Bill Clinton Was Right

By Robert Rector
Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town
Wednesday, August 23, 2006; 12:00 AM

As a conservative analyst who spent much of the 1990s working against most of Bill Clinton's agenda -- including even some aspects of his welfare reform proposals -- it pains me to say this.

Bill Clinton was right.

He deserves more credit for the passage of welfare reform than most conservatives probably care to admit.

No, Clinton didn't play a major role in shaping the policy details of the landmark 1996 act. But he understood something about policymaking that many conservative strategists and policy wonks could stand to re-learn: It isn't enough to get the technical details of a policy right. Words and symbols matter, too.

Indeed, thanks in large part to his effective use of words and symbols that challenged liberal orthodoxy on issues surrounding the poor, Bill Clinton not only helped "end welfare as we know it," but he helped end welfare as we know it before anyone even knew it.

To fully understand Clinton's role in the passage of this landmark legislation, one must go back to the early days of the 1992 presidential campaign when Clinton first began trying out his welfare themes. According to New York Times reporter Jason DeParle, Clinton regarded his welfare message as the "all-purpose elixir" of his campaign for the presidency.

It was a values message, an economic message and a policy message all in one. And it generated more interest than any other topic Clinton addressed.

A surprising thing about Clinton's welfare message is that it found resonance with many people in low-income neighborhoods. It won Clinton respect from the poor, a group most analysts figured would object strongly to any welfare reform plan.

DeParle reports that in the fall of 1991, Clinton dispatched campaign aide Celinda Lake to North Carolina to conduct focus groups with black voters. The campaign was worried that Clinton's pledge to "end welfare as we know it" might invite Virginia's black governor (and presidential aspirant) Doug Wilder to attack Clinton as a "racist."

Lake found otherwise. "The welfare message, worded correctly, plays extremely well in the black community," Lake reported. Low-income African-Americans were all for cutting welfare, so long as they sensed a corresponding commitment to help them acquire the dignity that comes from gainful employment.

A major turning point in the debate over welfare reform came in late 1993 when Clinton made a series of remarkable public statements about the links between social problems, welfare dependency and unwed childbearing. No president before him had addressed this topic.

It started in Memphis, where Clinton addressed a group of black church leaders. Employing the rhythm, cadence and blunt-spoken hard truths of an old-style sermon, it was the kind of speech that would have caused most white liberals to turn red with embarrassment.


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