BOOKS

What’s left to learn from Bill Clinton’s failures?

DLC’s influence waned because of too little White House demand — too little supply also mattered

Heath Brown
3Streams
Published in
6 min readOct 12, 2023

--

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

As the title suggests, Nelson Lichtenstein’s new Princeton University Press book is all about what went wrong; about what didn’t happen for Bill Clinton. This isn’t just a story about well-known failures, like health insurance reform, but also failures on labor rights and an overhaul of the American economy. And, Lichtenstein cautions, when Clinton did win — like on financial deregulation and trade — it was often on issues his partisans barely supported, a failure of a different sort.

These are the fabulous failures of the 1990s.

Aside from the disciplinary elbows thrown (Lichtenstein calls the field of public administration a “deadly dull topic”), there’s a lot to enjoy and learn from this dense book (as well as a poignant origin story for how the book started with an outline written by the late CUNY professor Judith Stein and ended up in Lichtenstein’s hands).

Some of the most revealing insights come from Lichtenstein’s recent interviews, especially a good one with Ira Magaziner. Clinton’s failure on health insurance reform was also Magaziner’s, who’d been tapped during the 1992 transition to manager that effort alongside Hillary Clinton and continued once the White House was up and running.

Magaziner was no politico; he’d come up in management consulting at the Boston Consulting Group and he showed it. As others have before, Lichtenstein suggests this professional orientation was part of Magaziner’s undoing. Magaziner knew the issue and all the permutations of reforming health insurance, but he didn’t know how to close the deal. He failed to understand the politics, particularly the coalitional politics of the Democratic Party.

Throughout the book, Lichtenstein describes Magaziner as “driven, ambitious, and in command of all the details”, but also as “brash and sometimes abrasive.” Meetings would run long and Magaziner “hectored subordinates and congresspeople.” Lichtenstein concludes that Magaziner “was not an easy man with whom to work.” These are also not the makings of a savvy policy entrepreneur with the sensibilities to win a victory on health care decades delayed.

Read the book for the full, complex story of what went wrong with the plan to reform health care in the US. Here, I’ll just recount a few tidbits that reveal the underlying nature of the failure.

For one, Clinton and his team aimed to do what previous Democrats couldn’t: expand its constituency by incorporating interests long associated with their partisan opponents. In turning to the business community for support, for example, Clinton and Magaziner thought they’d discovered an untapped constituency to back its health proposals in Congress. Getting trade associations on board would insulate the plan from the easy accusation that it was anti-business.

This was a misreading of the politics of reform, and business groups soon walked away from the Clinton plan. Lichtenstein explains that, even though Magaziner was in frequent contact with the Chamber of Commerce, in the end the Chamber backed off when the single-payer system was at the center of the health care plan. Bill Kristol, for one, was pushing other conservatives to do the same and avoid compromise with Democrats. Health care reform was doomed.

The move to find new constituencies to back health reform came out of a larger effort in the party to dislodge the prominent position of core Democratic groups, like unions, civil rights, and women’s organizations. The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) had been suggesting a new turn for the party was needed since the mid-1980s, and saw in Bill Clinton the right candidate to move this centrist strategy ahead.

This much of the story is well-known, but unlike other recent histories of the Clinton legacy, Lichtenstein’s doesn’t pin Clinton’s failures on the DLC. In fact, he minimizes the role the DLC played, especially as the 1992 campaign nears the election and the planning for the administration accelerates that fall. He writes “Historians and journalists would later highlight his identification with the resolutely centrist Democratic Leadership Council, but Clinton was not its creature.”

In Lichtenstein’s telling, why the DLC failed to overtake the traditional centers of power in the party is not always clear. Much of the explanation seems to be demand side oriented: Bill Clinton didn’t ask as much of the DLC as they had hoped. Lichtenstein writes “Clinton marginalized DLC elements within his administration.” DLC staffers and allies weren’t appointed by Clinton to nearly as many key cabinet posts and White House positions as it had hoped. On health reform, it was Magaziner, no New Democrat, who was chosen for the key role alongside Hillary Clinton, not one of the DLC founders. As a consequence, though Bill Clinton had been president of the DLC and turned to the group for advice throughout much of the campaign, the direction of the administration strayed from the centrist path in favor of a different agenda.

This is a compelling argument, but one that focuses primarily on demand. Other evidence suggests that another explanation is that the DLC simply couldn’t supply what was necessary for it to gain anything more than a foothold in the White House, not a central position.

Recall, the organization was just seven old in 1992 and had just two staffers, Al From and Will Marshall, at its founding. Though its ideas were bold, its capacity to enact them was limited by its small size compared to better-resourced groups in Washington, both liberal and conservative.

Additionally, while it aimed to have DLC chapters throughout the country, it was always an elite organization of office holders.” Led by a one person field department, chapter growth stalled and most chapters remained just “shells of chapters” with rarely more than a single elected-official as a member. Some chapters closed as quickly as they opened.

As I’ve written before, Al From — who was running the DLC at the time — acknowledged just this in an oral history interview. From said: “Unlike the Heritage Foundation when Reagan won, we didn’t have this big cadre of intellectuals.” In 1980, Heritage had gotten three dozen of its own into the Reagan administration, effectively populating key positions with allies to its vision for policy change.

To be sure, the DLC wasn’t shut out.

Bruce Reed was named the domestic policy director and several DLC-affiliated members of Congress joined the Cabinet. Nevertheless, From concluded “there weren’t many of us. As the White House staff was put together, we had our recommendations but…there were not that many people with real New Democrat DNA in their blood.”

Indicative of this, after the inauguration, what should have been the peak of its power, the DLC — short on money and with an exhausted staff — scaled back its annual meeting, opting instead for a small retreat. Clinton did come to speak at the event, extolling the DLC but also law enforcement organizations, teacher unions, and public employees.

Lichtenstein explains that DLC favored ideas, especially crime, welfare, and on the plan to reinvent how the federal government operated, were eventually given space in the Clinton administration. A year into the first term, the DLC’s Elaine Kamarck was managing a team of 250 staffers focused on reinventing government.

Nevertheless, on its whole, Lichtenstein’s book provides a corrective to the myth of the DLC as the unchallenged power player in the Clinton White House. The Big Tent of the Democratic Party, with its array of allied groups, did not go away, even as centrist rhetoric came to dominate the conversation.

--

--

Heath Brown
3Streams

Heath Brown, associate prof of public policy, City University of New York, study presidential transitions, school choice, nonprofits