It’s been 16 years since a Democrat moved into the White House. Now, the fog of memory and the spin of media are teaming up to explain that Barack Obama must hew to “the center” if he knows what’s good for his presidency.
“Many political observers,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported days ago, say that Obama “must tack toward the political mainstream to avoid miscalculations made by President Bill Clinton, who veered left and fired up the 1994 Republican backlash.” This storyline provides a kind of political morality play: The new president tried to govern from the left, and Democrats lost control of Congress just two years later.
But, if facts matter, the narrative is a real head-scratcher.
During the 1992 election year, Clinton had campaigned for the White House under the mantra “Putting People First.” But as economic analyst Doug Henwood was to comment, President-elect Clinton swiftly morphed into the champion of an austerity plan that could have been called “Putting Bondholders First.”
From the outset, President Clinton made clear his commitments to the corporate centers of economic power by choosing such officials as Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, trade representative Mickey Kantor and Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
Soon after becoming president, Clinton abandoned his few initial stances that might qualify as “left.” He quickly deserted his brief position for gay rights in the military. Under fire for his nomination of progressive law professor Lani Guinier to be assistant attorney general for civil rights, Clinton tossed her overboard.
In sharp contrast, the new president fought like hell for the corporate-beloved trade agreement known as NAFTA. And he spread his wings as a deficit hawk, while his campaign’s pledges of “public investment” fell to earth with paltry line items. Less than five months into his presidency, Newsweek lauded Clinton’s “shift to the right” and urged him to show “the backbone” to stay there.
But none of that has stopped the media’s clucking about the Clinton administration’s early “lurch to the left.” The myth never died, though it was quickly ripe for debunking.
In real time, one of the most astute debunkers was Barbara Ehrenreich. As the only writer from the left with a regular column in a major U.S. newsmagazine (she later got the boot), Ehrenreich wrote a Time piece in mid-June 1993 that directly addressed the nascent mythology. The incoming president’s leftward lurch was “a neat parable,” she noted, “but it never happened.”
Ehrenreich added: “The lurch to the left is like the ‘stab in the back’ invented by right-wing Germans after World War One: an instant myth designed to discredit all one’s political enemies in one fell swoop. … Maybe it’s been so long that we’ve forgotten what ‘left’ is and how to tell it from right. At the simplest, most ecumenical level, to be on the left means to take the side of the underdog, whoever that may be: the meek, the poor and, generally speaking, the ‘least among us,’ as a well-known representative of the left position put it a couple of millenniums ago.”
More than 15 years after Barbara Ehrenreich wrote those words, the tall tale of President Clinton’s lurch to the left is still in the air. Warning Democratic politicians against being “liberal” or moving “left” remains a time-honored — even compulsive — media ritual. But as Barack Obama fills key economic posts in his administration, the left-leery and corporate-friendly press is likely to be quite content.