Tuesday 1 December 2015

Viable Within The System.

Playing By The Rules: Bill Clinton's overriding ambition was to become - and remain - a political player. When he was just 23 he wrote: “For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political life characterized by both practical political ability and concern for rapid social progress. It is a life I still feel compelled to try to lead.” To do so, however, he had to maintain his "political viability within the system." It was this urge to remain viable within the system that would lead a whole generation of Centre Left politicians to dazzling political success and abject moral failure.
“THE DECISION not to be a resister, and the related subsequent decisions, were the most difficult of my life. I decided to accept the draft in spite of my beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political viability within the system.”
Bill Clinton was only 23 years old when he wrote these words. Colonel Eugene Holmes, head of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at the University of Arkansas, had arranged for the young Rhodes Scholar to join what we used to call the “Territorial Force” so that he might avoid being drafted to fight in Vietnam. Clinton was writing to explain why, after much thought, he had decided to reject the offer of ROTC training and take his chances with the Draft.
“For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political life characterized by both practical political ability and concern for rapid social progress”, Clinton explained to the Colonel. “It is a life I still feel compelled to try to lead.”
Had Clinton not drawn a “lucky” number in the ballot, and thus escaped service in Vietnam, his fledgling career might have been cut short by a Viet-Cong bullet. As things turned out, however, the young Arkansas law student’s “practical political ability” was enough to take him all the way to the White House. So “viable” was Bill Clinton in the American political system that, in 1993, he was sworn in as the 42nd President of the United States.
In office, Clinton proved that his decision to risk the draft, rather than, at some point in the future, be labelled  a “draft-dodger”, was in no sense aberrant. Because, although Clinton’s concern for rapid social progress was very real, his desire to maintain his political viability within the system was much, much stronger. Throughout his career, whenever the two objectives came into conflict, Clinton was almost always willing to sacrifice rapid social progress on the altar of his own political viability.
Clinton was by no means alone in making the retention of personal political viability his Number One priority. Two of his most fervent admirers on the Centre Left, internationally, Tony Blair and Helen Clark, operated in much the same way. Clark’s infamous quip: “I didn’t come this far to be burnt out in a hail of gunfire”; demonstrated the importance she attached to remaining viable. As did Tony Blair’s observation that: “Power without principle is barren, but principle without power is futile.”
Some have characterised Clinton’s modus operandi – dignified by some as a “Third Way” between the Far Left’s alleged lack of viability and the Far Right’s hostility to any form of social progress – as entirely consistent with the Baby Boom generation’s determination to have their cake and eat it too. While there is a generous measure of Baby Boomer self-indulgence in Third Way politics, there is also a harder, frankly self-protective, edge to Clinton’s “practical” political style.
The letter to Colonel Holmes was written towards the end of 1969. For ambitious leftists like Clinton, the previous two years had been heart-breaking and terrifying in equal measure. In 1968 the two greatest hopes for securing rapid social change in America – Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy – had both been assassinated. And the inheritor of the darkness into which the country had suddenly been hurled, Richard Nixon, left progressive America feeling angry, isolated and afraid.
In their hit song, Long Time Gone, Crosby Stills and Nash evoked these conflicting generational emotions with heart-wrenching force:
Speak out you got to speak out against the madness
You got to speak your mind if you dare
But don’t, no don’t, no, try to get yourself elected
If you do you had better cut your hair
The Centre Left’s predicament did not improve in the following decades. Object lessons like Chile, Australia and Nicaragua proved that left-wing governments could be shot down just as easily as left-wing politicians. And with the last great challenge to free-market capitalism blipping-off the screen in 1991, “it’s the economy stupid” took on a whole new meaning.
For Centre Left parties to remain viable within the system it had become necessary for them to surrender practically every radical item on their historic agenda. It was still possible to do good, but only if the rich were allowed to do better. It was the likes of Clinton in the USA, Blair in the UK, and Clark in New Zealand, who, finally, made the world safe for neoliberalism.
Meaning that if, by some miracle, a genuine left-winger (like Jeremy Corbyn) should find himself at the head of a modern, Centre Left party, the Right will have no need to go looking for assassins – either real or metaphorical. To remain viable within the system, his own colleagues – all of them politicians of the most practical ability – will strike him down.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 1 December 2015.


greywarbler said...

Chris a stunning analysis and joins up with the one on Andrew Little. This may be a pivotal point in understanding NZ and western politics. The bible in John 8:32 says that the truth will set you free, but thinkers have looked at both the action and the reaction. Some succinct thoughts on our dilemma.
Welcome to The Quote Garden! on Google.

It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. ~Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia.

God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please — you can never have both. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad. ~Aldous Huxley

Truth, like milk, arrives in the dark
But even so, wise dogs don't bark.
Only mongrels make it hard
For the milkman to come up the yard.
~Christopher Morley, Dogs Don't Bark at the Milkman

Nick R said...

Corbyn won't need assassins to take him down. He'll do the job perfectly well all by himself.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

You write "For Centre Left parties to remain viable within the system it had become necessary for them to surrender practically every radical item on their historic agenda."

I would argue that it would be more accurate to say; to become Centre Left parties it is necessary for them to surrender every radical item on their historic agenda.

Otherwise the party remains Far Left of the average voter.

Anonymous said...

Putting Clinton, Blair, and Clark in the same sentence is unfair. All three had quite distinct approaches.

Clinton, based off his first term as Arkansas Governor, and his first couple of years as President, would I think have preferred to govern in a more progressive manner. It was simply that after the set-backs of 1980 and 1994, he adopted the infamous triangulation strategy as a defence mechanism. Also, the US system provides quite unique obstacles to progressives - it is no accident that the last President who went out of his way to help the poor, Lyndon Johnson, was one of the all-time great parliamentarians in US history. Clinton (like Carter before him) was trying to change things as an outsider.

Blair on the other hand wasn't selling out as a matter of pragmatism. For him selling out was a matter of principle. UK Labour would have won 1997 with or without Clause IV, with or without Blair's neoliberalism. Either Dennis Skinner or Jeremy Corbyn would have won that election as leader - the Tories were so hated. But Blair only ever had one strategy when dealing with criticism, namely moving to the Right, even though he had every opportunity (unlike Clinton) to govern from the Centre-Left.

Clark was another creature altogether. She was faced with a previously hijacked party that had suddenly lost both its Left and Right wings, and needed to redefine it. So she did. But no-one can doubt that her redefinition in 1999 was to the Left of where Labour had stood in 1989. Centrist? Certainly. But still recognisably Labour. It's also worth noting that UK Leftists towards the end of the Blair era regularly pointed out Clark as an example (in contrast to Blair) of viable twenty-first century social democracy.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Clinton is still labelled a draft dodger by many on the right. Even though he did no more than thousands of other middle-class young men who suddenly found they were called to Divinity School or something :-). And it's really funny, because George Bush not only dodged the draft, but he failed to fulfil the obligations he had instead of the draft. But nobody seems to remember that.

pat said...

although any socio/political construct that relies on growth is doomed I'm curious to know why you rail against the Centre(nominal) almost more than the Right?

Loz said...

Corbyn, pilloried by the press and members of the parliamentary Labour Party, has garnered begrudged support from a number of unexpected areas over Syria. Embarking on a new Middle-Eastern military intervention, without an exit strategy and without a credible aim is not a left / right divide. Even the guns of the Daily Mail, normally relentless in salvos against Corbyn paused and admitted the case for war had not been made. Of course it resumed its barrage within hours, this time suggesting that the peacenik Corbyn should actually be blamed for the country heading to war.

The issue has turned into a proxy war over the ability of Labour membership to control the policy platform advanced by the parliamentary wing.

Only twenty five of the currently sitting Labour MP's predate Tony Blair's personal vetting of candidates from the 1990's. The result is an overwhelming representation within the Parliamentary Labour Party of Blairites, who reject the resurgence of traditional Labour values being manifested within the party. Corbyn, took an unprecedented move of canvassing, and receiving responses from 70,000 Labour Party members on Sunday, over the interpretation of the existing Syria bombing policy from conference. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming number oppose the foray. An emergency meeting of Labour's executive committee to rule on Labour policy was abandoned as it appeared a number of representatives would not make themselves available to rule on the issue, rendering the ruling forum of the party inquorate.

With the inability to force Labour's ruling body to interpret the policy passed by conference, Corbyn has no option but to allow around caucus members to vote with the government. Notably, caucus rejected a proposed motion to support bombing under the pretext that they believe they are "substantively" aligned to the conference adopted policy resolution. Instead, Parliamentary members are justifying their position, without reference to conference, that that they are entitled to vote in accordance with conscientious belief. The “conscientious belief” justification can be extended to rebuke any future policy directions promoted by Corbyn (and the party) that represent a deviation from the Blairite position held by the majority of caucus.

The Gordian knot is that the new, reinvigorated Labour party with broad base membership has a different set of beliefs to "their" parliamentarians. The parliamentarians do not believe their role is simply to represent the membership but return to the Westminster justification to argue they represent constituents, not the party. With 70,000 members taking the time to express their opposition to Labour MPs supporting the government over bombing, the free-vote forced upon Corbyn is likely to enrage the membership. And, the rebellion of parliamentarians will act to reinforce their view that they are not beholden to directives percolating up from the "unelectable" activists within the party.

The membership believe they are rebuilding a grass-roots, democratic Labour Party. Caucus believe that their Labour Party has been taken over through Trotskyites and the new activist networks represent a party within a party. There would appear to be no unifying solution to power struggle Labour finds itself within.

The unresolved issue in British and New Zealand Labour is the relationship between rank-and-file membership and professional politicians in the determination of party direction.

Victor said...


I largely agree with your assessment of the differences twixt Clinton, Blair & Clark. But I think you're overstating UK Labour's inherent advantage over the Tories in 1997.

I don't think Skinner or Corbyn could have led the party to victory and I'm not sure Neil Kinnock could have managed it either, although John Smith would almost certainly have made it to No. 10. An interesting question is whether Gordon Brown could have done so.

But, electorally, Blair's biggest achievement (for want of a better word) was to win not just one but three consecutive general elections and remain in office for a decade, thus far acceding the success in this regard of any previous Labour leader.

He also managed to dislodge the Tories from their position as the "natural party of government", arguably the first time this had happened since the Asquith/Lloyd George split devoured the Liberal Party.

It is, of course, to the ongoing shame of my former compatriots that they voted for Blair even after he had played the role of running dog in his friend W's absurd and bloodstained Middle Eastern adventure. Even so, electorally, one has to acknowledge that the guy had a certain malign magic.

Those who knew the UK during the 1960s and 70s may recall the ebullient dancer, choreographer and TV personality, Lionel Blair. As a, now alas deceased, left wing friend of mine put it shortly after the 1997 election: "We were hoping for change but all we got was Lionel Blair and the Dancers!" But would change of a deeper nature have secured an electoral mandate? I suspect not.

Meanwhile, I strongly recommend Richard Loncraine's third film in his Blair trilogy, "The Special Relationship" to anyone who hasn't seen it. I suspect that Loncraine's got the Blair/Clinton dynamics pitch perfect. Plus Hope Davis is a wonderful Hillary (though she's probably too nice).

greywarbler said...

I can understand where Brit and NZ Labour now. There actually is a schism between the people in power and close to it, and the people they are supposed to represent.

One angry, almost tearful NZ Labour organiser put it that criticism of Labour here is a blow against all those little people working through cake stalls, raffles and bigger fund-raising schemes to get Labour in power. Criticism weakens the Labour presentation and possibility of election. Just getting into government is all that Labour can wish for, no matter what they might do, or not do, while there is the catchcry. There is a desire by the sitting politicians and those aspirational, to remain the king of the castle, in this pseudo democracy that we have now, and the critics are the dirty rascals.

Anonymous said...

A vibrant strong amiable leader can bring any enough activists of any faction to the table, witness John Key, he is a phenomenon.

the pigman said...

Loz @ 09:41

Brilliant summanalysis.

What now?

pat said...

What now? Madame Guillotine?

Richard McGrath said...

Chris, not sure why you would sully your website with favourable mention of Clinton. The man was (and probably still is) a serial sexual offender, who abused his power as firstly a state governor and then as POTUS to harass a large number of women. After lying about his conduct with Paula Jones, he ended up paying her $850,000. Not the actions of an innocent man.

Anonymous said...

LBJ is greatly overated, it is well worth listening to and watching dooo, Fog Of War, which mainly deals with the McNamara perspective. LBJ was simply cunning and as sexually promiscuous as most US politicians of his era. RFK is a much more conservative politician than legend has it. By 1968 RFKs health was largely destroyed, the year after the assasination took a terrible toll on his health as did the senate race in NY which was a huge and difficult state. RFKs presidential campaign was mainly intended to damage the Hubert Humphery campaign with its key ideas of something like NZ and Canadian health and welfare policies. Clinton really had no more support than McGovern, Perot taking 20% of the vote, defeated Bush 41. Inevitably Clinton had to adopt centerist polcies. In terms of draft avoidance that is why Bill Clinton went back to Oxford for a second year to guarantee respectable avoidance if the lottery number came up,

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"By 1968 RFKs health was largely destroyed, the year after the assasination took a terrible toll on his health "
I should think it did. Are you Robert? You also need an editor also if not.
On the contrary, Johnson is often underrated. Particularly on civil rights. Kennedy tended to get the credit, when it was Johnson who managed to push it through.

Without judging or making a decision on Clinton's guilt as a serial sexual offender, the $850,000 may just have been an ambitious politician's judgement that paying was better a long drawn out trial which may have affected his political chances. We all know that the Republicans have become more extreme and personal in their hatred of Democratic US presidents. You only have to look at the ongoing saga of Obama being either Kenyan, or Muslim. Pandering to the low information/racist voters.

Victor said...


"We all know that the Republicans have become more extreme and personal in their hatred of Democratic US presidents."

Not only that. As Governor of Arkansas, Clinton was one of the most consistent targets of attacks by well-funded, dirty tricks exponents of the Lee Atwater school of politics. And part of the problem was that he was a kid from the wrong side of the tracks.

Hillary isn't always (or, possibly, even normally) to be believed. But she knew of what she spoke concerning the "vast right wing conspiracy" .

"You also need an editor also if not."

A well-known saying about "pots" and "kettles" might suggest itself here.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Be fair Victor, I usually make sense :-). And when I don't I often pull the damn thing and rewrite it if I can be bothered. And I didn't suggest that RFK's health suffered after he was dead :-).

Robert said...

LBJ had a massive majority after the 1964 election, when he faced only the weak opposition of the impasssioned and rather fanatical Goldwater. It was not difficult for LBJ to secure the passage of the Great Society welfare state legislation although the civil rights enactments were harder to get through and Johnstone was prepared to accept that, it might mean the loss of much of the South in future too the Republicans. The legislation was also seen as the Kennedy legacy, but this is much more debatable. It could equally be argued that Theodore Sorrenson and other socially concerned worthies in the JFK Government were really a decoration and concession to the Humphery/Roosevelt faction and JFK never intended to implement anything on the scale and quite the nature of the Great Society. In recently released tapes of Jackie Kennedy- interviewed in 1964 by Schlesinger, (released by the Ambassador of Japan, Caroline Kennedy) the highly opinionated

wife of the former President, expresses contempt for Sorrenson, saying the Kennedy brothers had very different plans for a second term, that Sorrenson was much less important than imagined as an adviser and speechwriter

, ( she considered herself a more significant contributor to the speeches that mattered to Jack) and her personal dislike of Sorrenson, who she clearly saw as some hick from the midwest and the last person she would have invited to any of her social functions. Gore Vidal a close associate of the Kennedys and Jackie also noted in a recent video of his life that JFK during his presidency said the right thing on every issue, but implemented none of it,and generally that the Kennedy's were far more rightwing and shocking than generally imagined.
In terms of LBJ as with Thatcher he essentially stepped into a political vacumn and there is absolutely nothing impressive or wise in Johnstone's handling of the Vietnam war. One point McNamara does make is he is certain JFK would never have continued to expand troop numbers to over half a million.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Skinner or Corbyn could have led the party to victory and I'm not sure Neil Kinnock could have managed it either, although John Smith would almost certainly have made it to No. 10. An interesting question is whether Gordon Brown could have done so.

The Tories were destroyed by 1993's Black Wednesday. Once that had happened, they were doomed.

Add in the VAT betrayal (a U-turn on the policy that won them 1992), the endless sleaze scandals, and the party civil war over Europe, and things only become worse.

I really can't conceive of any realistic scenario where Labour loses 1997. It could no more lose that election than the Tories could lose 1979 or Labour could lose 1945.

Victor said...


I felt mean and petty as soon as I'd sent it.


I've long believed that assessments of JFK normally tend to be too extreme one way or the other.

He certainly wasn't the paladin of fruitful change that he was hailed as immediately after his tragic end. Nor was he just an idle and lecherous rich boy with a good PR machine.

He was a very able, far from radical, pragmatic politician, with a keen sense of history and a former junior officer's suspicion of the military brass. In addition, there was "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald's charm, bequeathed in ample measure to his favourite grandson.

Kennedy's suspicion of the military helped him avoid nuclear Armageddon and would, I suspect, have led him to resist deeper involvement in Vietnam.

Would he have supported the Civil Rights movement had events not pressed him to do so? Frankly, I doubt it.

Many years ago, an American friend of mine (a Civil Rights veteran) made the following observation, which I pass on reconstructed from memory and without comment:

"LBJ was a southern liberal and there are no liberals as staunch as those from the South. His commitment to Civil Rights, unlike JFK's, owed little to fashion and was deeply felt. But, like most Southerners, he couldn't resist a uniform and was putty in the hands of the generals".

As to Bobby, he still remains a bit of an enigma.

Fans of counter-factual histories have often played with the notion of what would have happened if JFK had survived Dallas and won again in 1964.

To my mind, however, a far more fascinating counter-factual involves RFK surviving LA and making it to the White House in 1968. Anything could have happened in that extraordinary year.

Victor said...


I would suggest to you that one circumstance in which Labour would have lost in 1997 would have been if it had had a leader from the perceived unreconstructed left or with very strong, macho, traditional Union links.

One of the determinants of the election was the sharp rise in women voting Labour and an equally sharp decline in them voting Tory, reversing a trend that had helped keep the Conservatives in office for most of the 20th century.

I recall commentators at the time saying that women in particular welcomed the soft, family-orientated, non-macho, aspirational face of Labour under Blair. I also picked this up from conversations with friends and family in the UK.

I haven't seen any quantitative research on this issue but would be interested in doing so.

But the point is that Blair didn't just win one election. He won three.

Victor said...


One further point....

Do you think the Tories would have won in 1979 with Heath, Peart or Whitelaw as leader? Frankly, I have my doubts.

Anonymous said...

I think the likes of Whitelaw would have won a larger majority than Thatcher. Callaghan did an heroic job in damage limitation during that campaign, and his modus operandi was to point out that Thatcher was an extremist. Which she was (though she didn't campaign that way). Stick a more moderate Tory in charge, and 1979 turns into a rout.

Also on 1997, don't forget that Blair got fewer votes than Major had in 1992, and that by the late 1990s, the British Left had finally mastered the art of anti-Tory tactical voting. Blair's major electoral legacy was destroying turnout in traditional Labour areas, while taking advantage of an incredibly weak Tory Party. That couldn't last forever though - in 2005, the Tories outpolled Labour in England, but were screwed by FPP.

Victor said...


I disagree profoundly with your first point (apart from your reference to Callaghan's "heroic job of damage limitation"). It was Thatcher's charisma rather than her views that people voted for.That's why the charge of extremism failed to hit home.

But you've convinced me of your second point, particularly with respect to tactical voting. The only point I'd make is that I was talking of Blair's electoral achievement and you of his legacy, which is not quite the same thing.