It is difficult to explain to Americans, particularly young Americans, what was wrong with the Clinton era, and why we ought not want to re-live it. The 1990s are sealed into our national memory as a time of great prosperity and expectation–killed off, in Democrats’ rewriting of history, by the 2000 recount and all that followed.
The truth is that by 2000, Democrats could not run away from Clinton quickly enough. It’s worth revisiting why.
By 2000, President Bill Clinton had survived the scandal that led to his impeachment, but the dot-com bubble had burst and the country had plunged into recession.
(It never really recovered. A college friend and I recently observed that the career trajectories of our friends were deeply affected by whether they graduated in 1998, at the height of the boom, or 1999, just before the crash, and with little time to gain real work experience.)
The political right, frustrated by the perceived failure of the 1994 revolution, decided to adopt its own version of Clinton’s “third way” politics by embracing George W. Bush and his “compassionate conservatism.” But on the left, those who resented Clinton’s market-oriented, free-trade policies finally gained the upper hand, shutting down the Seattle World Trade Organization talks in 1999, inaugurating the anti-globalization movement.
Things were unraveling overseas, as well. The Oslo Peace Process, which Clinton had pushed, and which promised a “new Middle East,” collapsed, and a new wave of terror began.
Just days later, the U.S.S. Cole was attacked by Al Qaeda, the follow-up to the embassy bombings of two years before, and a sign that Clinton’s cruise-missile, light-footprint response to those attacks had encouraged rather than placated the enemy.
The party was over. And Americans were tired of it.
Culturally, for instance, it was a time of stagnation. The Clinton era was a time of classic-rock revival and derivative hip-hop, each mining the past for inspiration as major stars died out. Grunge and alternative rose and fell in an arc of self-loathing. Across the arts, nostalgia for more meaningful times–what Harvard critic Philip Fisher mocked as “nightmare envy”–was a dominant theme.
Beneath the surface of Clinton-era complacency also lay the roots of future crises. The president reauthorized the Community Reinvestment Act in 1999, for example, pushing big banks into subprime lending and setting the stage for the 2007-8 housing crisis.
At the same time, Clinton cronies like Jack Lew and Rahm Emanuel seized the opportunity of deregulation for self-enrichment at the country’s decrepit “too big to fail” banks.
It was Bill Clinton’s lies about his personal life that led to his impeachment; it was his manipulation and broken promises that led to public disenchantment. And that came at the worst possible time.
A newly-globalized world, under attack by the far-left, the Islamists, and thinly-disguised nationalists, needed an effective leader to guide it through turbulent times, to affirm the value of freedom despite the great risks involved.
But Clinton had undermined himself, and his collapse left no political successors. His “New Democrats,” who once sought to move the party beyond old labor alliances and leftist dogmas, withered and faded.
Worse, Clinton abandoned his own achievements. Later, when President Obama gutted welfare reform’s work requirements, Clinton refused to criticize him, collaborating in the death of his own legacy–all for the sake of 2016.
Democrats forget all of that now, and the “Clinton fatigue” of 1999-2000. But what they still remembered about the Clintons in 2008 was their dishonesty.
To moderates, that was a virtue: when Hillary mouthed the new left-wing rhetoric of her party, they knew she was saying what she thought would win primary voters.
But to others, it was a fatal flaw. They preferred Barack Obama’s apparent left-wing authenticity (though Bill Clinton warned it was a “fairy tale”).
Hillary Clinton has all of the fakery, and none of the charm, of her husband. From her comical pandering to the black community, to her cover-ups at the State Department, she has done little of substance to redeem her duplicity.
After Obama’s many failures, Americans may be content to embrace someone they never trusted anyway. But those lies do make a “difference,” and opponents ought to remind Americans of that, constantly.