In 1992, after 12 years of Reagan/Bush, a youngish governor of Arkansas regained the White House for the Democrats.
It is worth noting that Bill Clinton beat Bush with a sizeable assist from an odd duck named Ross Perot, whose flash-in-the-pan Reform Party got 19% of the popular vote — an amazing feat for a third party in America. Reform Party policies were hard to decipher, and hard to locate on a left/right spectrum; even so, it appears likely that Perot pulled more votes from Bush than from Clinton.
Clinton’s big idea was to hug the center — that is, to drag the party to the right. This was the era of “The era of big government is over,” and “the end of welfare as we know it,” among other grand pronouncements. The GOP, for its part, took evasive action: it moved further to the right, and further still, to make sure the distinction would still be clear.
That “big government” was at an end in the Clinton era was simply fiction; for better and for worse, the role of government in American life does not get smaller under any administration. The most that can be said about the Clinton years in this regard is that federal outlays did not rise as quickly as they did under, for instance, Trump.
But “the end of welfare as we know it” actually happened. The federal mainstay had been Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) since 1935; it provided monthly cash support directly to impoverished families. By the end of its 61-year run it was accused of fostering “generational” dependence- welfare as a viable lifestyle option in poor communities. In 1996 it was replaced by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a program of block grants to the states.
In Clinton-era parlance, perhaps this was part of the end of “big government.” From the average citizen’s perspective, however, state government is plenty “big.” (Just ask any Texan who needs an abortion.) The normal way to describe it is federalism, an emphasis on states’ rights over federal fiat.
If the idea behind TANF was to give the various states wide latitude in the administration of federal money meant to combat poverty, it seems to have worked. Case in point: Mississippi. The state’s use of TANF funds has been in the spotlight because of some spectacular and ill-concealed corruption, some involving Brett Favre, a retired football player who is a household name in many American households. But the $6 million in TANF funds that he secured for a volleyball stadium at Southern Miss, where his daughter plays, is only a symptom of what goes on down there.
In light of the Favre caper and various other documented instances of well-connected Mississippians helping themselves to federal funds meant for the poor, there is irony — or dark humor — in the 2017 passage of the state’s Medicaid and Human Services Transparency and Fraud Prevention Act. Geez, what went wrong, guys? Who dropped the ball here? What about that “fraud prevention” stuff?
Well, apparently Brett Favre (who earned some $138 million during his storied career) and other already affluent Mississippians were not the folks the state legislature was worrying about. They were guarding against fraud that might be committed by Mississippians applying for benefits. You know, welfare queens. The state is so zealous in this regard that, according to a study done by Mississippi Today, just 5% of TANF funds are spent on cash assistance to poor families.
Then again, considering the many millions diverted fraudulently to the non-poor, perhaps the zeal is of a different nature. “Welfare is a trap,” said Jameson Taylor, vice-president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy when the anti-fraud measure was introduced. Well alright then! Welfare is a trap; traps are bad things; ergo, welfare is a bad thing. So awarding essentially no TANF dollars to the poor is a righteous policy per se, fraud or no fraud. It’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it?
Sure, one principle at work here is federalism. But there’s another principle that comes to mind: do what works, not what doesn’t. In trying to combat poverty in America by giving money to the government of a state like Mississippi, Uncle Sam is trying to drive a flat head screw with a phillips head screwdriver. Perhaps ‘pushing a piece of string’ captures the situation better. Mississippi remains mired in poverty, ranking 50th out of 50 states in median household income. Ah, federalism.
Back to the top: in 1992, Bill Clinton got elected by a fluke involving a now-forgotten third party. His wife then became a senator from New York, where she had never lived but moved in time to qualify for the job. She too hugged the center by, for instance, voting for our war in Iraq. It was a rotten center.
Like many of my fellow citizens, I spent the day after Donald Trump got elected in a depressed daze; I tried to think of a silver lining, and I found one. This marked the end of the Clinton dynasty in American politics; I knew I wouldn’t miss it.
Now that the GOP prefers conspiracy theories to accepting the outcomes of fair elections, now that the party stalwarts dismiss a violent attempt to overthrow the government as a normal day at the Capitol, Democrats can hopefully get over the Clintonian idea that they need to style themselves as kinda-sorta Republicans in order to win.
Eric Kuhn lives in Middletown.