The Politics of the Possible

Collaboration, not finger-pointing, is the only route to progress, says former President Clinton
Bill Clinton
“If you ask yourself where you want to go and how you want to get there, I predict you will be more encouraged, not less,” Bill Clinton said. “Don’t worry about the politics. There’s something you can do every day.” Photo: Kelly Benvenuto
November 7, 2011

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Government is not the villain, and America would best be served if political leaders would work together to solve problems instead of leaning on ideology, former President Bill Clinton told an audience of nearly 6,000 gathered at Tufts’ Gantcher Center for the 2011 Issam M. Fares Lecture.

“What’s wrong is not the debate between Republicans and Democrats,” Clinton said. “It’s the anti-government ideology that has driven the right wing of our country for 30 years,” he said. “There is not a single successful country on earth—including those that have lower unemployment rates, faster economic growth rates and less income inequality than the United States—that does not have both a strong economy and a good government working together.”

Clinton said that politicians need to start with a problem, consider how to solve it and then work back and figure out who should do what. This is different, he said, than simply insisting that all government is bad.

The answers to many problems, Clinton said, “are not self-evident.” He cited debates about how best to deal with the nation’s long-term debt, how much capital banks should be required to maintain to prevent another economic meltdown and how to work with the European Union to avoid more financial calamities. “But we cannot do it if we go by ideology and not evidence, if we continue to think we have nothing to learn from our own past, nothing to learn from people who disagree with us,” Clinton said.

Clinton delivered the Fares Lecture on Nov. 6 to an audience that included students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the university. The lecture is supported by an endowment from the Fares family through the WEDGE Foundation. It was conceived by Fares I. Fares, A93, a university trustee, and is named in honor of Fares’ father, Issam M. Fares, H00, A93P, A06P, the former deputy prime minister of Lebanon and a trustee emeritus of the university.

Business as a Partner

“There is not a single successful country on earth that does not have both a strong economy and a good government working together,” Bill Clinton said. Photo: Alonso NicholsConflict makes for great politics and news stories, Clinton said, but in reality, it is only through cooperation that things get done. And because we live in an interdependent world, the worst mistake America could make right now would be to cut foreign aid, as some in Washington are suggesting.

“We spend just one percent of the budget on foreign assistance, including all the nation-building expenses in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Clinton said. “As [former Defense Secretary] Robert Gates once testified, the most expensive thing a society can do is go to war. We should spend more time trying to build a world with more friends and fewer enemies. That’s why the foreign assistance budget is so important.”

By concentrating on what he called the “how question,” Clinton said anyone can create positive change.

He noted the work of his William J. Clinton Foundation as an example. To provide more drugs to combat HIV/AIDS, Clinton urged pharmaceutical companies to lower the per-unit cost of producing and selling antiretroviral drugs, which were prohibitively expensive for most people in poor countries. Now, instead of producing drugs for 100,000 people and charging $600 annually per person, companies enable more than 8 million are receiving the medications for just $60 per year. “And the manufacturers are making more money than ever,” Clinton said.

Another foundation effort convinced soft drink companies to help fight childhood obesity and rising rates of diabetes by marketing and selling more low-sugar alternatives to school-age children.

“I thought to myself, these people running these companies are smart, and they want these children to be their customers right through middle age,” Clinton said. “They don’t want to kill them” by giving them diabetes, he added. The agreement among soda companies has resulted in an 88 percent reduction in the caloric content of sodas for students at participating schools, he said.

Models like these, which engage businesses to improve the world while also ensuring profit, are key to global economic development, Clinton said.

It is also vital to learn how to start and maintain viable economic and political systems in poor countries and continually assess the systems in prosperous countries, such as the United States, to ensure economic stability.

“There are many different stories in this room tonight,” he told the audience. “Even if you were poor, the reason you got here was because you had access to some system that worked—systems that are non-existent in most of the world,” Clinton said.

But even those systems—our infrastructure, our schools—“get long in the tooth, and the more successful they are, the more they create constituencies that are more interested in holding on to the present than creating the future—maintaining position instead of furthering the purpose for which they were established.

“If you ask yourself where you want to go and how you want to get there, I predict you will be more encouraged, not less,” the former president said. “Don’t worry about the politics. There’s something you can do every day.”

Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.