A Fabulous Failure. The Clinton Presidency and the Transformation of American Capitalism

Lichtenstein, Nelson; Stein, Judith
Anzahl Seiten
XIII, 525 S.
$ 39.95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Grit Grigoleit-Richter, Amerikanistik/Cultural and Media Studies, Universität Passau

In light of Trump’s rise to power and his victory in 2016, staggering inequalities in every societal aspect, and peaking neoliberalism historian Judith Stein set out to begin a study of the origins of the current dismal. Even though conventional historical knowledge centers the Reagan administration and ensuing Reaganomics at the heart of the neoliberal turning point, Stein examined the Clinton administration as a pivotal moment in U.S. fiscal and public policy. Amid her research she died in 2017, leaving behind a corpus of data that Nelson Lichtenstein, a long-time colleague and pre-eminent historian of 20th century on labor, capital, and political economy, expanded in scope. They convincingly show, how Clinton and the Democratic Party sought to recapture the spirit of Roosevelt’s New Deal, Johnson’s Great Society, and other progressive reformers to change the face of America for the better, but instead paved the way for the right-wing fringe that eventually morphed into a populist reign. As such, they present a meticulous study of how once-progressive ideas, such as the push for a supposedly universal health care reform, were crushed in political battles and the tightening grip of corporate America.

Yet another book on the Clinton era one might ask? In 2023, when A Fabulous Failure was published, Jeremy Kuzmarov also published a book on Clinton’s foreign policy.1 Both are the latest contributions to an already extensive list of both scholarly and journalistic analyses and assessments of Bill Clinton himself2, his presidency3, the many scandals and his impeachment in 19984, or the numerous controversies and contradictions during his time in public life and thereafter.5 Clinton's presidency was undoubtedly one of the most controversial in recent times, with much ink spilled on his work, life and legacy, leading to “Clinton fatigue” as commentators and pollsters referred to the American public's general weariness with Clinton(s).6 Yet as two of Clinton’s signature pieces of legislation, the Federal Crime Bill of 1994 and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, approach their anniversaries, Lichtenstein’s and Stein’s work is a timely and valuable contribution to the field to comprehend the molding of progressive ideas into a neoliberal policy agenda that not only led to the intricate conversion of the welfare-carceral nexus but to a general transformation of American society, though, as it turned out, not for the better.

The authors’ main argument rests on the assessment that Clinton did not enter his presidency with a veiled neoliberal agenda. On the contrary, coming from rural and impoverished Arkansas, he set out with a broad policy program and various initiatives to transform key industries and increase the productivity of capital and labor, which would ultimately improve the lives of ordinary people. But Clinton’s infamous phrase “the era of big government is over,” which echoes a core Republican Party principle, suggests otherwise. Over the course of four parts, each consisting of three chapters, Stein and Lichtenstein chronicle Clinton’s evolution from endorsing a progressive, activist government focused on the management of capitalism to the full embrace and adherence to an ideology that deregulates finance, trade, and markets, privatizes government services, and exacerbates class (not to mention racial) inequalities. In a rich and detailed account, they convincingly illustrate the how and why of this ideological transformation.

In the first part, they examine his political ascent as a progressive governor in Arkansas and the shaping influence of that state, where he already faced a conundrum between state authority, governability, and capitalist power – in this case Walmart – that would foreshadow what was to come on the national stage. But as Stein and Lichtenstein argue, his campaign and victory in 1992 were built on a vision of regulated capitalism that would require government policies and investment in a highly skilled workforce and a technologically advanced “new economy” to assert the U.S.’s rightful place in an increasingly competitive post-Cold War world order. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequently socialism attention returned to the “varieties of capitalism”. As the authors show, Clinton, his close advisors who became top officials, namely Robert Reich, Ira Magaziner, or Laura Tyson, and other “Friends of Bill” embraced a version of capitalism modeled on the corporatist regimes of Germany or Japan. In their view, the economic transformations of what Daniel Bell postulated a post-industrial society, such as the decline of manufacturing, the rise of the service sector, or the flight of capital offshore, that had been underway since the 1980s and was inevitable, could only be contained by a central authority.7

With this vision of market management in mind, Clinton embarked on his first term first on a health care reform that promised universal acclaim and sought to fulfill the legacy of the New Deal, and second on trade regulations with Japan. The authors devote part two of the book to these endeavors and their tragic failures.

Part three deals more extensively with the larger economic scheme including the new economic strategy toward free trade regimes, most famously with Mexico in the form of NAFTA, but also with other countries such as China. Although NAFTA was negotiated during the Bush administration, it was Clinton who pushed the highly controversial trade agreement through Congress. Clinton’s endorsement of such trade regimes, the authors explain, built on his conviction that democratic markets and business interests would also promote a free society based on democratic values and principles in the countries concerned and moreover would raise the incomes of U.S. citizens and protect their jobs. A vast and consequential miscalculation, as Stein and Lichtenstein point out since these unleashed trade regulations destroyed U.S. manufacturing jobs, increased inequality, and ultimately alienated the Democratic Party’s base and working-class voters for good.

Similarly, the final part examines the Clinton administration’s erroneous assessment or “ideological illusion” of domestic social and fiscal policy with its far-reaching and still perceptible outcomes. The tough-on-crime issue exemplifies once more the political struggles and disputes between liberals and Republicans over discursive power. To shed its reputation for being soft on crime, the Clinton administration with Democratic support passed the Crime Bill with draconian provisions, including new mandatory minimum sentences and the three-strikes-and-you-are-out-concept. Coupled with racially discriminatory law enforcement practices and policies, the bill led to skyrocketing incarceration and conviction rates over the years, creating a humanitarian disaster as the authors conclude. The imposition of work requirements, time limits for welfare assistance, and punitive sanctions for noncompliance in the overhaul of welfare, equally demonstrate the administrations’ shift towards the accommodation of racial fears, state control, and budget austerity. These two bills marked the final departure from the New Deal’s liberalism and moved even beyond Reaganism.

A Fabulous Failure proves to be an intricate account of the Clinton administration’s indeed many failures, as judged in retrospect. The most devastating according to the authors was its misreading of the structural changes and political economy eminent since the 1970s, thus allowing a new phase of rightward turn and the implementation of a neo-conservative agenda. In pointing out the internal divisions and limitations, the authors refrain from blaming the figure of Clinton, but instead provide a rich assessment of the political circus in Washington and, beyond that, a history of the global net of capitalism at the end of the 20th century.

1 Jeremy Kuzmarov, Warmonger. How Clinton’s Malign Foreign Policy Launched the US Trajectory from Bush II to Biden, Atlanta 2023.
2 David H. Bennett, Bill Clinton. Building a Bridge to the New Millennium, London 2014; John Gartner, In Search of Bill Clinton. A Psychological Biography, New York 2008.
3 Patrick J. Maney, Bill Clinton. New Gilded Age President, Lawrence 2021; Taylor Branch, The Clinton Tapes. Wrestling History in the White House, New York 2010; Joe Klein, The Natural. The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton, New York 2003.
4 Richard A. Posner, An Affair of State. The Investigation, Impeachment, and Trial of President Clinton, Cambridge 1999; Peter Baker, The Breach. Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clinton, New York 2000.
5 Most recently the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung revealed new details in the controversy about Clinton’s entanglement with Jeffrey Eppstein as he supposedly prevented Vanity Fair from publishing a story about his “good friend” Epstein’s sex trafficking of minors, see: Christiane Heil, Hat Bill Clinton versucht, Berichte über Epstein zu verhindern?, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Jan. 7, 2024.
6 Charles Babington, ‘Clinton Fatigue’ Brings President Freedom to Pursue Legacy, in: The Washington Post, July 30, 1999.
7 Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, New York 1976.

Veröffentlicht am
Redaktionell betreut durch
Mehr zum Buch
Inhalte und Rezensionen
Weitere Informationen
Sprache der Publikation
Sprache der Rezension