On 'Big Ideas' and Bill Clinton

by: Matt Stoller

Tue Aug 21, 2007 at 23:12


Look, the internet is a big idea, it's the big infrastructure system of the 21st century, rivaled only by the new energy system we'll need to build in the next thirty years.  Protecting the internet through laws like net neutrality and open access is a manifestation of believing in that big idea.  Most of us work on behalf of Democrats through the electoral process because we believe in structures like this that promote social justice and creativity, not out of some weird sense of partisan pride or thirst for power. 

So when I read things like this about Matt Bai's new book, where progressives are criticized for not believing in ideas, I'm kind of annoyed and kind of amused.

Bai then sets Clinton up with the soft-ball pitch that will make his book. He tells Clinton that "he hears a lot of skepticism in D.C. and online about the power of ideas in politics. Most of the new progressives seemed to think that winning elections is more about machinery and political dexterity." Clinton responds forcefully: "They're not right about that. I still think that ideas matter. We still have to be the party of ideas, because otherwise there is no reason to buy us."

Close read that last sentence.  Clinton thinks Democrats have to be 'the party of ideas' or else no one will 'buy us'.  What about caring about ideas because ideas are, you know, good things to care about?  What about caring about ideas because good ideas can promote justice, tolerance, and a better world?  What about caring about ideas because bad ideas promote stupid wars and lots of death and destruction and whatnot?  And what about the notion that each party has different ideas, and voters get to choose?  Why does one party have to be 'the' party of ideas?  Republicans have shitty and crazy ideas, liberal Democrats have good ones.

No, for Bill Clinton, ideas are important because without them no one will buy Clinton.  Most people meet Clinton and think he's an amazing charmer.  I met him and saw a very detail oriented narcissist file me away in his head for possible later use.

The Clinton years were years of systematic underinvestment in critical infrastructure, where the prosperity came from government research from the 1960s and 1970s.  Clinton harvested, but did not plant new seed corn.  And that's because he didn't care about anything that couldn't sell Bill Clinton, and that includes 'ideas'.  Then again, maybe I'm wrong, and maybe that V-chip and those school uniforms will pay off yet.

Matt Stoller :: On 'Big Ideas' and Bill Clinton

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the Clintons are all about themselves (4.00 / 1)
and never about sticking up for progressive values, and certainly not about fighting for the change we need. So many opportunities to address big problems were wasted during the Clinton years.

A lot of Democrats still love Bill, but I think that has as much to do with his totally unhinged GOP opponents than his own record as president, which was mediocre (at least in the domestic arena).

Join the Iowa progressive community at Bleeding Heartland.


Matt .. (0.00 / 0)
you highlight the biggest problem I have with the Clintons .. as you mentioned .. they left a lot of things undone .. they caved to Gingrich and crew on some matters when they didn't have to ... I guess I don't get the love affair with Bill Clinton .. is it because he's been the only Democratic president in almost 30 years?  Do people realize what a mess they left at the DNC?  Or how, even though he was so personally popular, he couldn't hold Congress but for the first two years of his time in office.  BushCo held on to Congress for six years .. I just don't see how Hillary will grow the Democrat "brand".

[ Parent ]
"Ideas" As Opposed To Thinking (4.00 / 1)
I remember a big bruhaha over the importance of ideas in the early Reagan years.  What it was really about was the amping up of the conservative/GOP message machine.

The "ideas" they had were things like "supply-side economics," which George H.W. Bush correctly pegged in his pre-pod-person-persona days as "voodoo economics."

It reminded me of something my sister observed in the early 70s, how, for a time, people carried around books like jewelry.  They didn't actual read them (unless they were, like the slowest readers in the history of the universe), they were just decorative and symbolic.

Now, Clinton's ideas weren't as bad as "supply-side economics," but that's hardly much in the way of praise.  They were all to often a form of mind-candy, something to satisfy an urge prematurely, to interrupt the real work, the real purpose of mind, which is to question and to quest.

The real battle should not be over ideas, but over vision, which definitely has a conceptual component to it, but is something much more than a product to sell people on.  Vision is, if you will, the conceptual articulation of fundamental values.

Vision is what the quest is all about.  And we need that, desperately, because, as Einstein put it, the level of thinking that created the problems we face is not sufficient to solve them.  We need to go one step beyond where we have been.

At the same time, however, it is absolutely vital to simply think clearly and critically. It's a fundamental discipline. Don't take any wooden nickles.  Don't buy a pig in a poke.  Don't fucking invade Iraq looking for WMDs that the weapons inspectors you've already got there can't find.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


Outstanding Post! (0.00 / 0)
Way past time the truth was spit out there about the Clinton's and their approach to politics. Bill Clinton was an utter failure as President. NAFTA will be fucking things up until it's repealed. His little dick-sucking episode with Monica gave the ReThugs everything they needed to put Bush in. And...

Look how well that's worked out.

Hillary is pure, political poison. For sale to the highest bidders.

Just like Bush.

It will be interesting to see if the voters take her at her words as she has had both feet in her mouth this week.

I just came from MyDD and the Hillary supporters there where adamant that she did NOT say what she said. They were in the minority but, as we know, it's not just the mouthbreathers of the ReichWing who are 'Drinking the Kool-Aid' many in the 'Democrat' Party are swillin' the stuff down also.

Peace, Health and Prosperity for Everyone.


You are getting an AMEN from ME... (4.00 / 1)
Bill Clinton.  What can I type about this man?  A genious.  An exquisite orator.  A calculating, cunning man.  But, one who is flawed.  How?  Matt is right.  What about the Democratic Party?  What has he done to further our cause?  Yes, he languishes with the DLC, but who is talking about them lately?  This party is going left.  Why?  We must.  Everything that I grew up with, that my union parents worked hard for, is gone.  Yes, gone.  My nieces and nephews don't understand this.  The Democratic Party was the party that put an African American Family into the middle class status.  This is the party that walked with union members.  This was the party that made sure middle class families children had the "opportunity" to go to college.  This was the party that fought for us.  Over the past years, this party could be lumped as "Republican Lite".  There was no distinguishing differences between us and them.  We were just lumped together.  And Bill Clinton had alot to do with that.  He lost congress under his watch.  Passed so many bills, you would swear a Republican president, passed them.  And no, don't give him a pity party, he did that.  He does not get a pass.  Now, here we are 2007, and got to deal with him "again"?  No.  There are other candidates and we Democrats have options.  And we, dearly, need to use them.

Parsing (0.00 / 0)
If you actually look at the line you are parsing he said "us" not "me". 

So, this posting doesn't say very much about Clinton at all.

It probably says more about which demographics are more susceptible to Republican attacks against our candidates.


BAMM ....You nailed it! (0.00 / 0)
This attitude is pervasive in the Democratic party these days.I believe that attitude has been very bad for progressives We have Dodd saying yesterday, that impeachment would be bad for the Democrats...HUH?....can I hear "The Constitution"
even Jack Cafferty tore Dodd apart for that comment.
This is why I am against Hillary as the Democratic candidate. She learned well from Bill. Look at her response to Obama about meeting with rogue nations. In her response she used the phrase "the power and prestige of the presidency" ...OH...I get it, we all know that, why make a point of it?....Because it is all about power and prestige for Hillary too.  WE CAN DO BETTER!
By the way I am not a Hillary hater, but I get the Clintons.

NAFTA: How to Screw the Democrats (0.00 / 0)
NAFTA wasn't just an example of an awful, harmful, terrible right wing ultra-upper-class Republican favoring policy which Clinton & Gore backed.

Look back on *how* they backed it.

If you look back at the promotion for NAFTA, the dishonest 'debates' with Gore versus Perot (because he was funny and stupid, it was okay to debate him), Clinton & Gore did the equivalent of Bush Jr's Iraq argument:

According to Clinton and Gore back then, if you opposed NAFTA you hated Mexicans and you hated Growth.

That was it.

No matter how much you pointed out how NAFTA would make life worth for American workers, Mexican workers, AND Canadian workers, they would lie straight through their teeth.

Let's face it:  they were willing to undermine all the Democratic base in order to push NAFTA.  They *severely* weakened the party, insulting labor, insulting working-class activists, insulting Mexican solidarity groups, insulting rival economists, insulting liberals and liberalism in general.

They were willing to spread nonsense and lies about "side agreements" that someday ponies would deliver for the environment and labor on NAFTA, all the while knowing that the central NAFTA document DISALLOWS any enforcement of any other standards not contained within NAFTA.

NAFTA was one of the biggests gifts the DLC movement ever gave the Republicans.

One of the reasons I can't go crazy about the Gore for President movement is that I remember how easily Gore was willing to spout lies, insults, and disinformation to support this rotten policy.


Unfair cheap shot on the V-chip (0.00 / 0)
Come on Matt, the Clinton Presidency had a lot more lasting legacy than the V-chip. There was the Iraq Liberation Act of 1999, the introduction of 'extraordinary rendition' as a tool of the US government, the introduction of faith-based initiatives, NAFTA, and welfare reform. Iraq, civil liberties, the separation of church and state, trade, and extreme poverty all are part of the Clinton legacy*. It wasn't just the V-chip and school uniforms.

*not in a good way

John McCain


I agree with everyone else (0.00 / 0)
Bill Clinton is not a progressive, he's not a part of the left, and I pray every day that his wife will not win the primary!

Bill Clinton was a good Moderate Republican President (0.00 / 0)
He pushed "Heartland" values, had a good heart, supported somewhat reasonable, rational business policies and was pretty adept at managing our international relations.

But he left a lot of things undone:


  • Failed to push  a comprehensive human rights agenda (allowing things like don't ask, don't tell to be enacted , the assault on choice to ramp up, and of course the lack of people-centered investments for starters)
  • The Financialization of the US Economy continued and grew under his watch.
  • Championed media consolidation and laid the groundwork for the reintegration of the baby bells (Telecomm Act of 1996 anybody?)
  • Failed to help stop the Taliban's rise to power
  • Failed to pursue an aggressive WW anti-povery agenda that might have mitigated some of the more extremist elements rise to power over the last 10-15 years
  • Failed to push broad economic policies aimed at providing capital to poor and low income women in third world countries and in our inner cities.

Bill did a lot of small incremental things that continue to have value like Americorp.  His cops initiatives were the right approach at the right time to a serious crime problem in many cities.

However, He failed to take advantage of the Soviet Unions fall and to push a true multi-lateral people-based foriegn policy agenda.

That he's considered a real radical liberal by many is a true barometer of how far our national political discourse and identity has moved to the right.


Clinton's mixed record. (4.00 / 3)
Not surprisingly, given my history in the Clinton White House, I have a somewhat different view. Not a totally positive view, because Bill Clinton was not nearly as progressive as I would have liked, and because by playing small ball on issues like school uniforms I think he missed a chance to really define the Democratic party as opposed to the crazies in Gingrichland. The free trade religion he espoused has proven to be dead wrong in improving the lives of the working class here or Mexico or anywhere else. Caving on welfare "reform" was just wrong.
But I think it is both wrong historically and wrong in terms of the broader progressive political agenda to be so dismissive of the accomplishments of the Clinton years, because there are important differences between Democrats, even more moderate Dems like Clinton, and Republicans- and if voters think those differences don't matter, we are screwed politically.
Just a quick recap of a few things that were done in the Clinton era: Family and Medical Leave. The '93 budget act, which dramatically raised taxes on the wealthy, dramatically cut them on the poor, and provided more money for progressive social programs than any other budget since LBJ. The only two gun control laws passed in the last 40 years. The only minimum wage increase passed in a two decade span. Standing up to and facing down Gingrich, at the height of his power and popularity, on the 1995 budget. Steady budget increases, year after year even aftert the Repubs took congress, in a variety of important federal programs like Head Start, education, and children's health care.  The SCHIP program. The Kennedy-Kassebaum health bill. Strong progressive appointees at the NLRB, FCC, OSHA, HHS, DOJ, Education Dept, and dozens of other really important agencies in making everyday folks lives better.
Is all of that really so trivial to the millions of people whose lives have been helped by these accomplishments that it can be summarily dismissed with a throw away line about v-chips and school uniforms? 

um (0.00 / 0)
Is all of that really so trivial to the millions of people whose lives have been helped by these accomplishments that it can be summarily dismissed with a throw away line about v-chips and school uniforms?

No, I don't beat my wife.

Clinton set us up for Bush.  He was a mediocre President.  Deal with it.


[ Parent ]
Answer my questions. (4.00 / 2)
This is exactly the kind of thoughtful, constructive, bridge building dialogue that I had hoped for. And I'm glad to get the truth handed down from the Stoller mountaintop, that's jut the kind of clarity I needed to complete my political education.
But clever lines aside, answer my questions:

-are the good things achieved in the Clinton years trivial?

-if our goal is getting people more excited about politics and voting and activism, does it help us to be so completely dismissive of the differences between Dems and Repubs? Does that help us build the progressive movement? 


[ Parent ]
Narcissism... (4.00 / 1)
...thy name is Stoller?

Seriously, though.

If some in the netroots punditocracy think it's a good idea to run down the impressive record of the Clinton years (largest peace-time economic expansion in American history, anyone?), then what the hell do you propose we "sell" to the American public to prove our ability to steer the country in the right direction?

What's the Point?


[ Parent ]
meh (0.00 / 0)
-are the good things achieved in the Clinton years trivial?

Mostly, yes.

Family and Medical Leave.

Good.

The '93 budget act, which dramatically raised taxes on the wealthy, dramatically cut them on the poor, and provided more money for progressive social programs than any other budget since LBJ.

Reversed, lost us Congress.

The only two gun control laws passed in the last 40 years.

Assault weapons ban, wasn't that reversed?

The only minimum wage increase passed in a two decade span.

Kept up with inflation?  Whoa, amazing.

Standing up to and facing down Gingrich, at the height of his power and popularity, on the 1995 budget. Steady budget increases, year after year even aftert the Repubs took congress, in a variety of important federal programs like Head Start, education, and children's health care. 

Reversed

The SCHIP program. The Kennedy-Kassebaum health bill.

Good.

Strong progressive appointees at the NLRB, FCC, OSHA, HHS, DOJ, Education Dept, and dozens of other really important agencies in making everyday folks lives better.

Reversed, and these agencies weren't as progressive as you make them out to be.  Still, reversed.

-if our goal is getting people more excited about politics and voting and activism, does it help us to be so completely dismissive of the differences between Dems and Repubs? Does that help us build the progressive movement?

no, i don't beat my wife, and yes, pointing out that clinton was not a progressive is a good thing.


[ Parent ]
well (0.00 / 0)
thoughtful, constructive, bridge building dialogue that I had hoped for....

read stollers completly limited view and attack below of the entire clinton administration and you will know why so many former clintonites can bot understand just what you were thinking getting into bed with this arrogant, myopic kind of thinking.


[ Parent ]
bs attitudes like this one (0.00 / 0)
masquerading as deep thought, created the script for many progressives that in 2000 that Bush = Gore.

That naderite thinking gave us Bush, not the Clintons.


[ Parent ]
Mike Is Right (4.00 / 1)
Mike - I worked on the Hill during the first couple of years of the Clinton Admin and I agree with your premise.  While the Clinton Admin screwed up a lot of stuff in the first couple of years it is not as though they didn't try to enact some major progressive policies.  You don't have to like all details of the Clinton Health Plan but it was a big idea and it was the ONLY real attempt in the past 35 yrs to reform our health system and provide universal coverage.  According to Bill Kristol, the Rs were so scared of it that set out to destroy it immediately.

I know it wasn't single payer but single payer was never a reality - it had 90 votes in the House which isn't even halfway to the 218 you need to pass something.  It had even less support in the Senate.

Clinton didn't move to incrementalism until after the 1994 elections.  I do believe Clinton was a bit of narcissist and that he should be faulted for not doing more to build the party in the 1990s. 

However, I think it is really easy to Monday morning QB in 2007 while ignoring the fact that country was more attracted to conservative policies and rhetoric at that time.  All you have to do is look at the election results from 1980-2000 to see that.  I am thrilled that progressive ideas and policies are being well received today but the fact of the matter is that was not nearly as true in the 1990s. 


[ Parent ]
Welcome aboard (0.00 / 0)
Goodness Matt -- continual betrayal is making you a leftist.

Can it happen here?

Moynihan Matt (0.00 / 0)
Ah, the Matt I don't miss at MyDD. How do you expect to be an effective progressive when you so contentiously dismiss your only effective allies? Are you so self-involved that you cannot see that you are completely disconnected from the vast majority of Democrats? Is there some other base on which you plan build a "progressive governing majority"? What "big ideas" do you bring to the table? How do you plan to defeat the DLC when you are so vacuous?

guys, guys, can't we all get along? (0.00 / 0)
Both Mike and Matt are right. The Clinton years were not a total wash. Given the circumstances, I'm grateful for everything Clinton and crew managed to accomplish. BUT, the Republican-Lite stuff that Clinton represented ain't our future any more. That was soooooo 1994. And no, I don't want Hillary to be our nominee.

By the way. I followed Matt Stoller over here from MyDD.  Love the guy's thinking and writing, willingness to take on a good fight and generosity towards his fellow progressives.

And no, I'm not Matt's mom. Never met the guy. Just read him on-line.


[ Parent ]
I obviously can't speak for Matt, (0.00 / 0)
but as far as I'm concerned we get along great. Part of the idea of openleft is that there ought to be honest and blunt back and forth between insiders like me and blogosphere denizens like Matt. We go at it, openly, but it's a healthy thing because we can't build a progressive majority without having these different perspectives out on the table.

[ Parent ]
yeah (0.00 / 0)
Mike and I get along easily.

[ Parent ]
Hey, whadjoo guys do wit' Matt? (0.00 / 0)
Coming, belatedly, to the conclusion--the expression of which got me banned from just about every major "Democratic" blog in the last 7 years--that Clenis was the most effective GOPresident of the 20th Century?

in full agreement (0.00 / 0)
People love Clinton because...

- he oversaw solid economic expansion (which, hello, was due in great part to circumstances beyond his control, as is often the case with the President - some control, all the credit/blame)
- he won twice (plurality)
- he's smart
- he charmed them

Keep calling them out, Matt.  Here we have to agree with Nader - the Clintons are part of the system that is owned by corporations.  As Obama said, I don't want Bush/Cheney lite.  And Hillary's best rebuttal was "I've never been called Bush/Cheney".  She will be - and hopefully enough of the truth comes out so she doesn't win. 

There's only one immediately post-Bush election and this is a rare opportunity to move in a much more progressive direction - people will vote for something perhaps a little less known because what they know has been so awful (IMHO). 

Keep debunking the Clinton myth!

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. -- Martin Luther King, Jr


I have known Presiden Clinton pretty darn well (0.00 / 0)
for 15 years now and I can guarantee you one thing....he wasnt "filing you away for future use"...

because Im sur you tried to wow him with your BIG IDEAS...

... he may have been "filing you away" in a category you wouldnt like to actually know about...

THATS A THOUSAND TIMES MORE LIKELY.


I have known President Clinton pretty darn well (0.00 / 0)
for 15 years now and I can guarantee you one thing....he wasnt "filing you away for future use"...

because Im sure you tried to wow him with your BIG IDEAS...

... he may have been "filing you away" in a category you wouldnt like to actually know about...

THATS A THOUSAND TIMES MORE LIKELY.


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