Idol worship is harmful whoever the idol might be. It is one of the foremost problems I have with religion but it is not solely relegated to that domain. It is a problem to which everyone is susceptible, even those who place themselves above such matters. That is why I want to talk about Bill Clinton.
The exaltation of anyone places them above criticism and blinds us to the dangers they or their philosophy and actions may engender. These dangers can be intentional or not. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that worship blinds us to critically thinking about solvable problems because we cannot fathom implicating their cause. We cannot do this because at the root of the cause is the idol itself and the idol is beyond reproach. Not only is the idol beyond reproach, but the time we spend worshipping said idol is time we do not spend examining what is being done in the idol’s name. Next thing you know, you’ve got a real problem on your hands and no idea how to solve it or how you got there in the first place.
We are currently stuck in a moment of political gridlock. It’s as if we have sailed into the Bermuda Triangle where everything in the ship seems to be in working order but we are going nowhere. While our governing principles and mechanisms have not changed in any radical way, the ability of our legislators to get anything done has. Politicians and pundits spend a tremendous amount of time trying to divine the reasons for this but come up with stories that are as plausible as the Bermuda Triangle. I think a major contributing factor to this mess was Bill Clinton and until liberals give up their idol worship of him we will never be able to fully explain or think our way out of it.
Now, let me take a moment to say I admire Bill Clinton. I think he is a great American and was at times a great President. To my mind he has certainly been a tremendous example of how to leverage having been President for positive social change. But I do not revere Bill Clinton. In fact I am pretty pissed at him for some things he did that led us into this mess. More than an Idol, I look at Clinton as a figure in a Greek Tragedy whose combination of tremendous gifts and hubris ultimately cause great suffering. The main gifts Clinton possessed were charisma and an unparalleled mind for politics. Clinton, more than any other Democrat understood in the early 90s that Dems were losing their moment and that the political landscape had changed. Over the course of 1978-1992 the influence of money and lobbying over how elections were funded and won had exploded as documented in Jacob S. Hacker’s Winner-Take-All Politics. Clinton knew that if Democrats were going to survive they had to appeal not just to workers but to the Chamber of Commerce and Captains of Industry as well. This was the beginning of triangulation. It was a sort of have your cake and eat it too philosophy. If Democrats could keep their liberal policies but tweak them in a business friendly way while also collaborating with the business lobby on “pro-growth” policies that did not seem to effect workers’ or civil rights then they could corner the market. Union members and minorities would stay with the Dems, but they could also fundraise from corporations and CEO’s on a competitive level with the Republicans. This combination of connecting to the people while fundraising among their bosses (combined with a recession, a directionless George HW Bush and a diminutive 3rd party candidate) won Clinton the election. But Clinton did not just use this method to win elections, it was also the way he governed as evidenced by the constant arguments in his Cabinet between Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.
Now, the good part of this strategy was electoral victory and the re-birth of the Democratic Party. The bad part was that Clinton had let the money-lenders into the temple and we paid for it. When Clinton wanted to invest more in education and social welfare programs, Alan Greenspan bullied him with interest rates and threats of inflation. Fine. This was politics as usual. But Clinton now had people like Robert Rubin and Larry Summers whispering in his ear to give Greenspan what he wanted and keep the markets happy. In fact the fate of the Dow soon seemed to determine the entire drift of domestic policy in the Clinton White House because signs of quick economic growth increased his popularity and his party’s electoral prospects. This led ultimately to the Commodity Futures Modernization Act which was Wall Street’s Holy Grail and gift from Clinton to them for their patronage. It also directly led to the crash of 2007. Because this is where Clinton’s great failing meets his tremendous gifts. His great failing is narcissism. A narcissist can only truly do something that will benefit himself. This does not mean that they will not do things that benefit others,but there has to be something in it for them. They also tend to be masters of self-justifcation.
As long as policies benefitted the Presidency of Bill Clinton and his re-election they could be justified. So trade deals like NAFTA that hurt US workers and Welfare Reform that crippled communities and betrayed traditional Democratic principles were all right because they kept Clinton in office. Give-aways to corporations and Wall Street were okay for the same reason, plus a rapidly expanding economy is a good economy. But what people like Reich and other liberal critics pointed out at the time and what we now know far too well is that this is not the case. A rising tide does not lift all boats and really this is just trickle-down economics via another metaphor.
Then we come to Monica Lewinsky, another tremendous display of Clintonian narcissism. Regardless of any moral judgement on the incident, it was incredibly stupid politically. A move that only a narcissist could justify. Plus it tied up the last years of his Administration in an impeachment scandal and put his chosen successor Al Gore in an impossible bind; either campaign with a man of incredible charisma but no moral compass or go it in his charisma-less own.
So, by the end of Clinton’s Presidency we have a world where Wall Street and Corporations have more of a foothold in government than ever before. Democrats have become overly dependent on fundraising from them to have a shot at electoral victories. Labor and minorities are stuck with a party that is only half-listening to their concerns. Moderate Republicans have had many of their issues swiped out from under them and need a new tactic. And in one of the greatest electoral tee-up’s in American History where a popular charismatic Democrat is riding the wave a good economy, a blanked budget, and a new majority carved from his traditional base plus new “pro-business” Dems, this brilliant charismatic political strategist and campaigner who basically just has to go out amongst the people and point at his VP and say “this guy” trashes it all with a blow job. Because the blow job was about Clinton, but Gore’s Presidency, not so much.
And then when we get Florida, Bush v. Gore, Bush/Cheney, Iraq, reckless government spending, ridiculous tax cuts, no financial regulation whatsoever, the crash and a meaner more ideological GOP now bent on crashing the ship off state rather than letting anyone else steer. So the next time you get a warm feeling when the great explainer lights up a podium, remember the old punk mantra: Kill Your Idols. Or if that sounds too severe try the more homespun: You gotta take the bad with the good.