When the going was good: The balance sheet of the Clinton administration

Originally published in TLS. Times Literary Supplement

By the standards of most Americans at the time the Clinton administration was a success. The US achieved high rates of economic growth, with increases in wages and productivity for much of President Clinton's two terms. The stock market almost tripled, the federal budget was balanced and the Democrats and Republicans worked together to pass legislation. The interventions in the former Yugoslavia were controversial at the time, but the region has continued on a relatively stable course and some parts have prospered in the EU. If Clinton's moral transgressions have aged less well, the public policy legacy has held up.

But there are always naysayers. Judith Stein was a professor of history at City University of New York, and she started this takedown of the Clinton administration from a left-leaning perspective. After her death in 2017 A Fabulous Failure was finished by Nelson Lichtenstein, a labour historian at UC Santa Barbara. In spite of this somewhat unusual dual-authored history, the book reads as a fully coherent and consistent narrative. To the extent that the arguments fail, they fail in exactly the same way throughout.

Their arguments are consistent. The Clinton administration laid the groundwork for a later expansion of capitalism. Clinton failed to build up the labour movement or to create a political economy for later, more progressive reforms. The end result was a gutting of state aid, tougher times for workers and in some cases continuing deregulation and income inequality.

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