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Clinton’s Forgotten Dictatorial Tendencies

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It seems like a century since Bill Clinton was president of this country. Unfortunately, the abuses of George W. Bush and the pratfalls of Barack Obama are causing many people to raise their estimate of Clinton’s presidency. But he earned his disdain fair and square, and a brief reminder of his abuses is in order.

From concocting new prerogatives to confiscate private property, to championing FBI agents’ right to shoot innocent Americans, to bankrolling the militarization of local police forces, the Clinton administration stretched the power of government on all fronts. From the soaring number of wiretaps, to converting cell phones into homing devices for law enforcement, to turning bankers into spies against their customers, free speech and privacy were undermined again and again. From dictating how many pairs of Chinese silk panties Americans could buy to mandating that people on Prozac could be entitled to arrive at work late, to President Clinton’s efforts to require trigger locks for all handguns in crack houses, no aspect of Americans’ lives was too arcane for federal intervention.

The Clinton administration built its “bridge to the 21st century” by filling every sinkhole along the way with taxpayer dollars. From AmeriCorps projects to the foisting of unreliable toilets on poor people, to a flood-insurance program that multiplied flood damage, to programs to give the keys to lavish new single-family homes to public-housing residents, the Clinton administration’s record domestic spending produced record fiascos. For Clinton, the only wasted tax dollar was one that did not buy a vote, garner a campaign contribution, or provide a chance to bite his lip on national television.

Clinton was the Nanny State champion incarnate — the person who taught tens of millions of Americans to look to government for relief from every irritation of daily life — from child-safety car seats to unpasteurized cider to leaky basements. His perennial message was that people should trust political action far more than the voluntary efforts of individuals to improve their own lives. He continually reminded people of the greatness of the state and the helplessness of the citizen.

In the same way that the success of NATO’s attack on Serbia was measured largely by continual proclamations of “record numbers” of sorties flown and “record numbers” of bombs dropped, so the Clinton administration gauged its domestic policy successes by the number of new laws passed, new programs enacted, and new activities prohibited — by record fines levied and record prison sentences imposed. Federal agencies issued more than 25,000 new regulations — criminalizing everything from satisfying shower nozzles to snuff advertisements on race cars.

While the media focused primarily on new benefits that Clinton promised, little attention was paid to the swelling tax burden on working Americans. Federal income-tax revenue doubled between 1992 and 2000. The total tax burden on the average family with two earners rose three times faster than inflation. Though the IRS wrongfully seized hundreds of thousands of Americans’ paychecks and bank accounts during his presidency, almost all of the agency’s power survived unscathed.

Faith in the coercive power of the best and brightest permeated Clinton administration policy-making. More commands, more penalties, and more handouts were the recipe for progress. The Clinton administration consistently acted as if nothing is as dangerous as insufficient government power.

The history of the Clinton administration cannot be understood apart from the president’s personal view of government. Clinton portrayed government as the Lone Ranger — or, more accurately, millions of Lone Rangers, each with a sacred mission to rescue people whether they want to be rescued or not. For Clinton, government was never merely a bunch of clerks in some drab office vegetating toward a pension. Instead, government was “a champion of national purpose” — “the instrument of our national community” — and “a progressive instrument of the common good.” He urged Americans in 1998 to commit themselves “to a new kind of government … to give all our people the tools to make the most of their own lives.” His invocation of “government as toolmeister” ignored the abysmal record of federal job training, literacy, and other programs supposedly created to help people help themselves.

Many of Clinton’s policies can be explained only by his belief in his own moral superiority. For Clinton, the officially proclaimed intent of a specific government policy or action far transcended whatever force government agents used against citizens. The more people government brought to their knees, the fairer society became — simply because government power was the personification of fairness.

And the loftier the goal Clinton proclaimed, the more irrelevant private collateral damage became. One visionary foreign-policy speech was more important than a thousand cluster bombs dropped on foreign civilians. Vigorous denunciations of international terrorism were more important than the cruise missiles that destroyed Sudan’s only pharmaceutical factory. Continual invocations of “the children” at every political whistle-stop mattered more than the deaths of dozens of children after an FBI gas attack at Waco.

The Clinton recipe for public safety was: If politicians can only frighten enough of the people enough of the time, then everyone will be safe. Because Clinton felt government must constantly intervene in people’s lives, people had to be convinced that they were doomed unless politicians saved them on a daily basis. The result: constant efforts to alarm the citizenry on everything from health care to speed limits, to secondhand smoke, to global warming, to garbage dumps, to radon, to guns.

Infantilizing Americans

Clinton owed much of his popularity to his stealth statism. He was the master of intellectual shell games. In his 1996 State of the Union address, he announced, “The era of Big Government is over.” Yet, once he had won reelection by campaigning as a moderate (or, in the words of presidential advisor Dick Morris, “campaigning as Pope”), he opened the floodgates to bigger government. In his 1997 State of the Union address, he called for a “national crusade for education standards” and federal standards and national credentials for all new teachers; announced plans “to build a citizen army of one million volunteer tutors to make sure every child can read independently by the end of the third grade”; called for $5 billion in federal aid to build and repair local school houses, a new scholarship program to subsidize anyone going to college, and federal subsidies for private health insurance; demanded a new law entitling women who had had mastectomies to stay in the hospital 48 hours afterwards; advocated a constitutional amendment for “victims’ rights”; urged Congress to enact a law criminalizing any parent who crossed a state line to avoid paying child support; and proposed enacting juvenile crime legislation that “declares war on gangs,” hiring new prosecutors, and increasing federal spending on the war on drugs. He also announced plans to expand NATO and declare “10 American Heritage Rivers” (thereby effectively prohibiting thousands of landowners from using their property along those rivers). Clinton, deeply concerned about American ethics, demanded that “character education must be taught in our schools.” (This demand was not repeated in later State of the Union addresses).

In his 1999 State of the Union address, Clinton proposed more than 40 new laws and programs. Citizens applauded proposals for more government — regardless of how poorly existing government programs functioned and despite the fact that most Americans personally distrusted Clinton at the time he sought more power over them. In his 2000 State of the Union address, he talked for almost an hour and a half and, according to one estimate, proposed the equivalent of $4 billion in new federal spending per minute.

The notion that “the king can do no wrong” permeated the Clinton administration’s legal and public relations defense strategies. His administration perennially invoked sovereign immunity to protect feds accused of wrongdoing — from the FBI sniper who killed Vicki Weaver in the doorway of her Idaho cabin in 1992 to IRS agents who wantonly seized people’s property and disrupted their lives; to Treasury Department employees who shredded 162 cartons of documents detailing how the government robbed hundreds of thousands of Indians who relied on the Bureau of Indian Affairs trust fund accounts; and to the FBI agents involved in the final attack at Waco. Clinton sought to raise the reputation of government to lofty new heights — at the same time that Justice Department lawyers argued that individual federal agents are exempt from liability for wronging other Americans.

The Clinton presidency must not be judged solely on whether the Senate convicted him on impeachment charges, or whether he and his wife were shown to have obstructed justice during the Whitewater investigation, or whether a federal judge fined him for perjury. Focusing narrowly on the best-known scandals obscures how much misgovernment occurred during the 1990s. Far more Americans were affected by IRS depredations, HUD-ruined neighborhoods, and FDA-denied drugs than by Clinton’s personal misbehavior.

The Clinton administration changed the political fabric of this nation and the political expectations of the American people and the American media. Clinton’s policies and rhetoric helped infantilize the American populace. He helped subtly transform the entire political system — year by year, crisis by crisis, hoax by hoax.

The principle of government supremacy is Clinton’s clearest legacy. He helped place the federal government above all laws — above the Constitution — and beyond any effective restraint. He ignored federal and Supreme Court decisions limiting his power, and Congress rarely had the gumption to check his abuses. Clinton exploited and expanded the dictatorial potential of the U.S. presidency.

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.