Thursday, June 10, 2010

Did Clinton Shift to the Center?

Brendan Nyhan took down some myth-building by Fred Barnes this week, but in the process I think that Nyhan (and Matt Yglesias, in a follow-up) added to another myth: Bill Clinton's "shift" from left to center after the 1994 election. 

Was there a shift?  I don't really think so.  Certainly not on spending; Clinton's 1993 budget cut spending (and raised taxes) in order to shrink the deficit.  Republicans simply ignored the spending cuts, much as today's Republicans have ignored the tax cuts in Barack Obama's stimulus bill.  The accusation that Clinton governed from the left in 1993-1994 is based on the same sorts of logic that today go into accusations that Obama is a consists of cherry-picking the most liberal things Clinton did, ignoring other things, and then sprinkling in a healthy dose of fantasy and nonsense.  Clinton, of course, did propose major health care reform, which is certainly a liberal project.  That's fair enough.  But there was nothing particularly liberal about his deficit-slashing budget, or about his push to ratify NAFTA.  Nor was his crime bill (another big GOP talking point in 1994) some sort of extreme left-wing legislation.  I've always thought Clinton was ultimately a liberal, but the left was probably far more unhappy with him in 1994 than they are with Obama today (although perhaps less disappointed, since few on the left ever thought of Clinton as one of theirs to begin with). 

And after 1994?  I think it's fair to say that Clinton gave up on major liberal legislative action that was at any rate impossible in the Gingrich Congress.  Welfare reform was centrist.  But Clinton's most notable effort in 1995-1996 was his battle for liberal priorities against GOP attacks.  Conservatives would like to think that the Gingrich Congress (and, I suppose, a centrist Clinton) produced the Clinton-era budget surpluses, but in reality that was the 1990 and 1993 budget deals that conservatives strongly opposed. 

Ideologically, I'd argue that the 1995-2000 Clinton was the same as the 1993-1994 Clinton, just a little better at handling the spin game.  He fought for and won increases in the minimum wage, and the CHIP health insurance expansion...weren't those liberal ideas?  And he fought against much of the GOP agenda.  On the specific Barnes point, non-defense discretionary spending, it's true that the 1996 budget did have deep cuts in spending...but after that, spending began to rise again.  At any rate, neither the 1994 (2.4%) or 1995 (1.2%) fiscal years had wild increases in real non-defense discretionary spending. 

Of course, had Clinton been more successful with Congress, spending would have been a bit higher at least at first, since he did propose a stimulus package in 1993.  On the other hand, had that passed and worked, the economy would have grown more, and perhaps the Democrats would have done better in 1994.  After all, most people actually like government spending, and almost everyone likes economic growth.

Clinton was always a little tricky for people to place, ideologically...he was always a straddler, never firmly in anyone's camp.   That was true in 1992 during his campaign, true during 1993-1994, and true during the rest of his presidency.  It's always hard to tell with a character like Clinton, but I don't think there was a shift to the center.


  1. Clinton was in the center from the beginning. Before he was president, he chaired the DLC, and as president, he was the poster boy for the efficacy of the DLC way.

  2. He was always a centrist (which doesn't necessarily put one in the center). The '94 election just made it easier for him to be open about it.

  3. Clinton was a centrist in policy terms but wasn't emotionally committed to 'centrism' as an anti-liberal (and anti the McGovern legacy )project the way some other DLCers were


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