Commentary

Clinton’s Brand of Jackboot Liberalism

The hallmark of liberalism has long been its perceived commitment to individual rights. But not this administration. Bill Clinton is a new kind of Democrat—a jackboot liberal.

While the president has been out lobbying weather forecasters about the alleged threat of global warming, his interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt has been attacking energy companies for criticizing administration scare-mongering. Mr. Babbitt charged the firms with attempting “to distort the facts and to mislead,” adding: “I think that the energy companies need to be called to account, because what they are doing is un-American in the most basic sense.” He left unsaid how he would call such “un-American” businesses “to account,” but climate scientists report that the administration has long used its control of grants to punish researchers who question the climatic Chicken Littles.

Mr. Babbitt’s implicit threat unfortunately reflects the administration norm. In many cases, Clinton officials have directly targeted critics. More generally, warns Timothy Lynch, assistant director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies: “Although President Clinton has expressed support for an ‘expansive’ view of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, he has actually weakened a number of fundamental guarantees.”

The administration has politicized the FBI, using it to justify the White House Travel Office purge. Presidential aides snooped through FBI files on potential administration opponents. The IRS is auditing not only Paula Jones, who has accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment, but a suspiciously large number of conservative foundations and groups. No liberal organizations are undergoing similar reviews. The White House pressured the Treasury Department over the latter’s probe of Madison Guaranty, which financed the Clintons’ Whitewater investment.

Early in the first Clinton term, the Department of Housing and Urban Development launched dozens of investigations of local activists who opposed federally subsidized housing projects. HUD subpoenaed copies of organization membership lists and financial information, people’s diaries, and other records, demanded cessation of public criticism, and threatened protestors with prosecution for speaking out.

Similarly, in 1995 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued subpoenas to leaders of two anti-immigration groups. The commission, whose chairman and staff director were appointed by President Clinton, wanted computer printouts, internal documents, reports and other information. Both HUD and the commission retreated only under public pressure.

The Justice Department supported draconian restrictions on abortion protestors, including a prohibition on the display of any “images” that could be “observed” within abortion clinics. The Defense Department attempted to gag millitary chaplains, preventing them from discussing the Catholic Church’s Life Postcard Campaign regarding the president’s veto of legislation banning partial-birth abortion. More recently, the administration has threatened to prosecute any physician who provides a prescription for marijuana under state law.

Intimidation has been a persistent administration tactic elsewhere. In 1994, President Clinton expressed outrage that radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh could get on the air and “have three hours to say whatever he wants. And I won’t have an opportunity to respond.” White House Communications Director Mark Gearan called for radio talk shows to put on opposition—meaning administration guests. Senior adviser George Stephanopoulos suggested resurrecting the misnamed “Fairness Doctrine” to be enforced by the Federal Communications Commission, to regulate political broadcasts.

The Energy Department created a press rating system. Reporters and sources were judged based on their opinion of the department. Department press secretary Barbara Semedo explained that a low rating “meant we weren’t getting our message across, that we needed to work on this person a little.” Of course, getting the message meant spouting the department’s line.

Advertising, too, has been an administration target. The Food and Drug Administration even sought to prohibit the use of brand names on non-tobacco products (such as lighters and T-shirts) and the use of non-tobacco brand names on tobacco products. The administration supported labeling restrictions, deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, on beer producers. The president backed FCC Chairman Reed Hundt’s campaign to bar the advertising of distilled spirits on television.


“The Clinton civil liberties record is breathtaking in both the breadth and the depth of its awfulness.”


The administration supported the Communications Decency Act, which would have attempted to ban the transmission of “indecent” materials over the Internet. Although well-intentioned, the law, voided by the Supreme Court, would have meant heavy-handed censorship of today’s least regulated communication medium.

Although President Clinton has spoken of reforming affirmative action, his administration promotes it with a mailed fist. Perhaps the ugliest episode was his Justice Department’s support (recently reversed) for the Piscataway, NJ., school district that fired a teacher because she was white. The Education Department responded to California’s passage of Proposition 209 by threatening to prosecute the university system for dismantling its racial spoils program.

Within the administration “diversity” has become a code word for preferential treatment. HUD requires that employees not only implement federal diversity policy, but demonstrate “interest” and “personal commitment” to diversity, be active in “minority, feminist or other cultural organizations ” and participate in “cultural diversity activities outside of HUD.” The Agriculture Department reassigned an employee for criticizing, on his own time, the department’s policy of offering spousal benefits to same-sex partners.

But the harshest examples of jackboot liberalism have come from the Justice Department and federal law enforcement agencies. The Branch Davidian and Randy Weaver cases continue to stand as examples of government run-amok, persecuting people who wanted little more than to be left alone. The administration’s response to the Oklahoma City bombing was to impose sweeping new powers, such as restricting the right of habeas corpus and expanding the use of wiretaps, for itself, even though the president was unable to point to a single example where civil liberties protections had hampered efforts to combat terrorism.

The administration, the most wiretap-friendly in U.S. history, has sought to eliminate Fourth Amendment protections against government searches. The president claims to possess “inherent authority to conduct warrantless searches for foreign intelligence purposes.” The administration requires public housing residents to sign away their constitutional rights. The Justice Department backed warrantless (indeed, suspicionless) drug tests for high school athletes. The administration has requested greater FBI authority to conduct “moving wiretaps” without a court order. President Clinton pushed the Communications Assistance Act, which requires telephone companies to retrofit their systems to ease police surveillance, supported restrictions on the sale of Internet encryption technology, and requested legislation forcing firms to give the government the “keys” to such technology.

No squishy, compassionate liberal he, the president has sought to thwart Arizona and California voters who approved measures to allow the desperately ill—victims of AIDS and cancer, in particular— from using marijuana to ease their nausea and pain. Mr. Clinton responded to criticism that sellers of crack were being punished far more severely than those who peddled cocaine by arguing that penalties against the latter—which already ensure that minor drug dealers spend more time in jail than do many armed robbers, rapists, and murderers—should be raised. (He recently suggested a mode move in the other direction, reducing the differential from a hundredfold to tenfold.)

The administration also throws people in jail for resisting federal designation of their (very dry) property as “wetlands,” and committing other environmental offenses. In 1994, the Justice Department relaxed its control of environmental prosecutions in order to allow individual U.S. Attorneys greater latitude in prosecuting business. Of course, the department still retains the right to proceed if a local U.S. attorney refuses to bring charges.

Any particular presidential decision can be defended on one ground or another, but as Wired magazine’s John Heilemann observes, the Clinton civil liberties record is “breathtaking in both the breadth and the depth of its awfulness.” And there’s more— proposed curfews for kids, support for random drug tests of welfare recipients and kids seeking drivers licenses, attacks on the requirement of a jury trial, ex post facto tax increases, attempts to gain court sanctions for uncompensated property takings, prosecution implicating the double-jeopardy clause, pretentious claims of federal criminal jurisdiction, and infringements of the Second Amendment right to possess a firearm. Mr. Lynch details these and more in his devastating study, “Dereliction of Duty: The Constitutional Record President Clinton.”

Administration spokesmen argue that the president is carefully balancing rights and liberties. It’s not balance President Clinton wants, however. It’s power. There was a time when Democrats were genuinely liberal. No longer. The American people are paying for Bill Clinton’s philosophy of jackboot liberalism with their freedom.

Doug Bandow is a a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.