Clinton and 'Big Government'

I say again, the era of big Government is over.
— Bill Clinton
State of the Union Address, 1996

During the first debate between candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton declared that she was “sick of” the way Republicans use the phrase “big government” to attack only select government programs (specifically: mandated paid maternity leave) while they don’t mind other big government programs which “they want to impose on the American people.” (transcript)

That reminded me of this passage from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States on the presidency of Bill Clinton:

Clinton and the Republicans, in joining against “big government,” were aiming only at social services. The other manifestations of big government—​huge contracts to military contractors and generous subsidies to corporations—​continued at exorbitant levels.

“Big government” had, in fact, begun with the Founding Fathers, who deliberately set up a strong central government to protect the interests of the bondholders, the slave owners, the land speculators, the manufacturers. For the next two hundred years, the American government continued to serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful, offering millions of acres of free land to the railroads, setting high tariffs to protect manufacturers, giving tax breaks to oil corporations, and using its armed forces to suppress strikes and rebellions.

It was only in the twentieth century, especially in the thirties and sixties, when the government, besieged by protests and fearful of the stability of the system, passed social legislation for the poor that political leaders and business executives complained about “big government.”


Reduction of the annual deficit in order to achieve a “balanced budget” became an obsession of the Clinton administration. But since Clinton did not want to raise taxes on the wealthy, or to cut funds for the military, the only alternative was to sacrifice the poor, the children, the aged—​to spend less for health care, for food stamps, for education, for single mothers.


The concern about balancing the budget did not extend to military spending. Immediately after he was elected for the first time, Clinton had said: “I want to reaffirm the essential continuity in American foreign policy.”[1]

— Howard Zinn
`The Clinton Presidency`

Hillary was a major supporter of Bill’s 1996 ‘welfare reform’ which cut government support from many poor families with the intention of disciplining single mothers by forcing them to find jobs in order to qualify for assistance (see “Letter to Hillary Clinton: Let’s Talk About Poverty”). She now takes less harmonious stances with Republican politicians over issues like maternity leave and Planned Parenthood, but the ‘big government’ programs both parties can always agree on are those programs which, as they always have, serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful at immense costs to everyone else.

1. This excerpt is from Chapter 24 of the Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition, but a slightly different version can be read online:


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