Does Clinton Matter?
Jack Beatty
Round Three - February 9, 2000

J. S. Mill once wrote that in controversies we are often right in what we affirm, but wrong in what we deny. This applies to Sean Wilentz and David Corn: both, to me, seem right in much they affirm and wrong in much they deny. Clinton is subtler and more complex in action than either writer is in reflection, at least in this debate context.

I think Corn is largely on target about liberals and Clinton: there is a feeling if not of betrayal then of disappointment in Clinton, especially when it comes to his ideological versatility and his programmatic promiscuity. His welfare reform did remove a self-lacerating issue for Democrats, but it has reportedly cost no end of hardship for single mothers and their children. Moreover, it would not have passed except for Republican votes; the same is true of NAFTA, the Mexican bailout, and a crime bill that, according to the ACLU, has eroded habeas corpus and other protections against the intrusive state. To get anything done in a divided government a President must do business with the opposition. But however politically expedient, the results add up to what Corn says they do -- an abandonment of liberals and liberal values.

Taking care of the poor is the moral strain in liberalism, but Clinton overrode it by accepting a GOP version of welfare reform -- killing a New Deal-era program that admittedly needed overhaul. Defending working people and the environment are two other liberal principles Clinton breached when he signed the NAFTA bill. NAFTA is being used to beat back unionization drives at home, with companies saying they'll go to Mexico before they will negotiate with unions. In Mexico, meanwhile, U.S. corporations are exploiting peasant workers shamelessly, according to a book of reporting, Mollie's Job: A Story of Life and Work on the Global Assembly Line, by William Adler, to be published in May. Adler also describes one environmental horror after another just over the U.S. border.

Globalism, the justification for NAFTA, is not an autonomous force. It is driven by corporations trying to escape countervailing power -- the panoply of Progressive/New Deal/Fair Deal/Great Society legislation that has taken some of the hard edges off capitalism and ensured its survival. Seen in this light, trade deals offer a once-in-history chance to foster countervailing power to temper the effects of globalism in the poor countries. Capitalism will destroy the non-economic conditions of its own existence if it's not restrained by countervailing power -- that was where it was heading in the late nineteenth century. Governments are national; the economy is going global: this mismatch of powers replicates the economy of the Gilded Age, when the economy was becoming national, but the government was fixedly local.

"It's not like weather or bugs," a farmer being forced off his land by a bank says in The Grapes of Wrath. Globalization is not like weather or bugs, either -- not some natural disaster. It's man-caused, not the irresistible tide of transformation that Clinton sometimes describes it as. Globalism is likely to be the major challenge of this century, and to anchor his legacy Clinton needs to speak about it from the bully pulpit -- something like Eisenhower's Farewell Speech on the dangers of the "military-industrial complex." Clinton should question the corporate momentum behind globalism. He should lay out the challenge: how to protect societies from the worst evils of globalism -- exploitation, the obliteration of local cultures, the undermining of social values by market values, the wrenching loss of jobs, the wreck of communities -- without impairing its economic dynamism.

Round Three -- February 9, 2000
Jack Beatty | David Brooks | David Corn | Sean Wilentz

Round Two -- February 2, 2000
Jack Beatty | David Brooks | David Corn | Sean Wilentz

Round One -- January 26, 2000
David Brooks | David Corn | Sean Wilentz

Return to Introduction

What do you think?

Join the debate in Post & Riposte. We'll highlight selected readers' remarks as the Roundtable progresses.

Jack BeattyJack Beatty is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly and the author of, most recently, The World According to Peter Drucker (1997).

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.