Advice for Ed: Bill Clinton’s lessons for Ed Miliband

by David Talbot

There are many legacies of the Bill Clinton presidency, not all of them, admittedly, particularly advisable, but two should influence Ed Miliband most of all as he strides across the platform in Manchester to deliver his third speech as Labour leader.

Turning the clocks back 19 years, a newly-elected Bill Clinton already faced the most daunting task of his fledging presidency. He had ridden a wave of optimism, with a degree of luck, to easily defeat rival Democrats for the nomination and sweep George H. W. Bush from the White House with consummate ease. But his campaign pledge of “fighting for the forgotten middle class” with tax cuts, investment in education and a new health care plan was immediately in danger upon his inauguration with the realisation that the deficit had to be attacked in order to ensure the long-term health of the economy.

The president was faced with the unenviable situation of being forced into delivering economic pain now so that growth could return years later – just in time for his successors. The first few months of the administration was a fight for the mind of the president as to which strategy to honour.

It was the most important legislative issue of the Clinton presidency. Clinton chose a budget of tax rises, spending cuts and a clear commitment of rein in the deficit. It cleared Congress by two votes and the Senate by a single vote. Enactment of the legislation was viewed at the White House as essential to Clinton’s ultimate success as president.

Seven years later, 21 million jobs and the longest economic expansion in US history, it is fair to say Clinton got it right. The US enjoyed its first budget surplus in nearly 30 years as incomes rose on successive years. It was, though, painful. The president broke a direct campaign pledge and personally paid a heavy price on his political conscience.

The similarity with Clinton in 1993 and Miliband in 2012 are stark. Just as then, the economy is a mess. Unemployment is rising; the deficit is enormous, personal debt frighteningly high, the property market in freefall. The economy is going to be central to the struggle for Downing Street in 2015, just as it was for Clinton’s White House bid in 1992.

The first legacy Miliband should take from this past president is one of fiscal responsibility – that of appealing to those voters who consider themselves conservative on debt and deficit issues. At this present time, whether the Labour party likes it or not, that means three quarters of the British public. The second is that it may be appropriate to break campaign promises, or to go directly against the ideological grain of a party’s thought, because of changing political circumstances.

The villains in the Clinton struggle for his 1993 budget were militant Republicans and in particular Senator Bob Dole and Speaker of the House Newt Gringrich. The US people never forgot their intransigence, including the shutting down of the federal government  in 1995, and duly gave Dole a kicking in the 1996 presidential election and rewarded Gringrich with a mere 14% of the vote in the Republican primaries some seventeen years later.

The Labour leader needs to at long last detail a clear line on the deficit in his conference speech. The early days that ushered in the New Year where Miliband, with his Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, sketched out a position of fiscal realism seem worryingly long ago.

Miliband has a choice. He can continue the fantasy that a new Labour government would return to the spending levels seen in the boom of the 2000s. Or he can accept, as Clinton did, the political and economic reality in which he now operates in.

Clinton didn’t become president to cut the deficit; but he realised it was a means to an end to achieve the political ambitions he held for himself, his party and his country.

David Talbot is a political consultant

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7 Responses to “Advice for Ed: Bill Clinton’s lessons for Ed Miliband”

  1. swatantra says:

    I don’t think Ed M needs o take any lessons from the ol’ Bill, the Sunny Jim and self confessed adulterer and denier (but you had to drag it out of him).
    Of course its the economy, stupid. But having said that, I always take the Panglossian view, it’ll turn out all right in the end no, matter which idiots are in charge. There’s a natural law which says so, and booms are often followed by busts; its all so inevitable, and predictble.

  2. David Talbot says:

    Swatantra that really is the most half-arsed ‘analysis’ I’ve ever seen.

  3. aragon says:

    The British Public have the economic literacy of Mr Macawber. Thirty years of neoliberalism make it mainstream but wrong.

    Like ‘New Labour’, Bill Clinton had no economic or political philosophy of it’s own, just neoliberalism lite.

    Fiscal responsibility a policy that has worked so well for George Osbourne, and Europe. Ignore the rioting on the streets (Greece, Spain – UK?) it is working, (375Bn of QE later) like a hole in the head.

    The last thing we need is a re-run of ‘New Labour’, the british value free equivalent of Bill Clinton.

    Labour needs to offer an alternative to the self-defeating, downward spiral of cuts and austerity.

  4. Amber Star says:

    “The second is that it may be appropriate to break campaign promises”
    Do not make campaign promises which you do not intend to keep should be lesson 1 in politics, post Clegg’s fall from grace & his cringe-making ‘apology’.

    Never has a poltician looked more pathetic than Clegg did when issuing a non-apology style apology about a promise which he made, & knew at the time that he didn’t intend to keep.

  5. JohnB says:

    This is economically naive. Britain in 2015 is not the US in 1993. If austerity is all that’s needed to sort the economy out, how come it’s not working for Osborne? In any case, Miliband is not promising a return to the spending levels of the 2000s. This is your fantasy, not his.

  6. Amber Star says:

    Osborne will be leaving a note for Ed Balls:

    The QE is all gone; it is stashed in various tax havens with the rest of loot. Good luck, old bean, you’re going to need it.

  7. Amber Star says:

    Meanwhile, back to sad reality where the Tories are still in office & Mervyn King is still in power.

    The left are on the rise in Europe; most notably Hollande in France. Let’s see what the impact of careful cuts combined with high wealth taxes does for the French economy. If it works & Labour plan to use it as a model, they should say so. There should be no conning of the voters in the run up to the GE; that is unacceptable now, even if it was okay for Clinton.

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