Bill Clinton and timely lessons for PASOK

Bill Clinton’s presence in Athens last week to address an event organized by the Hellenic American Chamber of Commerce brought back memories of the 1990s when, as US president, he made his mark not only in the United States but around the world. At the same time, Clinton’s visit was significant given Greece’s current political landscape, as PASOK is seeking the ideological identity that will return it to power. The Greek center-left could learn much from Clinton’s experience, just as the social democratic parties in Europe that followed in his footsteps climbed to power a few years after his term. During the early 1990s and after the first Gulf War, the popularity of George Bush Senior shot up to 90 percent and the Democrats found themselves in a difficult position. Clinton took over a party that was in a confused state and, apart from Jimmy Carter’s single term, had been out of the White House for 24 years. Clinton won the 1992 elections thanks to a dynamism due to his youth and his successful term as governor of one the poorest states in the US. Four years later, he returned to power to become the first Democrat since World War II to have served two full terms. To achieve that he had had to transform the Democratic Party, making it more centrist and less left-wing, moving away from ineffectual dogmatism, freeing it from the political stranglehold of the unions, and reconciling it with the needs of globalization. Right after his election victory, even before he officially assumed power, he held a conference on the economy with leading economists and business leaders and the heads of the largest union federations on the kind of free economy needed in a vulnerable society, the need for a focused, productive reinvestment of profits, the distortions created by protectionism and the long-term benefits of free trade. Under Clinton, the state did not function as a rival to capitalism but as an equal interlocutor that facilitated rather than obstructed business, putting an emphasis on research, technology and investments that would benefit workers as well. His moderate policies brought about rapid economic growth, created 19 million jobs and turned the fiscal deficit into a surplus. In a move spearheaded by his wife Hillary, he attempted to bring about a radical reconstruction of the healthcare system, however that stumbled on vested interests, particularly those of the insurance companies. Today, armed with the lessons of the past, his wife Hillary (like all the Democratic candidates) promises that if elected president she will provide healthcare coverage for all. Bill Clinton moved to raise the minimum wage, reduced crime and, to a certain extent, healed the wounds of interracial strife, took steps to limit discrimination against homosexuals and, in cooperation with his vice president, Al Gore, put an emphasis on protecting the environment. On the world stage, he was a popular figure in Europe and a willing supporter of Tony Blair’s «Third Way» and Gerhard Schroeder’s «New Center.» Simitis, Papandreou As leader of PASOK, as well as the head of Socialist International, George Papandreou, who dined with Clinton last Friday, had every reason to make capital out of the former US president’s presence in Athens so as to remind everyone – both within and outside PASOK – that while foreign minister he had effectively handled a very difficult period (after the Ocalan affair and the wars in the former Yugoslavia), and that he has access to avenues that could prove decisive in times of crisis. As PASOK tries to clarify its identity, it could learn much from Clinton, who brought the center-left to power after many years and who, despite mistakes in his personal life, left the White House with his political credentials intact, remaining the most important Democratic politician of the last 40 years. The two people who led PASOK from 1974 to 2004 both admired Bill Clinton. The late Andreas Papandreou, who had spent many years in the USA, had great respect for him. Close associates of the late PASOK leader describe a lengthy discussion the two held at their meeting at the White House in April 1994 as «one of the greatest moments in Andreas’s life.» It gave Papandreou the opportunity to talk about international developments and the world economy in a framework that did not exist in Greece. He felt great satisfaction in seeing the leader of the superpower and one of the most intelligent presidents in contemporary US history giving him the respect he sought and often did not find in his own country. Later, Clinton worked with Costas Simitis for several years, covering a period of upheaval that began with the crisis with Turkey over the Imia islet and included the dispute over the S-300 missiles, the Ocalan affair, the war in Yugoslavia, «earthquake diplomacy» (after the disastrous 1999 quakes in Greece and Turkey), and the Helsinki accord which Clinton had pushed for. Both shared a vision of a new, modern center-left that Simitis still dreamed of even after his resignation as prime minister, as this writer found during a brief talk with him in New York in September 2005 on the fringes of Clinton’s Global Initiative that included Blair, Romano Prodi and other leaders of the international center-left. Apologies In cooperation with the Greek-American community, Clinton took a cautious approach to Greek-Turkish relations, and in Athens’s dispute with Skopje, he worked on the interim agreement, avoiding recognition of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as the «Republic of Macedonia.» During the war in Yugoslavia, he found himself on the opposite side to that of Greek public opinion, but he was not alone in this, since the European Left (chiefly Gerhard Schroeder, Joschka Fischer, Lionel Jospin, Bernard Kouchner, Blair and Massimo D’Alema) were in favor of military intervention in Yugoslavia and the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic. During Clinton’s official visit to Greece in November 1999, Clinton was photographed with his daughter Chelsea at the Parthenon and quoted as saying, «We are all Greeks.» He also apologized for the Nixon government’s support of the 1967-1974 military junta, at the prompting of a Greek-American associate, Paul Glastris, who wrote the text of his speech. He used these tactics on other occasions, essentially speaking for the younger generation in America. During visits to African countries, he made an impression there with his decision to apologize for the export of thousands of African slaves to America in the 19th century, an unprecedented move for an American president.