Don't Stop Thinking About the New Covenant

Earlier this month, hundreds of alumni of Bill Clinton's campaign and White House gathered in Little Rock to mark the 20th anniversary of the launch of his presidential run. They revisited their old haunts, watched a screening of the "War Room," and listened to the strains of Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" piped over speakers. Clinton luminaries such as Al From, Don Baer, and James Carville opined on a panel commemorating the presidential run. And when Clinton himself - now white-haired and bespectacled - spoke from the same spot on the Old State House grounds where he had announced two decades earlier, one needed only to squint to be transported back to a different era.

Yet this past Sunday, without any hoopla surrounding the date, marked another Clinton-related twentieth anniversary - one that, in the realm of ideas, had an impact that outlasted his 1992 campaign. It was on October 23, 1991 that Clinton gave the first of three speeches at Georgetown University on what he called "the New Covenant." Together, these speeches and the ideas they contained represented the most important rethinking of progressive philosophy since the New Deal. The ways in which that philosophy has been both internalized and ignored have a lot to teach us about where Democrats stand today.

At a time when the notion of expanding American's rights dominated the Democratic agenda, Clinton instead focused that first New Covenant speech on the ideas of personal responsibility, the bonds of community, and reciprocity. It was not just that the middle class had watched "their economic interests ignored" but that Republican rule had seen "their values literally ground into the ground."

As opposed to the combination of the lawyerly denunciation of financial impropriety and a social worker's concern for the jobless heard from many contemporary Democrats in the wake of the Great Recession, Clinton thundered at those "from Wall Street to Main Street to Mean Street" who cut corners and break the rules. Speaking for a middle class whose values were under assault from all sides, he said it was time that all Americans--from Democratic congressional chieftains to corporate tycoons to deadbeat dads--were held equally responsible for their actions.

Twenty years later, it is hard to recall - or to overstate - how philosophically revolutionary or politically risky it was for a Democratic candidate to call on rich and poor and middle class alike to live up to a common set of duties and standards. In 1984, Walter Mondale had not even mentioned the word "responsibility" in his Democratic convention address.

But this was not a values discussion that was merely rhetorical box checking, as is so often seen today. Instead, it was the animating drive behind a detailed policy agenda that included reform of "top-down bureaucracy" in Washington, an end to tax deductions for excessive CEO pay, welfare reform, and a call to the shared duty of national service.

A month later, Clinton delivered his second New Covenant address in which he laid out his economic vision in the teeth of what was then, in some respects, the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. "We've seen the limits of Keynesian economics," he said. "We've seen the worst of supply-side economics. We need a new approach." He vowed to invest in Americans' and skills, reinvent and reform government, end tax "deductibility for irresponsibility" in American businesses while offering tax credits for entrepreneurs, and open the doors to new markets for American goods through trade liberalization. In a third address on foreign policy on December 12, 1991, Clinton argued for maintaining muscular military strength after the Cold War, promoting democracy around the world, stopping "the spread of weapons of mass destruction," and promoting a globalized economy.

The New Covenant addresses provided a break with a liberalism that had become out of date and out of touch. Contemporary Democrats bear both the benefit and the burden of the twenty years that has since passed. Today, in large part because of the eight years of the Clinton presidency, there are fewer litmus tests for politicians; there is less ground that is off limits for discussion. By speaking forcefully and unapologetically about issues such as crime at a time that the discussion was seen by many as a code word for racism, Clinton made it possible for Barack Obama to run for the White House and barely mention the issue. The reform agenda advocated by Education Secretary Arne Duncan might well have led to a civil war among Democrats had Clinton not laid the groundwork for such a debate.

Yet, freed from their orthodoxies, Democrats in the years since the New Covenant addresses have become stultified by a stale consensus. While Clinton's economic, social, and national security policies were heretical for the Democratic Party of the early 1990s, today his "new radical approach" is commonplace. It is hard to imagine a prominent Democrat before Clinton advocating the set of policies presented in those three speeches. It is hard to imagine a prominent Democrat after Clinton saying much that was different. In a very different economy and world, it is up to today's Democrats to offer their own brave break with the status quo.