Political Hay

Bill Clinton and the Reagan Consensus

Obama's failure, Scott Walker's success: Clinton's support of Reaganomics.

By 6.7.12

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"I thought Bill Clinton was a great President. The first two years were really bad. Then he changed the tune and became even more Reagan than Reagan. He did the '97 Capital Gains Tax Act, he did welfare reform, he appointed Greenspan twice, he pushed NAFTA through Congress, how wonderful was that. "He cut Government spending as a share of GDP by 3½%. He left us with surpluses. This man did a fantastic job for the country. He was a very good President." -- Economist and Reagan aide Arthur Laffer, father of "The Laffer Curve"

Scott Walker wins, while Bill Clinton regales Democrats with boasts of his own economic successes.

The Reagan Consensus Lives.

Bill Clinton is to Ronald Reagan as Dwight D. Eisenhower was to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

And as the Wisconsin Recall recedes into history's rearview mirror, Barack Obama and the Stealth Socialism he represents is nowhere but in trouble.

Which is exactly why all of these stories about the sub rosa rivalry between ex-President Clinton and President Obama are so relevant, not to mention important to understand.

First, Ike and FDR.

Dwight D. Eisenhower famously rode into the White House in 1952 as a genuine American hero. While other presidents had distinguished war records, only a small handful had to that point entered the presidency celebrated for their military genius. Specifically that handful would be the Revolutionary War's George Washington, the War of 1812's Andrew Jackson, the Mexican-American War's Zachary Taylor and the Civil War's Ulysses S. Grant. (Theodore Roosevelt's charge up San Juan Hill had won him accolades in the Spanish-American War but TR was a politician briefly turned citizen-soldier, not a career military man.)

Ike was the man behind D-Day, indisputably one of the central events in ending World War II. He had a fabulous grin and a likeable personality -- not for nothing his campaign's famous slogan, "I Like Ike."

But a political thinker Ike was not, nor did he pretend to be one.

In 1952, the Republican Party had been out of the White House for 20 years. In the space of those 20 years Americans had become convinced that the liberal theory of Big Government -- aka the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt and the Fair Deal of Harry Truman -- was the wave of the future. Modernity was here -- and Big Government was its name.

In 1936, 1940, 1944 and 1948 the GOP had begun a conscious shift to acceptance of what Barry Goldwater would later scorn as the "dime store New Deal." The Big Government idea was accepted as political gospel -- and GOP progressives or liberals believed that the route to political success for both the GOP and country was to simply swallow the concept whole. Presidential nominees opposing FDR and Truman -- Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie, and Thomas E. Dewey twice -- were all liberal Republicans.

Ironically, so too was the much maligned Herbert Hoover a progressive Republican, his ideas on the role of government being so acceptable to Democrats in 1920 that a young FDR thought Hoover should be the Democratic nominee to face Ohio's Republican Warren Harding. Hoover, alas, declared for the GOP and was made Harding's Commerce Secretary -- a post he held for a wary Calvin Coolidge as well. (Coolidge would famously remark that Hoover had spent the Coolidge presidency giving him advice -- "all of it bad" -- but made no move to stop his Commerce Secretary from being nominated to replace him in 1928.)

Eisenhower was very much in the moderate Republican role. Not as a result of any thorough study of political philosophy -- he was a student of matters military. But to the extent he had thought politics through, Ike was a thorough-going moderate. Like Hoover, Eisenhower too was a favorite of Democrats, many of whom wanted to draft him to replace Truman atop the 1948 Democratic ticket. By 1952 his biggest backers included Dewey and Massachusetts GOP liberal Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. His biggest opponent was famously Ohio's conservative "Mr. Republican" Senator Robert Taft. If the initial GOP split over Big Government had occurred in 1912 with the battle between Taft's presidential father William Howard Taft and then-ex GOP president Theodore Roosevelt, the next huge intra-party battle was between Robert Taft and Ike.

By 1952, after 20 years of the New Deal and Fair Deal, Taft had begun to form a cohesive intellectual refutation of Big Government. Simultaneous to this, the conservative intellectual revolution that would be the foundation for today's conservative movement was taking shape. A young William F. Buckley, Jr. had already burst onto the national scene as the author of a scathing attack on liberalism in education -- God and Man at Yale.

But Taft's views and the nascent conservative movement were no match for Ike's military glamour, and in a tumultuous convention Ike emerged as the Republican nominee. He trounced the Democrats' Adlai Stevenson as well.

The Eisenhower presidency never took on the underlying precept of Big Government that was the foundation for the FDR and Truman presidencies. As the first Republican to take charge of the White House after the New Deal, Eisenhower flatly refused to take it on as Taft clearly intended to do.

But the fact of the matter was that when Eisenhower took office as president in January of 1953, the political consensus of the day was that Big Government was the wave of the future. Ike accepted that view. In the eight years that were Eisenhower's popular two terms in the White House, there were zero attempts to challenge the premise. In fact, Eisenhower went about creating one of the modern behemoths of the federal government -- the Cabinet Department of Health and Welfare, now renamed the Department of Health and Human Services. It is from this perch today that Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is busily implementing Obamacare as per the expansions of power provided her department by today's Big Government congressional champions Pelosi and Reid.

By the time Eisenhower handed the reins to young John F. Kennedy in 1961, the FDR-New Deal view of activist Big Government had been seemingly cemented forever. And why wouldn't it seem that way? Not only had Eisenhower not done anything to challenge the idea, his designated successor as the 1960 GOP nominee, Vice President Richard Nixon, had swallowed the concept whole, as was evidenced in his losing campaign against JFK.

Which brings us to Bill Clinton.

By the time Clinton took office as the first Democrat to succeed Ronald Reagan, the consensus over the role of Big Government had been irretrievably smashed. In its place stood the new consensus -- the Reagan Consensus. An understanding that taxes must be kept low to encourage economic growth -- and that spending had to be restrained.

No one was more acutely aware of this than Bill Clinton himself. He had in fact spent years positioning himself as a "centrist" or "New Democrat." Working with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, Clinton fought to give the Democrats a more moderate veneer after years of McGovern, Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis had left Americans with the realization that Liberalism was hopelessly captured by tax-and-spend special interests -- with public employee unions at the top of the list.

Yet once elected president, Clinton plunged into the presidency as an activist Democrat in the mold of his hero JFK, With a bust of FDR on his desk, Clinton and wife Hillary spent two years fighting the Reagan Consensus with "HillaryCare" -- a government-controlled health care system. They failed. According to aide George Stephanopoulos, the quickly frustrated President Clinton was grousing that he was being forced to behave as an "Eisenhower Republican."

He wasn't happy -- but if he were going to win re-election Bill Clinton was determined to get on with accommodating the Reagan Consensus.

By 1995, with the 1994 Gingrich-led sweep of Congress on a Reaganesque platform now a fact, Clinton formally acknowledged the new consensus -- the Reagan Consensus. "The era of Big Government is over," he proclaimed in his State of the Union message. And while that was a decided stretch, there was no disagreement that what Ronald Reagan had wrought had now replaced the once central idea in American politics and culture -- that Big Government was the foundation of American politics.

While Clinton tinkered at the margins -- a tax increase and, more lethally, setting in motion the housing crisis of 2008 -- the essence of Reaganomics was kept in place. No less than the Father of Reaganomics, Professor Arthur Laffer of "Laffer Curve" fame, became a Clinton enthusiast as Clinton adapted his presidency and ceased fighting the Reagan Consensus. Laffer happily voted for Clinton in 1996 over the non-Reaganite Bob Dole.

Which is to say, Bill Clinton became to the Reagan Consensus what Dwight Eisenhower was to FDR's New Deal Consensus.

As Eisenhower refused to undo Roosevelt, after a brief but futile -- not to mention politically lethal -- try, Bill Clinton raised the white flag and became, on economics, "even more Reagan than Reagan."

Is there any wonder that there is tension between the Clinton and Obama camps?

Barack Obama's famously stated intent in 2008 was to "transform" America. Or, in other words, to replace the Reagan Consensus with a new Obama Consensus. A consensus that Obama critics immediately accused of being outright socialism -- or, in the words of our friend Bob Tyrrell's new book The Death of Liberalism, "Stealth Socialism."

Here's the twist.

Unlike Bill Clinton's 1993-1994 failed attempt to do some version of the same thing -- Obama succeeded. For two solid years in 2009 and 2010, President Obama and the Pelosi/Reid-led House and Senate not only followed Obama's decidedly Leftist transformational agenda, they did it with gusto. Then, as with Clinton, Team Obama got clobbered in the off-year elections -- this time not for trying but thankfully failing, as did Clinton, but for succeeding.

The really key difference between Obama and Clinton at that pivot point was that in spite of the massive 2010 defeat by the GOP, unlike Clinton -- who changed course after the massive 1994 defeat -- Obama kept on keeping on. Barack Obama was indeed committed to transforming America in his increasingly politically mad quest to socialize America.

To wax cultural, Obama seemed increasingly to resemble no one as much as the mad Dr. Henry Frankenstein in his fanatic quest to bring life to a monster -- except in Obama's case the monster is Socialism. For someone who has been tagged by one of his devoted supporters (Oprah) as "The One," the Dr. Frankenstein analogy is considerably apt, as the good doctor in the famous film version of Mary Shelly's tale went insane playing God in the attempt to bring his monster to life.

For a little post-Wisconsin humor, take a look at Dr. Obama – er, Frankenstein -- in this clip from the 1931 classic, where the English actor Colin Clive gave his immortal performance as the mad Dr. Frankenstein. The dialogue is, to Obama critics, not all that far from the Obama/Left-wing obsession with reviving the failed economics of Socialism/Liberalism/Big Government.

Exclaims the doctor to a skeptical on-looking Dr. Victor Moritz as the covered monster lies on a nearby table, shockingly jolted into life:

Henry Frankenstein: Look! It's moving. It's alive. It's alive... It's alive, it's moving, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, it's alive, IT'S ALIVE!

Dr. Victor Moritz: Henry -- In the name of God!

Henry Frankenstein: Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!

Eventually, of course, the terrified townspeople come looking for the monster, torches in hand.

On Tuesday, realizing the monster of Socialism/Liberalism that had been set loose in their state, the voters of Wisconsin overwhelmingly came to the aid of the governor who was determined to stop the political monster in its tracks.

They supported Scott Walker because what he was promising was a return to the Reagan Consensus. To make certain that Wisconsin was returned to a world of low taxes and balanced budgets. The only world in which jobs can be created -- as 21 million of them were created nationally in the Reagan era with another 21 million or so in the Clinton era. The Clinton era -- in which Bill Clinton accepted the fundamental tenets of the Reagan Consensus, essentially keeping Reagan's policies in place and expanding them.

Or, as Art Laffer has said, conducting the Clinton presidency as "more Reagan than Reagan."

Bill Clinton is now out and about boasting about his economic record as president. A record that is infinitely better than Obama's -- and Obama knows it.

Which is why Bill Clinton is driving Barack Obama nuts.

Obama sees Clinton as little short of a saboteur -- praising Romney for his "sterling" business record, refusing to join in attacking Romney's Bain Capital, the capitalist, wealth creating -- job creating -- business of private equity. Or as seen here, Clinton is suggesting the Bush tax cuts should be extended -- although not permanently. Here is ex-Clinton aide Dick Morris on Hannity discussing precisely how deliberate all of this undermining of Obama is on the part of Clinton.

Just last night, Morris suggested on O’Reilly not only that Clinton is deliberately undermining Obama, but that (Reason 3)  Clinton is in fact a real "free market, free enterprise, balance the budget guy" -- Morris's words. Precisely Reaganite Art Laffer's conclusion based on Clinton's actual economic record as president.

There is personal tension -- the ex-president husband of Obama's one-time rival and now Secretary of State seen as plotting her ascension still.

But doubtless what really angers Obama and his fellow leftists on the heels of the Wisconsin disaster is the realization that the attempt to create a new Obama Consensus, a "New New Deal" in the mold of FDR, to whom Obama was once compared by Time -- has failed.

Failed miserably.

And in the irony of ironies, every time Bill Clinton goes out in front of a microphone somewhere to remind Americans of his own economic legacy, he is reminding them of a central fact of history.

In the words of Art Laffer, when it came to economics, Bill Clinton was "more Reagan than Reagan."

Ronald Reagan won the blue state of Wisconsin -- twice.

Barack Obama stayed away from Wisconsin. Bill Clinton showed up.

Scott Walker won.

The Reagan Consensus won.

Bill Clinton's real message got through.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.