That is why I think conservative and moderate Democrats performed a great service in the 1990s by shaking the party to its very core. They created a deconstructed Democratic party, a party that was willing and able to discuss its core ideals openly and passionately. In particular, they allowed us to engage the idea of the market, and generally capitalist modes of viewing public policy once again. Clinton's "Third Way", while it has been much-derided among us latte-sipping Volvo-driving types, promised to shake up the boundaries of conservative and liberal thinking on economic issues. Unfortunately, it was leavened with a whole lot of political expediency, and was never clearly articulated. Nevertheless, I think we can now look at Clinton as leading by example, and extract some meaningful lessons from his term in office.
I believe Bill Clinton's greatest achievement was to finally prove that, in the hands of a capable administrator and responsible government, capitalism works. In fact, capitalism works incredibly well -- increasing median wages and decreasing unemployment in nearly every sector of the populace. Yes, there were things I did not agree with: wholesale dismantling of welfare, a lack of political will on healthcare, and an unreasonable faith in the power of free trade. But they were dwarfed by his achievements, most of which are only clear in their absence. Over the last quarter century, we had only one President who was deadly concerned with cleaning out the Augean stables of our budget, only one President concerned with promoting international peace and political stability, only one President devoted to maintaing major government programs like Social Security in a sustainable way, only one President that has been sincere about conserving our environment, and only one President that has understood America's strength lies in its scientific development.
I believe Bill Clinton was this era's major proponent of Social Capitalism -- the idea that capitalism works best when the government is maximizing people's ability to compete. The term has two parts: it is undeniable capitalist in that it makes use of market forces to the greatest degree possible, but it is "social" to the extent that government is bold and unapologetic in maintaining competition for the greatest number. To many here, this sounds like a right wing talking point, but I believe it is at the crux of what we as Progressives hold dear. We do not want government programs layering us with third world bureaucracy any more than we want government watchdogs probing our bedrooms with third world morality. We are in no hurry to return to an era of "nurturing parent" paternalists, tut-tutting cultural development for its lack of morality.
But we believe that every single one of us deserves a chance. Within the heart of every human beats an important, valuable individual that can make our country a better place. But you can't achieve your potential if people are just judging you by the color of your skin, or your gender, or who you love. You can't achieve your greatness if you're forced to carry an unwanted child to term. You can't compete if you become seriously ill because you couldn't afford healthcare. You can't become an entrepreneur if you're shackled by debt.
Our economy has always been driven by entrepreneurs -- risk takers who gamble everything on a wild dream. The strength of capitalism is that it allows this risk-taking, much more easily than other systems. Our nation has grown and prospered precisely because it has subsidized risk. Yet today we find independent action riskier than ever. Would Thomas Edison have risked it all on crazy electrical gizmos if he had to deal with today's bankruptcy laws, or affording individual health insurance? How many of tomorrow's Thomas Edisons are we preventing with our current destruction of the social safety net?
Conservatism, at least in the post-Reagan era, is all about preserving those inequalities. It is about maintaining a system which makes a few people incredibly wealthy, while destroying the ability of each of us to rise above our economic destiny. Conservatives believe you should be rewarded for being born rich, Democrats believe you should be rewarded for working hard. We believe government should do whatever possible to make it easier for you to follow your dreams, because every new dream is a new point of competition -- and competition fuels capitalism.
Throughout our history, certain individuals have stepped in when America was suffering, and have promoted this idea of Social Capitalism, albeit with different names. Clinton was one of these, as were both Roosevelts. I believe our next great American President will need to promote this strain of capitalist thinking again.