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The old dawg can still hunt. At the top of his game, gaining energy from the crowd, Bill Clinton, the “old country boy from Arkansas” tore it up last night in Charlotte. Political junkies, pundits of all stripes, and Democratic activists were agog, watching the maestro at work.
Clinton set out the frame (kudos to progressive economist Jared Bernstein): the choice between "you are on your own" or "we are in this together. " Then he made the case for what Obama had accomplished – and a prosecutor’s indictment of the poisons Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are peddling.
Clinton treats his audience as adults, willing to entertain and inform. He pays them the respect of laying out policy arguments. And then delights them with his humor, his animation, his blarney.
He made the points – repeatedly urging Americans to “listen to this” – that too often are ignored. That Democratic presidents produce more jobs than Republicans and that modern Republican presidents “tripled the debt” in the 12 years before Clinton took office and doubled in the eight years after he left.
Most important, he went after Republicans not simply for abandoning the middle class but for traducing the poor. Perhaps the most telling point in his speech was his explanation that Republicans would reduce Medicaid by one-third – hurting poor kids, seniors in need of nursing homes and the disabled. The middle class had a stake in the prospects of the poor.
And he seized the Romney campaign's mendacious tropes – "Are you better off?," "Obama's cutting Medicare," "Obama's gutting welfare reform" – and use them as a club to batter Romney and Ryan with.
But note the contrast between Clinton’s address and the powerful speech by Elizabeth Warren that preceded it. Warren reprised many of the same themes about investing in our future – but she didn’t stop there. She let Americans know what the problem was: that the system was rigged against them. That rich and entrenched interests – “Wall Street CEOs strutting in the halls of Congress” after we bailed them out – rigged the game for their own benefit. They pushed through the tax breaks and deregulation – much of it during the Clinton years when Goldman Sachs’ Bob Rubin drove U.S. economic policy. They cleaned up and the middle class took it on the chin. Reviving the American Dream takes more than the right policy, it requires taking back Washington and cleaning out the stables.
For all of Clinton’s mastery, progressives can’t go back to the Clinton economy. That economy was built on the dot-com bubble. Clinton championed the deregulation of Wall Street that opened up the financial wilding that eventually drove the economy over the cliff. He pushed through the corporate trade policies – NAFTA, China’s admission to the World Trade Organization – that contributed to our record trade deficits, the offshoring of jobs abroad, the hollowing out of American manufacturing. His New Democrats argued that equal opportunity was all that mattered, not equality of outcomes. And then they helped usher in an era in which the wealthiest 1 percent captured the rewards of growth, while working families lost ground.
And even last night, Clinton essentially signed Obama onto a version of the Simpson-Bowles agenda which promises debilitating cuts in domestic programs, cutbacks in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in return for “tax reform” that lowers rates on the top for the wealthy and corporations. That’s a grand bargain even the old dawg can’t sell.
Obama’s challenge has always been that he had to build a new foundation for the economy. There is no return to an old economy built on bubbles and debt, on Wall Street gambling and feckless corporate trade policies, on extreme inequality and stagnant wages. The inequality of wealth and income has translated into a money-drenched politics where the rules are rigged.
If this economy is to work for working people once more, workers have to be empowered, skewed CEO compensation deals have to be fixed, global trade imbalances must be corrected, vital investments have to be made in education and training, in children and in the sinews of a 21st-century economy – from roads to cutting-edge broadband to a smart grid and renewable energy. And that requires progressive tax reform that starts with raising rates on the top, not lowering them; taxing financial speculation, not unleashing it.
As Clinton showed, the case for Obama over the mendacity and wrong-headedness of Romney/Ryan is clear. But to rebuild the American dream, to revive the middle class, we better make certain that Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown are elected to spearhead a new generation of progressive reform. And we'll need an powerful people's movement taking Washington back from the moneyed interests that now dominate it.