Bill Clinton has some advice for Democrats heading into the 2012 elections, and you don't have to read very far into his new book to realize that what he has to say should be of particular interest to the current occupant of the White House. The former president thinks President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats have the right policies but have done a poor job of getting their message out. Mr. Clinton is worried that if that doesn't change, the Democrats will face another Republican shellacking like the one they endured in 2010. With this slender volume, "Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy," he seeks to fill that void.
At the heart of Mr. Clinton's prescription for what ails America — and the Democratic Party's 2012 election prospects — is one big idea: Government, in a democracy, is supposed to serve the broad public interest. Its job is not only to provide for the common defense but also to assist the most vulnerable citizens; ensure equal access to opportunity; promote economic development; regulate financial markets; advance scientific research; protect the country's air, water and food supplies; and raise the revenues needed to accomplish all these tasks and more.
For 200 years, Mr. Clinton argues, there existed a broad consensus among leaders in Congress and the White House that these were essential functions of government, no matter which party was in power. Partisans on both sides may have differed over the best policies to achieve the nation's goals, but there was never any doubt that there were some responsibilities only government could fulfill.
That mission was hijacked, Mr. Clinton says, by the rise of an extreme right-wing ideology that perversely cast government not as an instrument for advancing the nation's goals but as the source of all the country's problems. Instead of seeing government's purpose as being to create the conditions for expanding prosperity and opportunity among its citizens, it insisted that government itself was "the enemy."
Mr. Clinton traces this development to the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980. Mr. Reagan had campaigned on a pledge to cut taxes and shrink the size of government, and when his administration took office it immediately set about dismantling programs dedicated to improving education, housing, health care, nutrition and environmental protection. Under the rubric of eliminating government "waste and fraud," it shredded the social safety net while deregulating banks and businesses and pouring billions into a massive defense buildup.
To cap it all off, Mr. Reagan slashed taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals, arguing that lower taxes would spur economic growth to create new jobs and industries that would benefit everyone.
That didn't happen, and Mr. Clinton offers persuasive evidence that the net effect of Mr. Reagan's anti-government agenda was actually stagnant job growth, the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs, rising income inequality and a ballooning national debt as government continued to grow in size but now was financed by foreign creditors rather than through domestic tax revenues.
"From 1981 to 2009," Mr. Clinton writes, "the greatest accomplishment of the anti-government Republicans was not to reduce the size of the federal government but to stop paying for it." As a result, he says, "the national debt more than quadrupled from 1981 through 1992, then doubled again between 2001 and 2009."
Mr. Clinton places the blame for the current partisan gridlock in Washington squarely on the Republican anti-government tea party caucus in Congress, whose insistence on not raising taxes under any circumstances nearly caused the U.S. to default on its payments to foreign creditors like the Chinese during last summer's crisis over raising the federal debt ceiling.
What the former president finds so galling, however, is that Republicans have managed to convince so many Americans that the steps the Obama administration took to mitigate the worst consequences of the 2008 financial collapse either didn't work or, worse, left us in an even more untenable situation than before. Tea party Republicans have been particularly insistent that draconian cuts in government spending are necessary to restore the economy to health — even though the anti-tax ideologues were largely responsible for running up the debt in the first place, and big spending cuts during a downturn are likely to make matters worse, not better.
On the contrary, the former president writes, if Mr. Obama had not bailed out the banks and auto companies when he did, and offered states billions of dollars in stimulus funds to keep teachers, firefighters and police officers on the job, the economy would have sunk into another Great Depression rather than the recession that technically ended in June or July of 2009.
What worries Mr. Clinton most is that, so far at least, Mr. Obama hasn't seemed able to make that case convincingly to the public, nor counter the impression, endlessly reiterated by conservative TV commentators and newspapers columnists, that his administration's economic policies based on investments in education, public infrastructure and new sources of sustainable green energy are taking the country in the wrong direction.
Mr. Clinton clearly approves of what Mr. Obama has been able to accomplish, despite the disastrous hand (two wars and a near meltdown of the country's financial system) he was dealt on taking office. And the former president's book is full of wonkish policy prescriptions for putting Americans back to work and growing the economy again, though he acknowledges the partisan paralysis on Capitol Hill may prevent Mr. Obama from making much progress toward solving the country's problems until after next year's elections. But if the current White House occupant continues to lose the rhetorical battle of ideas to his anti-government opponents, by then it may be too late.