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Dan Hind
Dan Hind
Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His pamphlet Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty, was published as an e-book in March. He is a member of the Tax Justice Network.
History is written by the winners
Bill Clinton's genius lay in winning and keeping the affection of those "whose interests he betrayed", writes Hind.
Last Modified: 16 Sep 2012 16:26
Bill Clinton "tailored his lifestyle and his persona" to give a down-home sheen of plausibility to policies that served the interests of a tiny minority [EPA]

No one who watched former President Bill Clinton's speech to the Democratic National Convention last week could have failed to be struck by his gifts as an orator. Emerging on stage to his campaign song from 20 years ago, Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow", he proceeded to remind the audience why he had been such a formidable election winner.

Clinton established his bipartisan credentials by pointing out that as a governor he had worked with President Reagan "on the first round of welfare reform and with President HW Bush on national education goals". He praised President Eisenhower for sending troops "to my home state to integrate Little Rock Central High School".

Clinton couldn't bring himself to hate the Republicans like the right-wingers in the Republican Party hated the Democrats, he told the crowd. He then proceeded to eviscerate the Republicans' economic record while managing to sound conciliatory and moderate.

Running in 1992 against an incumbent president fresh from victory in the Middle East, Clinton had convinced the Democratic Party, a significant slice of the plutocracy, and a plurality of voters, that he was right candidate to guide the US in the post-Cold War world.

Like any great political operator he had luck on his side, in the form of Ross Perot's independent campaign for the presidency, which badly damaged Bush's campaign. But there was much more to his eight years in office than luck.

Interest in opinion polls

Clinton combined soaringly optimistic rhetoric and a likeable manner with a stern insistence on the need to compete in a rapidly changing world. The changes brought by globalisation were inevitable. Trade barriers were coming down. Capital was on the move. Workers had no choice but to re-train and try harder. Governments had no choice but to deregulate. 

 

 Democrats prepare for Clinton address

This was much more pleasing to the ears of the big donors and their friends in the intellectual and media establishments than Bush Senior's whiggish blather about a "kinder, gentler America". Maybe Bush had won the Cold War. Clinton could win them the peace.

This was a lesson for left-of-centre politicians around the world. They could drop all the troublesome commitment to social democracy and public ownership. Instead they could dress smartly, look lively and announce their uncompromising commitment to the information superhighway, whatever that was, the future and all things new. 

In Britain, the imitation was particularly abject. Having watched the "New Democrats" triumph in 1992, the team around Tony Blair re-branded their party as "New Labour".

In the White House as well as on the campaign trial, Clinton took an obsessive interest in opinion polls. But while some of his less astute critics saw this as a sign of timid populism, in truth he used his detailed knowledge of popular opinion precisely in order to frustrate it.

In The Foreign Policy Disconnect, Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton review the relationship between polling data and government policy in the United States over several administrations. They describe the campaign to secure the North America Free Trade Agreement headed by Clinton as "the sharpest observed divergence between policymakers and the public on economic foreign policy". No mean achievement for the man from Hope.

In general, his eight years in office saw the continued advance of the same interests that had benefited most from his predecessors. Inequality, already steepening under Reagan and Bush Senior, grew even more pronounced.

Under the guidance of Larry Summers, Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin (the men Time magazine memorably called "the committee to save the world") the financial sector boomed and corporate America became ever more audaciously corrupt.

Nothing was done to prevent the steady expansion of credit that would lead to disaster in the decade that followed. Those who expressed reservations, like Robert Reich and Joseph Stiglitz, were eased out.

Vote-winning smile

Clinton's genius lay in winning and keeping the affection of those whose interests he betrayed. It is this that best characterises his career. He tailored his lifestyle and his persona to give a down-home sheen of plausibility to policies that served the interests of a tiny minority. His personal charm reconciled Americans to a world where government by the people receded ever further from view. 

"Like any great political operator he had luck on his side... But there was much more to his eight years in office than luck."

Clinton assured them that inequality didn't matter. In 1996 he told an audience in Taylor, Michigan that "we are not a people who object to others being successful; we do not resent people amassing their own wealth fairly won in a free enterprise system".

Keen scholar that he is Clinton must have known that a Republic can only survive so much inequality. After all, in the words of Noah Webster, "property is the basis of power" and "an equality of property... is the very soul of a republic".

Clinton was not satisfied with betraying his contemporaries. He saw fit to defame the Republic too, in the service of a sharp-witted and shameless financial oligarchy.

In his determination to win a second term Barack Obama looks set to follow Clinton's footsteps. After an inspirational campaign in 2008, he delivered what Wall Street wanted more effectively than the Republicans could have done. While Clinton allowed the bankers to enrich themselves massively, Obama made sure they could keep their gains, no matter how ill-gotten.

As he himself explained to a room full of banking executives in 2009, "my administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks". After four years of faithful service, he is on track to beat a lacklustre Republican and spend another four revelling in his status as a winner.

Perhaps, we can look forward to Obama's appearance at a Democratic National Convention in 25 years or so, when time has erased the details of his two terms defending inequality and the new forms of power it underpinned.

The music - his music - will start up and that amazing, vote-winning smile will remind us of the future that he never stopped promising, and was always determined to prevent.

Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His pamphlet, Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty, was published as an e-book in March. He is a member of the Tax Justice Network.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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