Sunday Review on Monday: Bill Clinton at policy network

by Jonathan Todd

In the closing stages of the US presidential election Joe Klein voiced “the frustration that many informed voters have had with this race: Romney’s proposals for the next four years are ridiculous; the President’s are nonexistent … The vast majority of people in the vast majority of states are irrelevant to the process. The campaigns brag about their ability to microtarget voters. That is precisely what we’ve gotten: a whole lot of micro at a time when macro is sorely needed.”

Now that the Republicans have thrown all they could at Barack Obama, securing less popular votes for Mitt Romney than John McCain managed after the nadir of George W Bush and failing to deny the Democrats another four years in the White House, it seems almost churlish to revisit Klein’s moans.

But Bill Clinton brought them to mind last Thursday night at Policy Network and Global Progress’ launch of a major programme of transatlantic political dialogue. While full of praise for Obama’s hyper-efficient machine, which “knew the names of all undecided voters, the names of their children and their TV viewing habits”, Clinton stressed the continued importance of the macro vision that Klein felt was lost this year.

He argued that tough economic conditions set Obama a testing re-election challenge, meaning that he had to utilise every advantage, including micro-targeting of voters so precise as to outdo the slickest corporate campaigns. Progressives should, however, seek to hold the centre, as this will deliver a majority of support, irrespective of micro-targeting.

Such targeting tends to take the identities of voters as fixed and ceaselessly recalibrates messaging to better appeal to them. The political centre is not, though, held by those who assume the views of the electorate are fixed but by those that craft new consensuses.

Opportunity for all, responsibility from all – a powerful couplet throughout the Clinton presidency – will again form these consensuses. But different policies are now needed. Lower skilled Americans – as with many in Britain – have stopped believing in a better tomorrow. This is morally and socially troubling, as well as bad economics, because the strongest economies grow from the middle class outwards, rather than via trickle down from the top.

This calls for a middle class investment strategy. But progressives must “walk and chew gum at the same time”, which is to say that this investment has to occur alongside a strategy for sound public finances. This places a premium on investments that both help families now and raise the productive capacity of the economy over the longer-term.

Sound public finance also requires a renewal of Clinton’s reinventing government programme, which Doug Alexander – as the shadow foreign secretary was called by the American think-tanker interviewing Clinton – had referenced in an earlier session. This programme, as Clinton noted, resulted in the federal government employing the same number of people at the end of Clinton’s presidency as during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, while executing far more responsibilities.

Never have I known a Labour politician so defiantly celebrate the delivery of more for less. Nor champion the ripping up of 16,000 pages of regulation, which reduced burdens on business with no adverse consequences, or say that derivatives are a good thing, which enable the harvesting of crops in America.

Equally, rarely have I heard a leading politician talk as passionately about climate change as Clinton, noting that we are now in the second decade of insurance payments in the US for extreme weather incidents tripling compared to the previous decade. While hurricane Sandy cannot be attributed to climate change, the rising temperature of the oceans can and storms tend to become more severe upon warm waters.

Clinton is as eager to eliminate unnecessary burdens upon business as in the 1990s but his long-standing support for globalisation comes with a new caveat. This can only be combined with rising incomes at all levels – and, thus, growth from the middle class outwards –if new sources of employment are created each decade.

Such creation demands new partnerships between the public and private sectors. With this green jobs could be the new source of employment for the coming decade that the dot-com boom was during Clinton’s presidency. It seems to me, though, that such jobs, at least in Europe, require significant policy change.

Peter Mandelson introduced the relatively youthful panel on which Alexander participated by saying it is for this new generation to devise a new third way. They didn’t always convince, especially the Spanish and French speakers who both seemed bizarrely unable to join up the dots between their domestic struggles and the Euro crisis.

In contrast, the godfather of the original third way wave was the exception to the injunction to not meet heroes to avoid disappointment. He exuded a restless, relentless energy – even boasting, as if it were ever in doubt, that he “has the eyes of 20 year old” – and a conviction that with enough bold imagination progressives can project the macro vision necessary to hold the centre ground. These qualities may yet prove indispensable if a certain former first lady chooses to run in 2016, and ultimately take this ex-president  back to the White House.

Jonathan Todd is economic columnist for Labour Uncut

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2 Responses to “Sunday Review on Monday: Bill Clinton at policy network”

  1. Ben Cobley says:

    A good summation. Clinton was particularly good on climate change and micro-targeting, I thought. On the latter, I got him down saying, “This is the triumph of identity politics, which is zero sum…We are in no business being in the micro-targeting business.” Instead, “We are in politics to crate a community.”

    It also occurred to me the next day that in another life he could have been a great country singer, especially with his description of white American high school drop-outs succumbing to alcohol and drugs etc and “dying of broken hearts”.

  2. swatantra says:

    I am basically against political dynasties and families and therefore would not support any Clinton or Bush or Kennedy returning to the White House for at least 25 years. I thought we had grown out of doffing our cap to our betters years ago. In the same way as I would hate to see another Gandhi or Bhutto ruling the sub continent.
    Clinton was spoken as the first ‘black’ president because he advanced their cause, but he ended his career in disgrace as a lier and adulterer, as far as I am concerned. We can do better. Its probably the turn of the Hispanics to go to the White House anyway.

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