As Peter Suderman notes, Bill Clinton's widely hailed speech (transcript here) at last night's Democratic National Convention was a classic political nostalgia act: We had good times together as a country, didn't we?, cooed Bill Clinton, so vote for the guy I'm endorsing now. C'mon, you'll do it for me now, won't you, baby?
Whether that bait-and-switch works with undecided voters, Clinton's speech was least convincing whenever he invoked actual governing strategies and policies employed by Obama.
Clinton not only governed differently than Obama, he pursued substantially different policies as well. Part of this was the result of politics. After a disastrous first couple of years in terms of retail politics – largely due to his thankfully inept attempt to foist a terrible health-care overhaul on the country – Clinton found himself face to face with the unthinkable: a Republican majority in the House (the GOP winning the Senate was thinkable, if relatively rare).
So long, health insurance reform and all other grand plans! Hello, the "incredible shrinking president," the end of the era of big government, "is Clinton relevant?" headlines, and all that. Clinton had to work with the Republicans and did, but not simply out of convenience. On major matters – such as NAFTA and free trade more generally and on welfare reform – he shared Republican goals (and was often at odds with his own party).
Clinton was especially strong on budgeting. As the president who oversaw the production a budget in which outlays and revenues kinda sorta matched up, the Man from Hope can speak with great authority about balance sheets (and please spare me the crabbing about how it wasn't really a balanced budget; while I agree, there's no question that Clinton has the best record in terms of spending vs. revenue of any recent president). It's worth pointing out that if any recent president destroyed the idea that trying to keep revenues and outlays in line is a worthwhile pursuit, it was George W. Bush (whose veep famously crowed that "deficits don't matter").
Yet here's Clinton talking up Obama's fiscal rectitude:
Now, what has the president done? He has offered a reasonable plan of $4 trillion in debt reduction over a decade, with $2.5 trillion coming from — for every $2.5 trillion in spending cuts, he raises a dollar in new revenues, 2.5 to 1. And he has tight controls on future spending. That's the kind of balanced approach proposed by the Simpson-Bowles commission, a bipartisan commission.
If this is supposed to show the seriousness of the Obama budget plan, you've got to be kidding (and that's leaving aside the fact that Obama has failed to finish a budget – and kick the Democratic Senate's ass into gear – in years). Obama is the worst spender (see table 1.3) to live in the White House since Mary Todd Lincoln. Or, same thing, since George W. Bush, that well-known big-government disaster.
Here is the relevant table from Barack Obama's latest proposed budget plan. Check out the spending and revenue totals to get a sense of just how sad a (highly dubious!) promise of $4 trillion in debt reduction over a decade's time is.
Obama would have federal spending in current dollars increase from about $3.8 trillion in 2013 to $5.8 trillion in 2022. Nowhere does he dream of coming close to paying for such increases (and that's already generating revenue estimates predicated upon rosy scenarios of economic growth).
To be fair, the GOP plan – authored by Republican vice presidential pick Rep. Paul Ryan – isn't much different or better. It has us spending $3.5 trillion in 2013 and $4.9 trillion in 2022 and, just like Obama's plan, is filled with rosy growth projections and budget deficits in every year.
To his credit, Clinton spoke the unspeakable by actually talking about the problems that long-term debt and deficits pose to the future of the country. He even hinted that the party might have to end at some point.
In this, he echoed none other than candidate Barack Obama, who long ago (October 2008) told an audience in Toledo:
We've lived through an era of easy money, in which we were allowed and even encouraged to spend without limits; to borrow instead of save….
Once we get past the present emergency, which requires immediate new investments, we have to break that cycle of debt.
I'm starting to be convinced that the passage above is the key to all the problems that we're facing and all the smoke being blown by top-line Democrats and Republicans. Despite the hole we're in – and the mounting evidence that carrying massive debt loads kills economic growth independent of interest rates and other things – all they talk about is spending more (on education, defense, unemployment, Medicare, what-have-you) and making credit easier for the right kind of people (Dems and Reps differ on the specifics). That's why both budget plans from both parties goose spending, despite a dozen years of massive increases.
Yet deep down, in their heart of hearts and brain of brains, they know that we need to pull the plug on historic increases in spending at the federal level. "Once we get past the present emergency…" – by which Obama and Romney, the Dems and the Reps, mean the perpetual emergency, which they hope to maintain from now until doomsday. Because when the emergency is over, so is the party.