Reality Check: Clinton '92

There’s been a lot of speculation – including on this blog – about the potential for the Obama Administration to advance funding for transportation improvements such as public transportation and high-speed rail. That said, a few of Barack Obama’s recent comments about infrastructure funding put a focus on  “roads and bridges,” two investments that definitely need funding but which should not be our priorities. And yet we on this blog continue hoping, wishing, pleading, that Mr. Obama is simply avoiding transit issues because they’re too controversial. Let’s inject a little more skepticism into this equation, shall we?

The truth is that Bill Clinton, running back in 1992, argued far more forcefully for high-speed rail during the campaign than Mr. Obama ever has. And yet Mr. Clinton’s presidency produced few advances on that front. What can we expect from Mr. Obama?

Back in 1992, Mr. Clinton was running a campaign as a third-way “New Democrat” who was willing to accept free trade and deregulated capitalism. He envisioned a Democratic Party that was socially liberal, as it had been since the late ’60s, but economically conservative, as the Reagan era had made clear was popular with the people. As a result, he wasn’t too big of a proponent of “big government.” Rather, his most significant accomplishment, it could be argued, was the reform of welfare to welfare-to-work.

His rival Tom Harkin was a big proponent of a new New Deal that would restore the country’s then-fading infrastructure, with a focus on mass transit and green improvements. In the context of the recession that was then plaguing the country’s economy, Harkin – who called himself “The Builder” – argued that such a program could put millions of Americans to work.

Mr. Clinton was running to the right of the Democratic Party back in the primaries, and didn’t believe that a big economic building program like that which Harkin suggested was a good idea. But he still believed that government funding for some things was a good idea. In the New Hampshire primary, Mr. Clinton advanced his idea for a high-speed rail program, arguing that there were certain corridors in the country that demanded a better travel alternative. In April, in a speech to the Wharton School of Management in Philadelphia, Mr. Clinton promised the following:

A Clinton Administration will use a portion of transportation funding and possibly funds transferred from defense to create a high-speed rail network between our nation’s major cities. Bullet trains in five major corridors could serve 500,000 passengers a day at speeds up to 300 miles per hour.

His plan relied on maglev trains – then coming into fashion – rather than the more standard TGV/Shinkashen-type steel-on-rail type of high-speed trains. But the important point is that Mr. Clinton saw high-speed rail as a useful way to transform the country’s mobility systems – even if it meant sacrificing defense dollars, something no politician appears willing to say today.

By June, in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Mr. Clinton had even come around on the issue of an economic stimulus plan to boost the economy:

My plan is a bold plan. It offers $50 billion in new investments over the next four years in each of the next four years. New incentives for the private sector, an investment tax credit, urban enterprise zones, new business tax incentives, research and development incentives and others.

It offers $20 billion a year in hard Federal dollars every year for the next four years, to build an economy for the 21st century, to invest in new roads and bridges, and streets and rail systems, to develop high-speed rail and a national fiber optic network, to develop new environmental technologies to clean our waters and our air, and to recycle more of our solid wastes. In short, to do those things which we are not doing today.

Before he was elected, Mr. Clinton had laid out a major economic plan, one of whose major elements was the high-speed rail system. Unlike Mr. Obama in his recent statement, Mr. Clinton was willing to put “rail systems” (presumably transit) and “high-speed rail” in the same sentence as “roads and bridges.” Mr. Clinton clearly didn’t find the issue to be so controversial that he wasn’t willing to talk about it. And Mr. Clinton was running on the right of the Democratic Party.

By the time of the Second Presidential Debate, Mr. Clinton laid out his plan to an entire national audience, something Mr. Obama has never done in reference to transit or high-speed rail initiatives:

My plan would dedicate $20 billion a year in each of the next four years for investment and new transportation, communications, environmental clean-up, and new technologies for the 21st century and we would target it especially in areas that have been either depressed or which have lost a lot of defense-related jobs. There are 200,000 people in California, for example, who’ve lost their defense-related jobs. They ought to be engaged in making high-speed rail; they ought to be engaged in breaking ground in other technologies, doing waste recycling, clean water technology, and things of that kind.

So went the Presidential Campaign of 1992. Bill Clinton – the winner, after all – successfully used high-speed rail investments, explained to the entire nation, as a way to convince people to vote for him. He saw trains as a winning issue, at least during the electoral season.

But once the election was over and Mr. Clinton was implementing his transition program, some who had been excited about the candidate’s plans during the campaign began worrying about the candidate’s actual priorities. As The New York Times put it on November 6th, 1992:

Equally tricky will be integrating environmental concerns into the plan for economic recovery, as Mr. Clinton has promised to do. Saying there is “good infrastructure and bad infrastructure,” environmentalists want to insure, for example, that public-works spending leans away from autos, trucks and highways and toward rail, mass transit and pedestrian systems. Early drafts of Mr. Clinton’s proposals have disappointed many of them.

But there was still hope, and in December, Mr. Clinton held an economic meeting with advisers in Little Rock to discuss how to stimulate the economy. He brought in the president of Amtrak, W. Graham Claytor, who argued “that the railroad was ready to start ‘instantly’ to spend more money, adding, ‘Long-term solutions don’t come about unless there’s short-term action.‘” As with today, at the time, there was palpable excitement about what the next president would be able to do to change the country. And in Mr. Clinton’s time, as in ours, high-speed rail was thought to be on the cusp of massive implementation.

And yet we all know what comes next. Mr. Clinton entered office and the 1993 High-Speed Rail Development Act, considered in the House, did not move. Though the Federal Railroad Administration has designated corridors for high-speed rail, little has come of the effort. Though Mr. Clinton’s campaign persona seemed like it would produce a very pro-rail president, the result was far less than that. Mr. Clinton did little to promote the issue. He never designated more than a few million dollars to any corridor. The Northeast Corridor’s improvement was half-hearted and resulted in not-so-fast “high-speed” rail.

The lesson we should take from the Clinton campaign is to take our own interpretations of Mr. Obama’s statements with a grain of salt. Though it’s nice to imagine the candidate is going to go all-out for high-speed rail, his positions so far have been less forthright than those of Mr. Clinton. Clearly, the President-elect is going to have to do a lot to convince us of his true positions – and that means prioritizing, in the budget.

We shall see in the next few months whether Mr. Obama truly cares about high-speed rail. But let’s not forget to keep up our own activism, rather than let our assumptions about his get in the way.

7 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • This is a brilliant post. It’s a crucial backstory that should give us pause and the urgency we need to ensure that 2009 doesn’t turn out like 1993.

    I wrote about this at the CA HSR blog, and had some more details to share about what happened in 1993 – potentially a foreshadowing of what might happen in 2009 if we don’t organize:

    “Early 1993 saw a pitched battle between the new administration and moderate and conservative Democrats in the Congress who did not agree with Clinton’s new priorities, such as Clinton’s plans for a BTU tax – an early ’90s version of a carbon tax – and for an increased gas tax to pay for these projects. Conservative Dems in particular objected to new federal spending, forcing the Clinton Administration to climb down from its more ambitious goals in order to save the stimulus – which was already facing a filibuster from Senate Republicans.

    Clinton never did get another opportunity to follow up on his HSR promises. After Democrats lost control of Congress in the 1994 election, Clinton had to acquiesce to many Republican budget cutting demands, especially on Amtrak. Clinton was able to get the Acela built, but because of Republican penny pinching they had to use the existing tracks and corridor, leaving the Acela short of being a true high speed rail system (in spite of that it is still a very successful service). The FRA did produce the HSR corridor plan but again with Republicans controlling the Congressional purse strings this never got beyond the conceptual stage. Meanwhile George W. Bush was killing the Texas HSR project and his brother was planning to do the same in Florida.”

  • Chris

    Hear, Hear! We have to get organized and really make a push to get this done.

    One of the top priorities should be to fix the Amtrak bottleneck in Baltimore, about a mile from where I am sitting right now. There’s another big bottleneck in NYC, as I’m sure the author of this blog knows.

    This might not be an “economic stimulus” plan, as the plans are not yet ready to go. But it should be a top priority.

    -Chris, Baltimore

  • “The lesson we should take from the Clinton campaign is to take our own interpretations of Mr. Obama’s statements with a grain of salt.”

    President-elect Obama and President Clinton have very different characters and find themselves in significantly different situations, even though both have been left expensive Bush messes to clean up.

    I think it would be more valuable to focus on the present than to imagine problems because of precedents of dubious importance.

  • This time around many things are different. We have entered the peak oil era so evident this past summer when oil prices hit $147 a barrel. We also now have climate change to deal with bigger than ever. We also have a major mobility crisis that is a good bit worse than 1992, and we have evidence of crumbling infrastructure with the Minneapolis bridge collapes. Plus we have a failing economy and millions of jobs lost. So when you put all those together, we are in quite a different place then Clinton’s time, with our problems far more serious, and urgent.

    Building a national high speed rail network would be a major solution to all these problems at once. That’s a real bargain to be able to solve so many serious problems with one solution. We have laid out a plan for this called NEW DEAL 2009:
    http://www.UrbanDesign.org/newdeal2009.html

  • Norman Brown

    If you are looking for hope in the Obama administration, and who isn’t, you will have a much stronger indication of its direction subsequent to the appointment of Secretaries of Transportation and Labor. Everything about Mr. Obama places him as our most urban president ever. That he achieved that victory against the structural winds of Federalism and the Electoral College, not to mention racism, bodes well for his administration. He hasn’t even taken office yet, give him some time in office making actual decisions.

  • Frankly I’m a little mystified about these calls to “give Obama some time”. He’s not a progressive, and was pretty upfront about that during the campaign. Now we have confirmation, since all his important nominees have been drawn from the right wing of the Democrats. The real story here is how many progressives continue to fool themselves into thinking we have an ally in the White House and if we just give him time, he’ll magically start implementing a bunch of reforms he’s never supported.

    Well, maybe he will – capitalism’s phases of self-destruction have been known to turn status quo politicians into progressives. But failing to criticize Obama’s New Democrat tendencies is not going to help.

    On transit, I think there’s probably more reason for optimism, since here the interests of corporations and American power happen to be in line with progressive policies. I’d be surprised if Obama didn’t greatly increase transit and rail funding, but his repeated and exclusive references to “roads and bridges” have been sobering. We’re going to have to do a lot more than write on blogs if we want to push Obama in the right direction.

  • David Galvan

    Well, maybe we do have some reason to be optimistic, after all!

    Because Obama is still talking HSR up, and he’s already in office, so this isn’t a campaign promise. :)

    http://www.fra.dot.gov/us/content/31

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