With Obama set to give a major speech on deficit reduction in response to Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposals, we keep hearing comparisons between the current historical moment and Bill Clinton’s mid-1990s standoff with Newt.
So maybe we should recall the forgotten lesson of Clinton’s victory: He won in no small part because he drew a very hard line against Medicare cuts, and used that battle to articulate an expansive vision of Democratic governance, which he contrasted with the GOP’s vision of a “winner-take-all society.”
I just got off the phone with Michael Waldman, who was Clinton’s chief speechwriter throughout much of that battle, and he told me that a crucial piece of the historical record is being lost. While Clinton, a New Democrat, did push for welfare reform and call for a balanced budget to restore his fiscal credibility, the former president pivoted from there to a major, protracted public fight over Medicare — and an unabashed defense of a liberal role for government — that was crucial in restoring his public standing.
Few remember this part of the story, but Waldman notes that Clinton seized on the Medicare standoff to reaffirm his support for the social contract as embodied in Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare promise to America, frequently referring to proposals to cut Medicare as an affront to our “values.” Clinton even used Johnson’s pen to veto the GOP’s budget.
In a speech on November 10, 1995, Clinton cast the battle as one over his belief that government’s role is to guard against the excesses of a cutthroat society:
I believe this budget debate is about two very different futures for America: About whether we will continue to go forward under our motto, E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one; whether we will continue to unite and grow; or whether we will become a more divided, winner-take-all society.
Several days later, Clinton added: “I believe we have a duty to care for our parents so that they can live their lives in dignity. That duty includes securing Medicare.” He also warned that the GOP’s budget “violates our values.”
And when Clinton vetoed the GOP proposal, he held up Johson’s pen. “Three decades ago, this pen you see here was used to honor our values when President Johnson used it to sign Medicare into law,” Clinton said, adding: “I am using this pen to preserve our commitment to our parents.”
Contemporaneous press accounts indicate that it was only after Clinton adopted this strategy of fighting that he began to rise in the polls.
Waldman, who oversaw the writing of those speeches, acknowledged that Clinton had first needed to move to the center. But after that, he made his move. “He drew a clear line in the sand on the things that he wasn’t going to compromise on,” Waldman says. “He fought a real public battle on those things. He drew a sharp line on core principles, and fought for them very hard.”
Waldman noted that Obama now has a chance to do the same. “This is an opportunity for him to spell out with clarity his vision of the role of government,” Waldman said. “If he doesn’t, it will be an opportunity lost.”