Nothing excites Republicans more these days than to draw contrasts — and foment dissension — between President Obama and former president Bill Clinton, his most recent Democratic predecessor. Much as the Republican right despised Clinton when he was in the White House, they pretend to yearn for him today.
The political media delight in the same game, which is why so many news outlets seized on Clinton’s remarks in an exclusive interview on Wednesday with the conservative Newsmax website that seemed to put him at odds with Obama’s policies — especially at a moment when the stock market fell steeply again and economic confidence appears to be ebbing.
“I personally don’t believe we ought to be raising taxes or cutting spending until we get this economy off the ground,” Clinton told Newsmax Editor-in-Chief Christopher Ruddy last Wednesday. The resulting headline — “Ex-President Clinton to Newsmax: Raising Taxes Won’t Work” — was accurate when compared with the headlines that swiftly followed in other media, which suggested that Clinton had “rejected” Obama’s proposed tax on millionaires and “undercut” the president. The Republican National Committee distributed the Newsmax interview in a press release, asking “Is Clinton off script or tired of using this White House’s talking points?”
Responding to those jibes on Thursday at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York, the former president said, “I don’t disagree with President Obama, and he doesn’t disagree with me, because he isn’t proposing to raise taxes now. But I understand why there was some confusion about what I said, because we’re discussing how to stimulate the economy and how to reduce the deficit at the same time.”
As Clinton explained, he has long supported raising taxes on those who, like him, can well afford to pay more. He noted bluntly that “a lot of the stories I read today said that I disagreed with [Obama], that I wasn’t for [raising taxes] now. He’s not for doing it now. His proposal is for triggering this [tax increase] in 2013 and going forward.”
Over the years since he became a multi-millionaire, Clinton has often urged the restoration of the higher tax levels on the wealthy that he passed during his first year as president (which didn’t seem to hinder the vast growth and investment during his administration). On Thursday, he noted that “those of us in the very highest income groups, the top 1 percent of the American people, got more than 40 percent of the income gains of the past decade. We got a huge chunk of the tax cuts. We did just fine, people in my income group, under the [tax] system that prevailed when I was president. So, in some form or fashion we’re going to have to pay a little more. Not because it’s class warfare, but because we got most of the gains of the last decade, we got the benefit of most of the tax cuts, and we’re in the best position to make this contribution.”
President Obama, said Clinton, “doesn’t propose to raise any taxes until 2013, or to cut any more spending until 2013, because we need to get economic growth going again. I completely agree with that. I’m for a long-term plan to reduce the debt that triggers when we’ve got normal growth, which is now estimated to be some time in 2013. And between now and then we ought to do everything we can to get the economy going again.”
Indeed, Clinton’s approach to both taxes and spending is entirely in keeping not only with Obama’s plan but with the Keynesian approach that Republicans and conservatives dismiss. He believes that the original 2009 stimulus “was good for the country,” but that the continued downturn has proved that it wasn’t sufficient to fill the gap caused by the financial crash.
As for the “millionaire” tax proposed by Obama this week, “I’m fine with that,” he said, “but what we need to do is calibrate it so that both [increased taxes] and spending reductions are taking place in an atmosphere of economic growth — so that private sector growth will more than offset public sector reductions.”
His support for Obama’s jobs bill could not be plainer, as he reiterated on Thursday when he described the plan as “well-conceived” and quoted Republican economists who say that the jobs program will promote higher GDP and “give us between a million and two million more jobs than we would have otherwise.”
But he went still further: “There are other countries… doing things better than we are now, including providing more broad-based economic growth and lower unemployment — and without exception, they have public-private cooperation. They have the government and private sector working together.” What will not work, he said, is the ideological approach of the far right, as represented by the Republicans’ Tea Party wing.
As he bid farewell to dozens of heads of state, corporate leaders and nonprofit entrepreneurs attending his global meeting, Clinton warned: “The vision that the Tea Party’s articulating — of the weakest possible government where there’s no such thing as a good tax or a bad tax cut, no such thing as a good regulation or a bad deregulation, no such thing as a good program or a bad program cut — there’s not a single place on the planet where that [approach] is giving birth to a modern, successful, broad-based economy.”