Bill Clinton’s Too Spiteful to Help Govern

Bill Clinton, Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy Alfred A. Knopf (New York), 2011, 208 pages, $23.95

Reviewed by Ryan Young

When he was in the White House, Bill Clinton would famously spend hours talking over the fine details of policy with his advisers. He called these talks "the conversation," and it never quite ended, sometimes to his advisers' annoyance.

Over a decade later, his new book Back to Work shows that Clinton hasn't lost his appetite for policy details. The final chapter is primarily a list of 46 policy initiatives designed to get the economy back on track, covering everything from renewable energy to higher education. Earlier in the book, Clinton lists 71 government responsibilities under eight separate headings. He quickly adds, "Now, this is a very long list, though I've left many federal activities and programs off for the sake of brevity." Same old Clinton, for good and for bad.

But offering solutions to our economic problems doesn't seem to be the book's true purpose. Something else is at work here. It bubbles up to the surface now and then: this is a book of spite.

There are good reasons for Clinton to be spiteful. His Republican adversaries were stricken with a terrible case of Clinton Derangement Syndrome during his presidency. They said and did awful things to him. A few were deserved. But many weren't: the impeachment fiasco certainly comes to mind. All these years later, Clinton hasn't quite recovered from all the attacks.

Instead of dealing with the actual arguments his opponents make, he argues against caricatures of them. For example, when describing the GOP's fixation on tax cuts, he writes, "This makes sense if you think all government activity is harmful." This kind of cheap point-scoring causes some problems with his arguments.

The scientist Alan Turing said that a computer could be said to be thinking if it could interact with a human without the human being able to say whether he it was man or a machine. This came to be called the Turing test. The economist Bryan Caplan has applied the same concept to ideology. Someone passes an ideological Turing test by arguing the other side's arguments in such a way that his adversaries can't tell that he doesn't share their beliefs. Back to Work is a 200-page ideological Turing test failure. It's as though Clinton just can't bear to phrase his enemies' arguments in a way that would make them sound appealing.

One of Back to Work's main themes is contrasting the philosophies of "you're on your own" and "we're all in this together." This is, of course, a false dichotomy.

Free-marketers generally prefer a smaller government than Clinton would. But nobody actually believes "you're on your own." Clinton slays a strawman, but leaves the actual arguments at hand untouched.

Clinton's distorted view of free markets is matched only by his misunderstanding of the GOP. The first chapter is titled "Our Thirty-Year Antigovernment Obsession." The unsubtle implication is that Republicans are antigovernment. This is simply not true. Reagan inherited a federal government that spent 22.2 percent of gross domestic output (GDP). After 12 years of austere GOP rule under Reagan and George H.W. Bush, federal spending went from 22.2 percent of GDP to 21.4 percent. That's a reduction of less than one-tenth of one percentage point per year.

Clinton, on the other hand, had spending down to 18.2 percent of GDP when he left office. With his 3.2 percentage point reduction, Clinton turned out to be four times as effective an antigovernment crusader as Reagan and the elder Bush.

His thoughts on the younger Bush are even more confused. Clinton writes that "When President George W. Bush took office, it was the first time antigovernment Republicans had held both houses of Congress and the White House. They could do whatever they wanted."

Those antigovernment forces nearly doubled federal spending, in dollar terms. They passed the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which at the time was the largest increase in entitlement spending in 40 years. The No Child Left Behind Act increased federal involvement in education. They also passed the PATRIOT Act and created the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA.

So much for the GOP's antigovernment obsession.

It's as though Clinton simply calls whatever he happens to dislike "Republican." Because spite prevents Clinton makes from making any effort to pass the ideological Turing test, he doesn't realize just how much he has in common with the people he criticizes.

Back to Work is a decent quick-hit book of progressive policy ideas, and it makes for a good introduction to many of the economic questions that face the president. But the book isn't much more than that, despite the author's wishes. Spite and bitterness prevent Clinton's capable mind from grappling with his actual opponents; he apparently gets more satisfaction chasing after ghosts.