In accepting his 1996 second-term nomination, Bill Clinton pledged to build
a bridge to the 21st Century. His White House years, which would end on the other side of
that bridge, had witnessed transformational advances in technology, economic
prosperity, a successful war in the Balkans and the first budget surpluses in
three decades. So, with
understandable optimism, Clinton held out the expectation of even better times
to come. As we move into
summer’s dog days, we should take a moment to consider the impending end of
this century’s first decade. Specifically,
how have things gone so far this side of Clinton’s bridge?
The short answer is, not very well.
The closing months of the 2000 set the tone for what was to come. During more than a month following a
cliffhanger November vote, America found itself in electoral limbo. While Article 2 of the Constitution had made
provision for such a situation by ceding resolution responsibility to the House
of Representatives, it was rather the Supreme Court that cast the deciding ballot,
effectively selecting our 43rd Chief Executive. It was a stunning act for a judicial majority that
deplored activism and whose most
vocal member calls himself an originalist
who to this day rejects
the idea of a living constitution.
In early September of the following year, with the new president
having spent much of the summer whacking underbrush on his Texas ranch, the
country experienced a wrenching, and heretofore unthinkable, attack on its most
iconic city. The myth of fortress
America, a landmass surrounded by formidable and ever-protective ocean waters,
was shattered in a matter of minutes.
That event changed the mindset of a nation and fundamentally reset an
Administration that, aside from having enacted a huge tax cut that June with
bipartisan support, seemed rudderless.
What followed with stunning speed and only minimal questioning by the
Congress, the media and the citizenry, was what might arguably be described as
a Wag the Dog march
toward multiple wars including an amorphous one waged on real but equally
abstract terrorism. If the generous tax cuts enacted
earlier had not yet done so, this off-the-books expenditure on national security quickly turned a fiscal
surplus into deficits of historic proportion. In the final year of the decade, wars in Afghanistan and
Iraq, not to mention that less defined one against terror, still hold us
The economy boomed in the early years of the decade, or so we were urged
to believe. The old chicken in every pot wish was updated as home
ownership in everyone’s life. As
it turned out, the real boom was exceedingly narrow and many more than the
clients of Bernie Madoff
found themselves victims of an enormous Ponzi scheme. While one party accused the other of tax and spend, both happily encouraged the far less prudent
approach of borrow and spend — and on
a massive scale. When the roof
caved in, virtually everyone could be
It was, we should not forget, Bill Clinton, the man heading us toward
the bridge, that presided over the dismantling
of the very symbol of financial regulation Glass-Steagall
on Nov 12 1999 just a short sprint from its entrance. Needless to say, he had substantial bi-partisan
encouragement in and out of government.
In many respects, the seeds of what emerged below and above the surface
as an unraveling of the economy in this first decade had been sown and nurtured
for many years on the bridge’s other side. Part of that unraveling was the stand still or decline of
most Americans’ real income, a structural loss of jobs, the decimation of the
middle class and a growing, almost third world-like disparity between the very
rich and virtually everyone else.
Again that didn’t start in the new century, but it has come to full
bloom in this first decade.
Beyond the active wars that are talking such a toll on our treasure
and, more importantly on human life, the international problems we faced on
January 1, 2000 remain with us.
Israel and Palestine are still in national limbo with the assumed solution still beyond their and our reach. Iran’s hostility and potential danger to its neighbors and
itself has only escalated. Energy
resources continue to be spent and no meaningful better way forward has been
either fully articulated or accepted by the me
generation here and abroad.
The snow caps are melting, the summers are sweltering and we remain in
Was it all bad — these first ten years? Certainly not.
We elected our first African American president and as of this writing
three women sit on the Supreme Court for the first time in our history. While neither racism nor sexism has
been eliminated from our country, psyche or culture, the watershed character of
these steps forward should not be underestimated. Nor should we overlook the march toward marriage equality,
which regardless of who we are and what we believe is likely to accrue to our
collective benefit. Despite what has become a dysfunctional political system,
landmark legislation has been enacted, more than than by any Congress in
But in the end it’s hard to sugarcoat the decade that will soon come
to an end. Put what we have
witnessed — of which we have been an integral part — on a scale and badness simply
outweighs goodness. In fact, it so
overwhelms that those who would seek to set straight the road on this side of
the bridge find themselves ham strung and, to make matters worse, ridiculed for
not doing enough. By all accounts
we, and that means each and every one of us, are frustrated, if not
infuriated. Sure the level of that
frustration differs depending on where we sit, whether we’re employed or not, whether
our politics are liberal or conservative and whether we lead or follow. But it is there, and it is realistic.
I am by nature an optimistic person, but this decade is testing that natural outlook. Perhaps the ray of hope that I do see
is exactly to be found in where we are.
All of these frustrating things didn’t happen by themselves. We have, to one degree or another,
played our part — each of us have been substantial contributors. If so, logic would suggest we might
also be able to get ourselves out of this mess, but let’s not look at the other
gal or guy to get that started.
The first step is up to us, our move.