With the 2012 election a year away, Democrats can latch onto an articulate, reality-based strategy for economic renewal that threads the needle between extremes. But this engaging, center-left manifesto wasn’t written by the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Rather, it was penned by someone who is constitutionally barred from seeking the highest office: former president Bill Clinton.
Clinton burst onto the national scene 20 years ago at a time of national economic self-doubt spurred by high unemployment and fears over a rising power in Asia. Sound familiar? In “Back to Work,” a slim volume packed with ideas on how to fix America’s broken job machine, the Man from Hope offers some well-timed optimism in the face of depressing statistics, such as the fact that the United States ranks 18th in high school graduation rates and 24th in infrastructure quality.
Clintonian to the core, “Back to Work” cribs proposals and anecdotes from all over — from Democrats and Republicans, from the public and private sectors — and includes a lengthy, somewhat windy list of 46 prescriptions. They consist of two parts wonkery and one part down-home common sense. While professors would call the functional difference between a tax credit and a spending increase, as Clinton writes, “a distinction without a difference,” he adds that “when I was growing up in Arkansas, we called it straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.”
The United States doesn’t have to swallow too many camels to get back on a path of growth, the former president argues. Rather, we just have to embrace our inner technocrats and abandon our foolish ways. Collecting one-quarter of the $345 billion in “taxes that are owed but unpaid every year” and putting just one-third of today’s no-bid contracts out to competition “could reduce the annual deficit by more than $100 billion a year,” Clinton writes. He also embraces controversial big ideas, such as the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s plan to raise the maximum taxable limit on Social Security earnings.
As the book moves on, the ideas come faster, more furious and in shorter form. The United States should set up an infrastructure bank. A small area, say an island such as Puerto Rico, should become a showcase for energy independence. Farmers should ink long-range food-supply contracts with China. And how about a property-tax holiday for investments that create a certain number of jobs? He notes, “This is an idea I first heard suggested by Newt Gingrich.” That’s a classic Clinton trope: He’s secure enough to love-bomb the guy who shut down the government and tried to impeach him.
And yet Clinton the effective partisan is also on full display. “Back to Work” does not cast poxes equally on both sides. As a group, he claims, Republicans have acted in bad faith and messed up his legacy. “From 1981 to 2009, the greatest accomplishment of the anti-government Republicans was not to reduce the size of the federal government but to stop paying for it,” he writes. And he includes a set of charts on job creation and economic growth by presidents that places him near the top and Republicans near the bottom.
Since late 2010, economic policy has foundered on the razor-sharp shoals of partisan politics. And here’s where “Back to Work” left me wishing for some more pointed, slightly partisan advice. When it comes to political tactics and messaging, Clinton is a master. He does express dismay at the Obama team’s political missteps: “For reasons that are unclear, the president and the Democratic Congress did not raise the debt ceiling after the election, in November or December 2010, when they still had a majority.” That led to this summer’s confidence-sapping fiasco over the issue.
The Republicans “ran a more effective, more aggressive campaign” in 2010. They had short declarative policy ideas: repeal financial reform, cancel the rest of the stimulus. Worse, “for the first time since their big losses in 1994, when the Republicans ran on the Contract with America, the Democrats did not counter the national Republican message with one of their own,” Clinton writes.
When it comes to national debates on the economy, Democrats always seem to be at a disadvantage. Republicans always have one or two very big ideas — cut taxes across the board, impose a balanced budget amendment, implement a “9-9-9” tax plan. Never mind their utility or absurdity; they lend themselves to bumper stickers and often appeal to low-information voters. Democrats, including Clinton in his day, always have a more nuanced, eclectic approach that can’t be easily reduced to a 140-character twitter post. In 1984, Ronald Reagan had “Morning in America.” In 2012, Obama’s economic reelection slogan is more likely to be an apologia pitched at National Journal readers: “We stopped the financial crisis we inherited from becoming a second Great Depression, enacted a large stimulus that should have been larger given the unanticipated depth of the recession, passed health-care reform that will roll out over the next several years, and passed financial reform that was necessary but far from satisfying.” And as Clinton might say, that dog won’t hunt.
“Back to Work” contains sensible ideas that have been floating around think tanks, policy conferences and White House brainstorming sessions for years. But given the current configuration of power in Washington and the near-blanket opposition by Republicans to White House economic proposals — even to measures they had previously supported — we seem to be stuck. Many of the ideas in this book could be enacted only in the unlikely event that Democrats sweep the 2012 elections and recover control of the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
If people were just a little more reasonable and open to these common-sense ideas, the nation could start fixing some of its problems and recover its economic self-esteem. But Clinton doesn’t offer much practical advice on how a Democrat can move smart policy through the congressional buzz saw. And that’s a shame. Because by and large, Obama has already embraced the policies in “Back to Work.” It’s his tactics and style that need help. At one point, Clinton describes how, by using charm and guile, he was able to raise marginal taxes on the rich while still ensuring himself a warm reception in the Hamptons. Rather than attacking wealthy Americans, “I simply asked them, as the primary beneficiaries of the 1980s growth and tax cuts, to help us balance our budget and invest in our future by creating more jobs and higher incomes for other people.”
The book’s 46 theses offer plenty of useful material. But “Back to Work” would be even more useful if the 47th point explained how to get those effective ideas enacted into law in today’s Washington.
BACK TO WORK
Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy
By Bill Clinton
Knopf. 208 pp. $23.95