary among the New Democrats and, more recently, his work as head of a global foundation. In this final installment of our series “The Clinton Years,” we evaluate the legacy of the Clinton presidency. When taken in totality, it can be overwhelming. What’s interesting is that, for the most part, the Clinton years evade authentic scrutiny among the mainstream media and punditry class as well as the political class. To get an honest assessment of this era, one really needs to look at the alternative and progressive press. Here’s why.
Establishment democrats and so-called liberal media pundits have a vested interest in promoting the 1990s as an era of great prosperity. And we’ll talk about that. First: because it twice had to defend Clinton’s policies in attempting to formulate a compelling narrative during his wife’s presidential bids. And because Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have been carefully packaged and sold as intellectual liberals that cleaned up the mess left behind by reckless Republicans. It’s simply part of the brand.
On the flip side, the Republican machine and their right wing hounds from hell have always worked overtime to paint Clinton as an ineffective, draft-dodging, philandering liberal who raised taxes and divided Congress.
The real truth about the Clinton years is far uglier and more insidious.
Chapter Five: The first Black president.
When Toni Morrison called Bill Clinton the “first Black president,” it wasn’t intended as a compliment. Rather, it was merely an observation. One that she explained by saying:
“After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class…McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear: ‘No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and—who knows?—maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.’”
In the ‘90s, Clinton often appeared vulnerable to the vicious attacks of an obstreperous Republican-led Congress. Figures like Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey assaulted Clinton and his character in shocking ways that signified the end of so-called civility in Congress.
Clinton’s behavior was, is and will always be inexcusable. He’s a serial cheater who hung around with the likes of Jeffrey Epstein. He’s not a good person. But the way in which Republicans dragged him and his wife through the mud in the ‘90s and forever after, has in some ways insulated them from criticism among many white and Black liberals who viewed Republican harassment as even more tawdry than Clinton’s behavior. In short, they kind of felt bad for him.
But one of the great mysteries of the universe, outside of the ways in which Morrison characterized Clinton’s experiences as similar to those in the Black community, is how his popularity among many Black voters has endured.
Bill Clinton’s race baiting and abuse of the Black community didn’t materialize over time. It was always there.
The second coming or “resurrection” of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 was formalized in a ceremony at the foot of Stone Mountain in Georgia. The site would become a touchstone over the years for white nationalists who traveled far and wide to revel in its historic importance to their doctrine of evil. During Clinton’s first presidential campaign, his team organized a press conference at a correctional facility located at the base of Stone Hill. It was a small facility that only housed a few hundred inmates who were mostly young Black men. The event was right before Super Tuesday in ‘92 and the location, given its relatively small size in the corrections world, was a curious choice, to put it generously. As Nathan J. Robinson writes in Superpredator:
“The photo shows a buoyant Clinton standing in front of Black kids stored in a pen at the base of an infamous Confederate monument and pilgrimage site, only a year after its Klan picnics had finally stopped. For a clutch of white politicians to pose in front of Black inmates would be mildly nauseating in the most innocuous of locales; that Clinton did it with a pair of open bigots at the entrance to the ‘Confederate Rushmore’ should violently churn the stomach.”
Bill Clinton was a southerner. He understood the optics. If a photograph could whistle, dogs would be barking all over the south.
Once in office, Clinton pursued an agenda that would further stigmatize welfare recipients, criminalize a generation of young Black men and demonize the poor. Of primary importance to Clinton was to reform welfare. It was a promise that he had made in his earliest days of campaigning. Where he and some advisors believed that welfare could indeed be reformed and replaced by incentives to work, most of the New Democrats also believed that any reforms would need to be backstopped with health care, child care, job training and other support that allowed people to transition from welfare rolls to jobs.
As Clinton formulated his agenda, the Republicans were hard at work trying to tear it down and attack Clinton the moment he took office. The result was a midterm bloodbath. Aligning behind Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America, the Republicans picked up eight seats in the Senate and more than 50 seats in the House. It was a resounding victory for the Republican Party as Newt Gingrich took the gavel for the first time in four decades. As much as the Democrats were prepared for a fight, no one expected such a shellacking.
To counter the Gingrich revolution, Clinton decided to lean into it instead of fight it. To out-asshole the assholes in what his advisor Dick Morris would call triangulation. Reduce the deficit? How about a fucking surplus? Reduce social services? How about throwing people off welfare altogether? This kicked off a literal race to the bottom to see who could fuck poor people more. Republicans kept throwing welfare reform bills at Clinton and he would veto them and propose even more awful measures. The final bill eviscerated welfare in the nation.
Remember. This is a Bill Clinton story. The man who feels your pain. Hero of the Black community. Even Clinton’s advisors. Shalala. Rubin. Reich. The entire Black congressional Caucus. National Organization of Women. The Rainbow Coalition. DLC members who had been with him in lockstep throughout his political journey. Everyone around him reminded him that he had a double digit lead over Bob Dole, a horrific candidate. Even Clinton knew it was bad. Yet, in a low energy press conference, President Bill Clinton squinted and winced, bit his lip, felt our pain and signed the bill into law.
Welfare became temporary. Two years and out was the mantra. In total, the bill imposed a five year lifetime cap on benefits. It created work requirements. It gave the power to the states to distribute benefits and cut the funding for them. In a Clinton-esque way of promoting the effectiveness of this awful bill, Bill and Hillary Clinton would point to the reduction in absolute number of recipients on the welfare rolls as proof that the system was working. It was evil logic. Moving off the rolls into a job was one thing. Being thrown off was another thing entirely.
Single mothers entered the workforce at historic rates, which they also promoted as a good thing. But they did so because they couldn’t exist on the benefits alone so they had no choice. And without child care guarantees, their kids were left to their own devices. Another cruel consequence. And because work requirements were part of the package, Black Americans in historically discriminatory work states often suffered the worst. As Robinson notes in Superpredator:
“Those who were successfully ‘moved to employment’ saw their earnings increase. But for others, conditions not only stagnated, but worsened. In particular, those at the ‘bottom of the bottom’ suffered. In the years since welfare reform, the percentage of families in extreme poverty increased by 50%.”
The administration continued to try and cover its bases by promoting entrepreneurship, credit and micro-finance as economic salvation for the poor. Despite the failure of ShoreBank and Grameen to meaningfully scale credit programs, Clinton would continually double down on similar initiatives like expanding the Women’s Self Empowerment Projects that Clinton also brought from Chicago to Arkansas and to the White House. A signature element of the WSEPs was, once again, micro-financing where the federal government would match personal savings accounts of female entrepreneurs in pilot programs throughout the country. Here’s Geismer, from Left Behind:
“The 2,350 participants were primarily women of color with children who received some sort of public assistance. In addition to making monthly deposits, the program required them to attend monthly economic literacy courses. The courses focused on skills like balancing a checkbook, making a budget, and how making small changes in habits, such as taking a sack lunch to work, could add up to big differences.”
The Clinton team rolled out the usual playbook of finding a singular standout and parading her around the country in press conferences to encourage support for the program. When all was said and done, “48 percent of the participants saved less than a hundred dollars.”
Nearly every single Democrat in office and even in Clinton’s administration was horrified by the welfare reform bill. Everyone, it seemed, but Clinton himself.
Chapter Six: Housing. The American nightmare.
Bill Clinton would continue to strangle the necks of the working poor, moving bill after bill through Congress designed to force the country deeper into neoliberal economic thinking. Welfare reform was just one of the bricks that needed to be taken out of the wall. Another was housing.
Housing for the poor had long been a disgrace in the United States. No one seemed to have a solution that worked across the board. Public housing suffered from underinvestment and corruption and both parties were incapable of addressing the issue. The Milton Friedman wing of economists didn’t believe in it at all, but thought that if anything a voucher system would be superior to purely subsidized housing. Very similar to the neoliberal belief system surrounding school choice.
Clinton once again went a step further and would once again tie market incentives to a benefit program. The Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act passed in 1998 made employment a precondition for housing, which was obviously problematic for the elderly, chronically unemployed and uneducated, disabled and infirmed population. It seemed Clinton wouldn’t be happy until every welfare recipient in the country was cast out of the system entirely. And to make matters worse, he went yet another step further and tied public housing to his anti-crime policies as well by introducing something called the “one-strike” rule.
The so-called “one-strike” rule where residents could be evicted for the accusation of crime was already in existence under Reagan but Clinton went further to include guests of residents as well. Countless stories of elderly residents being evicted because their children or grandchildren were accused of criminality began cropping up across the country as a result. Here’s Michelle Alexander speaking at a Haymarket Books event and describing her indignation at the Black community’s ongoing support for the Clintons:
“As someone who had spent more than a decade working on issues related to mass incarceration and had also spent years representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality…and who had worked with people who were victimized directly…by the policies of the Clinton era; people who were evicted from their homes as a result of Clinton’s ‘One strike and you’re out’ policy; people who could not return home to their families because of the Clinton administration’s rule barring people with criminal record from public housing, making it possible for people returning home from prison to have nowhere to go; the Clinton administration support for the ban on even food stamps for people who were convicted of drug felonies…it was difficult for me to watch Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton going into Black churches and being welcomed and all of the fanfare surrounding them in the Black community knowing that Black incarceration rates soared during his administration…that he embraced the War on Drugs and escalated it beyond what his Republican predecessors had even dreamed possible.”
Poverty stricken people in cities across America were thrown from the frying pan into the fire with the elimination of crucial benefits and often unrealistic work requirements, but the Clinton administration had yet another market-based response: To loosen lending standards, lowering rates and encouraging home ownership. And it worked for a while. Until it didn’t. We all know what happened next when Wall Street and the private markets got involved.
The lead up to this was not entirely Clinton’s fault. The loosening of credit standards started the ball rolling but much of the initial deal flow came through the auspices of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) which plowed billions of dollars of home and small business loans to low-income borrowers. It was an admirable plan, presuming interest rates stayed low and there was a modicum of underwriting standards.
But another plan was afoot on Wall Street, which was developing a serious taste for increased risk. Reagan-era tax cuts, Clinton-era deregulation, NAFTA. The ‘90s was a banner decade for corporate America and it was about to triple down on risk. Here’s a quick overview of a series of bad cascading decisions that would ultimately unleash the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Sanford Weill, one of the titans of the banking industry, was a close ally of the Clinton administration. Weill and others were pushing for reforms in the banking industry to allow for greater consolidation and lending flexibility. So the Clinton administration used the CRA as a carrot to incentivize bankers to cooperatively lend money to low-credit lenders for homes and small businesses.
The more loans they gave out, the greater the consideration they were given when presenting big time mergers. Ultimately, the scheme worked, unleashing what Geismer calls “a historic wave of consolidation.”
Then along came Phil Gramm, one of the worst people in the world. In future episodes we’re going to talk more about this asshole. For now, suffice to say he was behind the scheme to break down the wall between commercial and investment banking activities by repealing a Depression-era law known as Glass-Steagall. Essentially, this allowed investment banks to tap into consumer and business deposits and leverage it into the markets. At the time, it was sold by Clinton as a necessary step to modernize the financial system to compete in the next century.
Here’s where we have to project past the Clinton years. Remember the two things we mentioned that are critical in terms of low credit applicants: (1) Low interest rates and (2) rigorous underwriting standards.
Low interest rates stayed around for a while. But almost immediately, underwriting standards were loosened and thanks to an invention by a banker named Lou Ranieri, known as the mortgage-backed securities, home mortgages became the hottest investment in banking in the 2000s.
But at least interest rates were still low enough that people could afford their mortgages. For a while.
For the next part, let’s hand it over to Matt Taibbi from his incredible book Griftopia:
“In June 2004, just a few months after he encouraged Americans to shun fixed-rate mortgages for adjustable-rate mortgages, [Federal Reserve Chairman] Alan Greenspan raised rates for what would be the first of seventeen consecutive times.”
That’s right. This motherfucker, who helped design the deregulation era under Clinton and who stayed on during the beginning of the Bush years, told the American people to take out adjustable loans because rates would stay low. Then he raised them seventeen fucking times, leading to the largest housing bubble and crisis in the nation’s history.
Chapter Seven: Clinton’s criminal injustice system.
Criminalizing poverty is one of the biggest and worst legacies of the Clinton era. It began early in his administration before the midterm elections with the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a pet initiative of Joe Biden since the 1970s. It was a wholesale and comprehensive suite of reforms that elevated the worst parts of Nixon and Reagan’s War on Drugs and contained shockingly punitive measures for Black and Brown people in America who were victims of systemic oppression.
As Robinson writes:
“The crime bill overflowed with new provisions and programs. It allocated nearly $10 billion for the construction of new prisons, expanded the number of death-penalty eligible federal crimes from two to fifty-eight, eliminated a statute that prohibited the execution of mentally incapacitated defendants, created special deportation courts for non-citizens accused of ‘engaging in terrorist activity,’ added new mechanisms for tracking sex offenders after they had served their sentences, introduced ‘three strikes’ law that gave mandatory life sentences for third offenses, gave $10.8 billion dollars to local police departments to hire 100,000 new officers, introduced ‘truth in sentencing’ requirements and allowed children as young as thirteen to be tried as adults.”
The sweeping reform set in motion a wave of activity that stressed the justice system. And it not only took aim at low level offenders and impoverished citizens trapped in a cycle of poverty, it made life even more impossible for the incarcerated during and after their sentences.
College funding for inmates was stripped away as Pell Grants were eliminated for prisoners.
“In 1994, 71% of prisons had offered associate’s degree programs, while by 1998 only 37% did. Likewise with bachelor's programs, which dropped from 48% of prisons in 1994 to 20% in 1998. Altogether, over 350 prison college programs disappeared in just a few years. Among the 1994 crime bill’s many heartless initiatives, the prisoner Pell Grant elimination is perhaps comparatively among the less significant. But it stands out for its sheer pointless mean-spiritedness.”
Judges were stripped of their ability to fix unsound convictions.
Evidence was clear that mistakes, especially in cases involving death row inmates, were common. In a Columbia Law School study examining death penalty cases from 1973 to 1995 it was found that courts found reversible errors in 7 out of 10 cases. The new law prevented judges from re-examining court decisions of such magnitude, theoretically condemning thousands of inmates to die based on faulty convictions. As Robinson writes:
“Until this time 73% of death penalty cases reviewed found that the death penalty was unwarranted and 9% of the defendants were proven innocent.”
Clinton also signed the Prison Litigation Reform Act, making it harder for inmates to file lawsuits.
Under the new act, prisoners had to demonstrate physical abuse or violence so extraordinary isolation, rape, strip searches, being forced to stand nude for hours - none of these technically qualified.
Clinton’s interventions weren’t confined to the prison industrial complex. They even extended into housing.
One especially cruel executive policy meted out by HUD, was to hold residents and even their guests accountable for so-called criminal acts, not necessarily convictions. So if a resident was arrested or charged with a crime, or let’s say an elderly resident’s grandchild was charged, the resident could be evicted without an arrest or conviction. Even if they were found innocent, it would be up to HUD officials to decide and in many cases and because of the “one-strike” rule, people were simply thrown out into the street.
Here’s Michelle Alexander from The New Jim Crow to explain in more detail:
“In 1996, President Clinton, in an effort to bolster his ‘tough on crime’ credentials, declared that public housing agencies should exercise no discretion when a tenant or guest engages in criminal activity, particularly if it is drug-related. In his 1996 State of the Union address, he proposed ‘One Strike and You’re Out’ legislation, which strengthened eviction rules and strongly urged that drug offenders be automatically excluded from public housing based on their criminal records. He later declared, ‘If you break the law, you no longer have a home in public housing, one strike and you’re out. That should be law everywhere in America.’”
As if one strike wasn’t enough, Clinton also fought for the “three strikes and you’re out” law as early as 1994. It was so well received by Republicans that it easily cleared passage in the Crime Bill, resulting in the explosion of mass incarceration in the nation. So much so the country could barely keep up with the construction of new prisons despite $16 billion being authorized for new prisons to be built and leading to the wave of privatized prisons to fill the gap. Of course, 90% of all the new inmates from this period on were Black and Hispanic.
We covered much of the fallout from the ‘94 Crime Bill in our mass incarceration episode and thanks to intellectuals like Michelle Alexander we have a clear understanding of just how devastating Clinton’s policies have been in Black communities. What’s astounding, all these years later and with clear evidence to show how horrific this era was, Bill Clinton was still on the defensive during his wife’s campaign in 2016.
“I had an assault weapons ban in it. I had money for inner city kids for out of school activities. We had 110,000 police officers so we could [inaudible] people on the street not in these military vehicles and the police would look like the people they were policing. We did all of that. And Biden said, ‘you can’t pass this bill, the Republicans will kill it if you don’t put more sentencing in.’ I talked to a lot of African American groups. They thought Black lives mattered. They said, ‘take this bill because our kids are being shot in the streets by gangs.’ We had thirteen year-olds kids planning their own funerals. She doesn’t want to hear any of that. [Pointing at a protester'] You know what else she doesn’t want to hear? Because of that bill, we had a 25 year low on crime, a 33 year low in the murder rate, and - listen to this - because of that and the background check law, we had a 46 year low in the deaths of people by gun violence and who do you think those lives were? That mattered! Whose lives were saved that mattered?”
Allow me to respond point-by-point before we move on.
He blamed Biden for the sentencing aspect, but he was the president.
He further militarized the streets to punish Black Americans for low-level crimes and nonviolent drug crimes while cocaine using Wall Street bros made movies about their drug use.
Violent and nonviolent crime rates were already declining in every industrialized nation around the world in the 1990s. Only the United States increased prison populations to the extent that we became the most incarcerated nation on the planet. (Five-percent of the population with 25% of the world’s incarcerated population.)
Gun violence dropped because of the assault weapons ban. That could have stood alone without the draconian measures surrounding it in this bill.
“Some” African American groups wanted tougher policing in the streets, but the vast majority of Black organizations tried to stop Clinton from signing this bill.
Chapter Eight: It’s the economy, asshole.
“The era of big government is over.” -Bill Clinton. 1996, SOTU Address
One of the things about the Republican Party that frustrated the likes of Milton Friedman was the growth of the federal budget, particularly with respect to the military. Big government was supposed to be a Democrat thing. So as Clinton assumed the presidency, it was considered a huge departure to speak about reducing the size of government, eliminating federal jobs, cutting welfare programs and the like. This stance sparked a competitive wave among Republicans like Dick Armey who counted a letter from Milton Friedman as one of his most prized possessions and the summer of 1969 at the University of Chicago as the best summer of his life. (Yes, in the episode we played a clip from Bryan Adams.)
Armey was instrumental in creating two contracts. One internal, one external. The internal contract was Grover Norquist’s tax pledge. Every incoming Republican into Congress was asked to sign a pledge that they would vote against any new tax increases. The other was Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America that contained a number of pledges to the nation, including a promise to balance the budget. Thus began a race to see who could cut more and be the better free market neoliberal. Here’s Howard Zinn:
“Reduction of the annual deficit in order to achieve a ‘balanced budget’ became an obsession of the Clinton administration. But since Clinton didn’t want to raise taxes on the wealthy, or to cut funds for the military, the only alternative was to sacrifice the poor, the children, the aged - to spend less for health care, for food stamps, for education, for single mothers. Two examples of this appeared early in Clinton’s second administration, in the spring of 1997:
From the New York Times: “A major element of President Clinton’s education plan—a proposal to spend $5 billion to repair the nation’s crumbling schools—was among the items quietly killed in last week’s agreement to balance the federal budget…”
From the Boston Globe: “After White House intervention, the Senate yesterday…. Rejected a proposal…to extend health insurance to the nation’s 10.5 million uninsured children…Seven lawmakers switched their votes…after senior White House officials…called and said the amendment would imperil the delicate budget agreement.”
It was essential to the Clinton administration to have early wins and payoffs to shrinking the size of government and eliminating the deficit. Payoffs would only be measured heretofore in terms of economic growth. The idea that America was booming was a central theme of the Clinton narrative and if one judged by Wall Street and corporate America metrics, there was a good deal of truth to this sentiment.
It all depends on one’s definition of success. Howard Zinn, for one, took a different view:
“It was possible to say that the U.S. economy was ‘healthy’- but only if you considered the richest part of the population. Meanwhile, 40 million people were without health insurance (the number having risen by 33% in the ‘90s), and infants died of sickness and malnutrition at a rate higher than that of any other industrialized country. There seemed to be unlimited funds for the military, but people who performed vital human services, in health and education, had to struggle to barely survive.”
Back to our friend Bernard Harcourt to let these words ring true. The neoliberal mentality is that the government is only effective in the punitive arena. So it tracks that military spending would increase while the Clinton administration kept a tight grip on the budget. These were true believers in Milton Friedman’s work. Clearing the way for the free market will allow private enterprise to step into social welfare and health care and perform services driven by the invisible hand and spirit of competition. A free market provides for all through magic.
The New Democrats were now in charge and it was time to bring their concepts to life through legislation. Tasked with turning campaign promises into policy were DLC leaders like the Roberts - Rubin and Reich - Andrew Cuomo as the assistant secretary of HUD, Domestic Policy Chair Carol Rasco, Gene Sperling of the Economic Development Council and others. One of the first domestic initiatives they wanted to revitalize and improve was the concept of Enterprise Zones that surfaced under the prior administration but was shot down by Bush because it was seen as beneficial to Black people in cities so fuck them. Amirite?
The Clinton team revised the plan to identify poor and dangerous urban areas and target them with a suite of economic development policy measures.T his is where I have to take a step back and try to be fair. There were committed policy wonks building these plans and looking to make real change. I’ve criticized Clinton personally for his false opportunism at the expense of the Black community but the same cannot be said about the early members of his administration. They were true believers and would-be reformers who had it all mapped out on paper.
The Clinton version of the DOA Enterprise Zones was re-skinned as Empowerment Zones and the administration went full force to sell it to America through a competitive bidding process. Municipalities were charged with designing the best program to fit their needs with the promise that the federal government would supply funding, tax breaks, incentives and fulfill requests specific to these designated areas.
Some officials advocated for a suite of strictly fiscal incentives. Others like Andrew Cuomo believed that “breaks had to be paid with increased social services like job training, education, nutrition, day care, and affordable housing,” writes Geismer. “These services would be delivered in a block grant approach that echoed the urban policies of the administrations of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.”
The idea of bringing local groups together to tailor bids in a competitive process seemed like a great idea and there was merit to it. One size fits all programs had failed miserably during the urban renewal years of the 1970s. But the competitive aspect and the two-tiered proposed system with only ten full awards and hundreds of bids that would be acknowledged as sort of honorable mentions meant it was destined to be byzantine, complicated and dependent upon the private sector to weigh in heavily as partners. The New Democrats obviously saw this as a win because private sector involvement alleviated budgetary demands from the feds.
Ultimately the Empowerment Zone program passed muster. Unfortunately it was missing the important social trimmings that would have let municipalities feast on the rewards. To pass the budget as a whole the Clinton administration marginally increased taxes on corporations but cut a slew of poverty programs from Head Start to Food Stamps. Also missing from the campaign promise days was funding for critical infrastructure.
The result was a mostly fiscal oriented development package that relied heavily on the involvement of the private sector and was missing any semblance of physical and social infrastructure needs that would support the communities the Empowerment Zone businesses were designed to serve. Despite the well publicized fact from the Rodney King incident that shone a light on Los Angeles, the city was not among the winning bids. New York City, Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Detroit, Kansas City, the Mississippi Delta and the Kentucky Highlands were chosen. (L.A. would later be awarded a monetary consolation prize.)
Missing from the equation, as Clinton well knew from his experience promoting ShoreBank, was the ability for businesses within Empowerment Zones to access credit. Again, Geismer:
“The programs collectively treated poverty and racial discrimination as a market failure. Their main architects saw a lack of access to capital and credit—not the evisceration of the social safety net, rising incarceration, and historical patterns of segregation—as the primary problem poor communities of color faced.”
So the committee appended a proposal a year later called the Community Development Financial Institutions fund or CDFI. Perhaps the biggest champion behind the scenes was Robert Rubin who believed in market solutions as much as any neoliberal Milton Friedman acolyte who ever existed. The fund would directly invest tens of millions of dollars then leverage additional supporting funds from private financial institutions that had to be sold on the proposition that these credit packages would be profitable.
The media loved everything about it. Republicans were even enthusiastic, to a degree, about the market oriented approach of the combined programs. And some areas made the most out of it, such as Harlem as representative Charlie Rangel was probably the most vocal advocate for Empowerment Zones and thus the most prepared to leverage all that it was worth. But in the end, all of the sweat, the proposals and white papers, lobbying efforts, budget machinations amounted to very little in return. Like ShoreBank had done in Chicago then in Arkansas, Clinton trotted out singular entrepreneurial success stories as evidence the program worked. All you needed was credit, a business plan and determination. Or, you know. Bootstraps. Final word to Geismer:
“Despite the effusive language that Clinton used to describe institutions like ShoreBank and initiatives like the CRA and Empowerment Zones, these programs all remained very small in comparison to the very large problems of concentrated poverty and racial segregation that they were intended to address.”
Chapter Nine: Border wars.
Let’s review some familiar territory. It was actually in our immigration episode that I promised to unpack the Clinton years so let’s recap what we learned in that episode. You will recall that it was Clinton-era policies that marked a seminal shift in our treatment of immigrants in this country. Clinton’s immigration reform measures demonized foreign born immigrants and criminalized their status in a way that even Republicans had never even dreamed of doing:
“All Americans, not only in the state’s most heavily affected, but in every place in this country are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country. The jobs they hold might otherwise be held by citizens or legal immigrants; the public service they use impose burdens on our taxpayers. That’s why our administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before, by cracking down on illegal hiring, by borrowing welfare benefits to illegal aliens.
“In the budget I will present to you we will try to do more to speed the deportation of illegal aliens who are arrested for crimes to better identify illegal aliens in the workforce as recommended by the commission headed by former congresswoman Barbara Jordan. We are a nation of immigrants but we are also a nation of laws. It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years and we must do more to stop it.” -Bill Clinton. 1995 SOTU Address
The Crime Bill had set the table with severely punitive measures that would rip apart families and incarcerate waves of Black and Brown youth for decades. So the mechanisms were in place to punish immigrants as well but first the administration had to criminalize their existence. Clinton accomplished this with two separate bills. Remember the first was called the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act in response to the Oklahoma City bombings.
(In the Immigration episode, we noted how interesting it was to pass a terrorism law to go after immigrants because of a white guy who blew up a building and murdered people.)
And the other was the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. As a refresher, here’s an excerpt from a Cornell University report on the bill to describe it:
“The Act was designed to improve border control by imposing criminal penalties for racketeering, alien smuggling and the use or creation of fraudulent immigration-related documents and increasing interior enforcement by agencies charged with monitoring visa applications and visa abusers. The Act also allows for the deportation of undocumented immigrants who commit a misdemeanor or a felony.
“The Act mandates that immigrants who are unlawfully present in the U.S. for 180 days but under 365 days must remain outside the United States for three years unless pardoned. If they remain in the United States for 365 days or more, they must stay outside the United States for ten years unless they obtain a waiver. However, if they return to the U.S. without the pardon, they must wait 10 years until they may apply for a waiver.”
Okay. So it sounds kind of rational, right? But again, we have to think about how people actually live, behave, work and travel. We covered the concept of Net Migration, which is the number of people who immigrate versus emigrate. Come in versus leave. What this bill did was effectively eliminate the incentive to leave. It was extremely common for immigrant labor to move back and forth across the border with the harvests and seasons.
This law created a trap. Leaving meant you might never be able to return. So returning before the artificial time frame became illegal. So did staying longer than a work visa. An entire swath of the labor pool was caught in Clinton’s spider web by design. Damned if they stayed. Damned if they left.
That’s why I say Clinton criminalized their existence.
Then he passed measures that applied the harshest elements of the criminal justice system as enforcement tools. And for Mexican workers, it was even more precarious because Reagan’s drug policy contributed to the build up of massive and dangerous cartels across the border. NAFTA solidified wage slavery in Mexico as well on the heels of the Mexican debt crisis in the 1980s, also the result of our punitive global banking policies. So we helped foster a lawless culture driven by drug lords, robbed Mexico’s treasury, locked down the border, allowed American companies to set up shop in Mexico and plunder low wage workers and criminalized their existence in the United States when they tried to flee.
Chapter Ten: Closing the book on Clinton.
Did Bill Clinton have the best of intentions throughout his career? A better question would be, does it matter? Because the answer is, no. Nor do I think he could reconcile his intentions with his actions. The same pathology that allowed him to stare into the camera and say he did not have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky is the same pathology that allowed him to look into the eyes of Black America and say he was here to help.
By the end of his administration, Clinton seemed unmoved by the disturbing trends of mass incarceration, spiking rates of extreme poverty and upheaval in the Black community due to housing and welfare reform. The rich were getting richer, inflation was under control and Wall Street was kicking ass. And he was going to end his term with a budget surplus. It was the ultimate neoliberal formula and definition of success.
But Binyamin Appelbaum offers a different perspective on these so-called achievements in his book The Economist’s Hour:
“The government’s austerity during the Clinton years is often listed among the reasons the economy boomed, because it helped to hold down interest rates. But the government’s greater contribution to economic growth in the 1990s was its spending in earlier decades on education, research, and infrastructure.
“Americans who entered their prime working years in the 1990s were far more likely to have college degrees than adults in the rest of the developed world. The rise of Silicon Valley was a triumph of government-sponsored research, government investment in infrastructure, and the government’s development of human capital.
“The austerity of the Clinton years, by contrast, meant the government was reducing its investment in future growth.”
Despite the total failure of his market based and micro-finance poverty initiatives to lift up the poorest among us with the help of public private partnerships, he doubled down at the end of his term. Here’s an excerpt from a HUD promotion video titled “Now is the Time: Remembering Places Left Behind in the New Economy.”
“Job training opportunities are being provided by MetLife, Microsoft, Gateway, Owens-Corning, the North American Steel Framing Alliance, Worthington Industries and Amity Incorporated. But government must play a role in providing incentives for these companies. President Clinton understands government’s role and has proposed legislation to create APIC, America’s Private Investment Corporation providing new markets tax credits and funding to do major economic investment in inner cities.”
No matter how many times public/private partnerships and tax incentives fail the working class and poverty stricken parts of the country, team Clinton just kept beating that same drum until the very end.
And despite the overwhelming evidence that mass incarceration was literally killing Black communities, particularly in the case of low level drug offenses, Clinton couldn’t even muster the courage with the ultimate weapon a president possesses. Here’s Robinson:
“In the final days of his presidency, Clinton indicated that he was considering offering “a broad clemency or amnesty for non-violent drug offenders who had served long prison terms…But when the list of 140 pardons and commutations was announced during the final few days of the presidency, only a couple of dozen were drug offenders…Internal records show that Clinton considered, and rejected, a proposal to free nearly 500 prisoners.”
There’s still so much we didn’t cover about the Clinton years. How he used the cover of wars in Iraq, Bosnia and Somalia to distract from his sex scandals. How he used his pardoning power for white collar criminal friends. How he destroyed Haiti and exploited African nations in crisis. How he championed the cause of charter schools and undercut teacher’s unions. Deregulated the telecommunications industry, leading to a wave of consolidation and mega mergers and resulting in the near total control of the media by a handful of large corporations. How he put the future of healthcare reform in the hands of his wife and a working group that produced a report so confusing even democrats didn’t understand how to support it. As a result, there was no healthcare reform so when Clinton purged millions of Americans from the welfare rolls, millions subsequently lost their medical coverage.
Were there bright spots? Sure. Clinton successfully passed the Assault Weapons Ban. His administration broke up Microsoft in one of the last successful attempts to hold a mega corporation accountable in the United States. And upper middle class white suburbanites thrived. But on the whole, inequality worsened in the ‘90s more than any other decade in American history.
We have to see the world as it is. Reconcile hard truths about our past if we’re to move boldly into the future. The Clinton years were an unmitigated disaster in terms of social and economic justice. Insofar as Clinton’s policies were also the neoliberal dream scenario, it provides clear evidence of the failure of the free market Chicago School doctrine. We cannot allow establishment Democrats to lionize the Clinton era just because the stock market was cooking and white people did rather well. This type of nostalgia is dangerous and is why Progressives cringe at the very thought of claiming these years as an example of Democratic prowess and competency.
It’s time to stop defending the least worst options on the table.
The only enduring policies throughout our brief history that work are progressive.
It’s time to close the door on the Clinton era for good.
Here endeth the lesson.
Cornell Law School: Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis: Has Wealth Inequality in America Changed over Time? Here Are Key Statistics
Nathan J. Robinson: Superpredator: Bill Clinton’s Use and Abuse of Black America
Bernard Harcourt: The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order
Binyamin Appelbaum: The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society
Howard Zinn: A People’s History of the United States
Michelle Alexander: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
UNFTR Episode Resources
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