At the heart of Mr. Clinton's prescription for what ails America — and the Democratic Party's 2012 election prospects — is one big idea: Government, in a democracy, is supposed to serve the broad public interest. Its job is not only to provide for the common defense but also to assist the most vulnerable citizens; ensure equal access to opportunity; promote economic development; regulate financial markets; advance scientific research; protect the country's air, water and food supplies; and raise the revenues needed to accomplish all these tasks and more.
For 200 years, Mr. Clinton argues, there existed a broad consensus among leaders in Congress and the White House that these were essential functions of government, no matter which party was in power. Partisans on both sides may have differed over the best policies to achieve the nation's goals, but there was never any doubt that there were some responsibilities only government could fulfill.
That mission was hijacked, Mr. Clinton says, by the rise of an extreme right-wing ideology that perversely cast government not as an instrument for advancing the nation's goals but as the source of all the country's problems. Instead of seeing government's purpose as being to create the conditions for expanding prosperity and opportunity among its citizens, it insisted that government itself was "the enemy."
Mr. Clinton traces this development to the election of
To cap it all off, Mr. Reagan slashed taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals, arguing that lower taxes would spur economic growth to create new jobs and industries that would benefit everyone.
That didn't happen, and Mr. Clinton offers persuasive evidence that the net effect of Mr. Reagan's anti-government agenda was actually stagnant job growth, the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs, rising income inequality and a ballooning national debt as government continued to grow in size but now was financed by foreign creditors rather than through domestic tax revenues.
"From 1981 to 2009," Mr. Clinton writes, "the greatest accomplishment of the anti-government
Mr. Clinton places the blame for the current partisan gridlock in Washington squarely on the Republican anti-government
What the former president finds so galling, however, is that Republicans have managed to convince so many Americans that the steps the Obama administration took to mitigate the worst consequences of the 2008 financial collapse either didn't work or, worse, left us in an even more untenable situation than before. Tea party Republicans have been particularly insistent that draconian cuts in government spending are necessary to restore the economy to health — even though the anti-tax ideologues were largely responsible for running up the debt in the first place, and big spending cuts during a downturn are likely to make matters worse, not better.
On the contrary, the former president writes, if Mr. Obama had not bailed out the banks and auto companies when he did, and offered states billions of dollars in stimulus funds to keep teachers, firefighters and police officers on the job, the economy would have sunk into another Great Depression rather than the recession that technically ended in June or July of 2009.
What worries Mr. Clinton most is that, so far at least, Mr. Obama hasn't seemed able to make that case convincingly to the public, nor counter the impression, endlessly reiterated by conservative TV commentators and newspapers columnists, that his administration's economic policies based on investments in education, public infrastructure and new sources of sustainable green energy are taking the country in the wrong direction.
Mr. Clinton clearly approves of what Mr. Obama has been able to accomplish, despite the disastrous hand (two wars and a near meltdown of the country's financial system) he was dealt on taking office. And the former president's book is full of wonkish policy prescriptions for putting Americans back to work and growing the economy again, though he acknowledges the partisan paralysis on Capitol Hill may prevent Mr. Obama from making much progress toward solving the country's problems until after next year's elections. But if the current White House occupant continues to lose the rhetorical battle of ideas to his anti-government opponents, by then it may be too late.