Why I'm Not Voting for Clinton
Katha Pollitt, The Nation
October 11, 1996
In 1992, I voted for Bill Clinton. Despite Rickey Ray Rector, the brain-damaged prisoner whose execution Clinton left the campaign trail to supervise. Despite the demagogic pledge to "end welfare as we know it." Despite Sister Souljah. Despite his by no means progressive record as Governor of Arkansas, a state run, as we all now know, as a kind of business-elite fiefdom. I voted for Clinton because, even though he represented the right wing of the Democratic Party, he was better than George Bush: on reproductive rights, AIDS, gay rights, Haitian immigrants (remember them?). He didn't tell mothers not to work, or insist that the Endangered Species Act had us all up to our necks in spotted owls, or blather about points of light. If Clinton won, I thought, the political discourse, set so long by the right, would surely move left; although he was no progressive, his presidency would enlarge the space for progressive politics both inside and outside government. Maybe you had the same thought when you cast your vote four years ago.
We were wrong. In 1996 we can say with some certainty that Clinton has more than fulfilled the fears of critics who received a great deal of grief in the early years of the new Administration for being too "negative" and "carping." Michael Kazin and Maurice Isserman's 1994 Nation article urging leftists to give Clinton a break looks positively quaint today. Among his accomplishments they list the "affirmative action" appointments of Mike Espy, Ron Brown and Janet Reno, three big disasters; a "sexually explicit" anti-AIDS campaign (what?); an expanded definition of homelessness (with expanded actual homelessness soon to come); and access and jobs for our side (plus the chance to quit on principle). Yes, in a few high-profile areas Clinton has been less bad than Bush would have been: the Supreme Court (but not the lower courts), abortion rights, the largely symbolic assault weapons ban and the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Violence Against Women Act. But it's a short, narrowly tailored list. On many of the great issues before government he's continued Bush's policies -- the crime bill, the neglect of the cities, the erosion of civil liberties and privacy, NAFTA. On some -- welfare, food stamps -- he's arguably been worse.
Liberal defenders of Clinton blame the 1994 Republican victories for his current conservative stands, particularly on welfare. But it was Clinton himself who made welfare a burning issue. His original welfare proposal, which Gloria Steinem and other feminists now portray as benevolent, included many of the punitive features of the bill he eventually signed -- cutoffs, time limits, forced work. Donna Shalala herself (whose shameful tenure as secretary of H.H.S. is hardly an argument for getting "liberal to radical activists" into government service) admitted that under the Clinton plan some mothers would lose their children.
Besides misreading the actual chronology of events, blaming Gingrich for Clinton takes much too narrow a view of politics. Clinton and Gingrich are part of the same worldwide phenomenon: the slashing of the welfare state, the lowering of the working class's standard of living and the upward transfer of wealth. You can plausibly argue that Clinton prepared Gingrich's way by accepting Republican terms of debate.
Of course, we cannot know what a second Bush Administration would have brought. We can safely say, though, that we would not see Bernie Sanders voting for more prisons and Carol Moseley-Braun advocating trying 13-year-olds as adults. We would not have Barbara Mikulski and Tom Harkin voting to abolish the federal entitlement to welfare, or Nita Lowey supporting abstinence-only sex education. We would have an opposition in Congress -- and out of it too. If Bush had proposed the Clinton health plan, single-payer activists would never have signed on to flack it. If Bush had suggested hooking up to the Internet schools that don't have enough desks he would have been ridiculed as a clueless showboater. And if a bill cutting $54 billion out of public assistance had come up during his tenure, Marian Wright Edelman, Jesse Jackson and Gloria Steinem would have been out in the streets. Who knows, Donna Shalala might have been there too.
Clinton supporters like Steinem argue that progressives are to blame for the failures of the Clinton Administration because "we" didn't make a strong enough movement. She's right in a sense, though it's hardly an argument in favor of voting for Clinton. But it leaves out the fact that the weakness of the movement is directly related to its fantasy of access and influence: to the siphoning off of energies into wishy-washy "advocacy," Beltway schmooze and fundraising for "moderate" Democrats who happen to be women or minorities. The motor-voter bill is all very well, but in real life you can't organize poor people by urging them to vote for the man who's taking away their food stamps.
One thing that has always struck me about the relation of the so-called left and Clinton is how profoundly progressives want to believe he's one of us. We must be the only people in America who ever believed he feels our pain. It's always someone else who thwarts his good intentions: the Democratic Leadership Council, Congress, Dick Morris, Al Gore. Ms. editor in chief Marcia Gillespie even blames herself: If only she'd called the White House comment line more often! Up until the minute Clinton signed the welfare bill a lot of liberals thought he'd veto it. Now this same naivete has them believing that he'll "fix" it when a second term allows him to come out as a liberal. Unfortunately for this theory, the United States is not a medieval kingdom where laws can be annulled with a stroke of the royal pen. Nor does the hard business of party politics evaporate after Election Day: There are favors to repay and scores to settle, an organization to be preserved, a successor -- Al Gore? -- to be promoted.
Vote for Clinton again? As Voltaire is said to have replied when the Marquis de Sade invited him to a second orgy, since he'd enjoyed the first one so much: "No, thanks. Once is philosophy, twice is perversion."