It’s a fact of life in Washington that what one party considers a principled stand, the opposition considers pigheadedness. Compromise? That’s the other guy’s problem.
But when former President Bill Clinton took the stage at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday, he portrayed President Barack Obama as a pragmatic compromiser who has been stymied at every turn by Republicans. There was no mention of the role that the president and the Democrats have played in grinding compromise to a halt on some of the most important issues facing the country.
That was among the lines by the former president and others Wednesday that either cherry-picked facts or mischaracterized the opposition. A look at some of them:
CLINTON: “When times are tough, constant conflict may be good politics but in the real world, cooperation works better. …Unfortunately, the faction that now dominates the Republican Party doesn’t see it that way. They think government is the enemy and compromise is weakness. One of the main reasons America should re-elect President Obama is that he is still committed to cooperation.”
THE FACTS: From Clinton’s speech, voters would have no idea that the inflexibility of both parties is to blame for much of the gridlock. Right from the beginning Obama brought in as his first chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel, a man known for his getting his way, not for getting along.
One of the more high-profile examples of a deal that fell apart was the outline of a proposed “grand bargain” budget agreement between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner in 2011.
The deal would have required compromise from both sides. It slashed domestic spending more than most Democrats wanted and would have raised some taxes, which most Republicans oppose.
Boehner couldn’t sell the plan to tea party factions in the House or to other conservative activists. And Obama found himself accused of going too far by some Democratic leaders. The deal died before it ever even came up for a vote.
In another instance, Obama appointed a bipartisan group, known as the Simpsons-Bowles Commission, to recommend ways to fix major fiscal problems like Social Security and Medicare. The commission issued its recommendations but fell three votes short of formally endorsing them. And Obama mostly walked away from the report. He later incorporated some of the less contentious proposals from the report into legislation he supported.
But that ensured the tough compromises would not get made.
The problem with compromising in Washington is that there are few true moderates left in either party. The notion that Republicans are the only ones standing in the way of compromise is inaccurate.
CLINTON: Clinton suggested that Obama’s health care law is keeping health care costs in check.
“For the last two years, health care spending has grown under 4 percent, for the first time in 50 years. So, are we all better off because President Obama fought for it and passed it? You bet we are.”
THE FACTS: That’s wishful thinking at best. The nation’s total health care tab has been growing at historically low rates, but most experts attribute that to continued uncertainty over the economy, not to Obama’s health care law.
Two of the main cost-control measures in Obama’s law — a powerful board to keep Medicare spending manageable and a tax on high cost health insurance plans — have yet to take effect.
Under the law, Medicare has launched dozens of experiments aimed at providing quality care for lower cost, but most of those are still in their infancy and measurable results have yet to be obtained. Former administration officials say the law deserves at least part of the credit for easing health care inflation, but even they acknowledge that the lackluster economy is playing a major role.
Meanwhile, people insured through the workplace by and large have seen little relief from rising premiums and cost shifts. According to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, the average premium for job-based family coverage rose from $13,375 in 2009 when Obama took office to $15,073 in 2011. During the same period, the average share paid by employees rose from $3,515 to $4,129.
While those premium increases cannot be blamed on the health care law — as Republicans try to do — neither can Democrats claim credit for breaking the back of health care inflation.
CLINTON: “I know many Americans are still angry and frustrated with the economy. … I experienced the same thing in 1994 and early 1995. Our policies were working but most people didn’t feel it yet. By 1996, the economy was roaring, halfway through the longest peacetime expansion in American history.”
THE FACTS: Clinton is counting on voters to recall the 1990s wistfully and to cast a vote for Obama in hopes of replicating those days in a second term. But Clinton leaves out the abrupt downward turn the economy took near the end of his own second term and the role his policies played in the setting the stage for the historic financial meltdown of 2008.
While the economy and markets experienced a record expansion for most of the rest of Clinton’s two-term presidency, at the start of 2000, there were troubling signs. Then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan warned in February 2000 that “we are entering a period of considerable turbulence in financial markets.”
Sure enough, the tech-heavy Nasdaq composite stock index and the Dow Jones industrial average both peaked in March 2000. The bursting of the high-tech bubble dragged down the economy and markets through the rest of the year. From September 2000 to January 2001 when Clinton left office, the Nasdaq dropped 46 percent. Even now, in 2012, the Nasdaq has not returned to its 2000 peak. By March 2001, the economy toppled into recession.
Also, as president, Clinton supported the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, a law dating back to the Great Depression that separated banking from high-risk financial speculation. Robert Rubin, who had been Clinton’s first treasury secretary, helped broker the final deal on Capitol Hill that enabled the repeal legislation to pass. Some financial historians say the repeal of the law paved the way for banks to invest in risky investments like mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations that played a role in the 2008 financial meltdown.
CLINTON: “Their campaign pollster said, ‘We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.’ Now that is true. I couldn’t have said it better myself — I just hope you remember that every time you see the ad.”
THE FACTS: Clinton, who famously finger-wagged a denial on national television about his sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky and was subsequently impeached in the House on a perjury charge, has had his own uncomfortable moments over telling the truth. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” Clinton told television viewers. Later, after he was forced to testify to a grand jury, Clinton said his statements were “legally accurate” but also allowed that he “misled people, including even my wife.”
Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press