Policies, Principles, and Polls: Bill Clinton's Third Way Welfare Politics 1992-1996

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In his 1998 State of the Union address President Clinton said: "My fellow Americans we have found a Third Way [...] [We have] moved past the sterile debate between those who say government is the enemy and those who say it is the answer." In fact, at least on welfare reform, during his first term Clinton pursued not a Third Way but signed into law far-reaching conservative legislation. In this article I consider why Clinton made this decision and whether his administration ever offered an alternative on welfare reform, and examine how Clinton's welfare politics from 1992-1996 opened the door to the passing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in late 1996--legislation which set a five-year life time limit on welfare to solo-parents (2) and severely restricted Food Stamp entitlements. (3) Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign undoubtedly reignited the push for welfare reform in America. His promise to "end welfare as we know it" took up a Republican Party theme and made it central to his domestic agenda. Quite deliberately Clinton rejected the Democrats' traditional welfare liberalism (4) in favour of a new politics that is sometimes called the Third Way. (5) Clinton conceded that conservatives had been correct to criticise the results of the existing welfare system but he also argued that the government still had a role to play. To some, this reflected the pragmatism of Clinton and his Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) colleagues (6); to others, Clinton represented the hope that American liberalism could be reorientated to once again serve the disadvantaged. (7)

In retrospect, Clinton's liberal legacy was very limited. His ability to pass his own welfare proposal effectively ended with the 1994 Republican congressional victory. Clinton's chief welfare adviser David Ellwood left the administration after the 1994 elections, realising his welfare reform plan was no longer politically viable. Before 1994 health reform had been prioritised somewhat at the expense of developing and passing welfare reform legislation. Nevertheless, President Clinton's various welfare and workfare proposals between 1992 and 1996 were followed closely by policymakers across the Western world because they were linked to a broader Third Way movement.

Some see the Third Way as charting a course between conservatism and its counterpart (i.e. social democracy, liberalism or even socialism depending on the country). Others, largely advocates, see the Third Way as a project concerned with renewing and modernising social democracy. (8) This difference in interpretation is reflective of the tension between seeing the Third Way as a new set of policy principles as opposed to viewing it as merely an election strategy. (9) Clearly it is both of these things.

Although comparative analysis concerning the Clinton era has already been undertaken, this is often too glib about the significant differences between the US and the rest of the western world. (10) This point seems particularly important when addressing welfare policy because of the bifurcated nature of the US entitlements system with its significant rhetorical and administrative separation of welfare and social security. This separation reflects the distinct historical institutionalism of the US experience. For example, the oddity of having one of its key anti-poverty programs, food stamps, administered and determined by the Agriculture Department and Agriculture committees in the Congress points to this distinct history.

The other factor inhibiting comparative analysis is that the Third Way is generally seen as a project concerned with renewing social democracy, a tradition which has had a more limited impact in America than Europe. As a result, the Third Way in America is concerned with renewing or going beyond "liberalism." Part of the difficulty here is one of terminology. …