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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The 1990s Were a Decade of Failure

The thematic problems of 2024 were born in the relatively idyllic final years of the 20th century.

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Like many people of my age and looming decrepitude, I have developed a nostalgia for the 1990s. The decade of Nirvana, Notorious B.I.G., and Newt Gingrich looks like the pinnacle of human civilization compared to the nonsense going on right now.

Back then, Boyz II Men was a popular singing group. Today their name would be considered the premise of hate speech, unutterable in blue-state public schools. It would at a minimum have to be revised to “Boyz II Men Sometimez.”

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The political culture was healthier too, even if Bill Clinton was president for most of the decade. I do sometimes wonder if I had not misspent so much of my outrage during the Clinton years, I would have had enough left to participate in the group outrage against Donald Trump. 

My younger self definitely felt about Clinton’s election in 1992 the way many friends and colleagues felt about Trump’s in 2016: disillusioned and disheartened, thinking I no longer recognized my country after it chose to elect someone of such low character. My parents forbade me to bring up this topic at Thanksgiving dinner, preventing 32 years ago the inverse of a popular perennial article of the last decade or so: “How to survive a holiday meal with your Republican nephew.”

All vaguely embarrassing stuff in retrospect, until you consider all the problems that were relatively manageable during the 1990s that were instead punted to a future generation of (mostly manifestly unfit) political leaders. The 1990s was a decade of missed opportunities, much like Seinfeld—a show that is more enjoyable to watch than most things on the air in 2024, but ultimately really about nothing.

The first of these missed opportunities is immigration. Clinton had tapped Barbara Jordan to lead his commission looking at policy reforms on this vital issue. Her vision of what constituted sensible immigration reform was quite different from the various bipartisan proposals that have been floated since George W. Bush’s administration.

“Credibility in immigration policy can be summed up in one sentence: Those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out, are kept out; and those who should not be here will be required to leave,” Jordan said. “The top priorities for detention and removal, of course, are criminal aliens. But for the system to be credible, people actually have to be deported at the end of the process.”

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There was still a bipartisan consensus that there was nothing racist or illegitimate about enforcing national borders, even if the country is rich and most of the migrants are poor. Republicans, including comparatively moderate ones like California’s Gov. Pete Wilson, were waking up to the fact that the 1986 amnesty, signed into law by the sainted Ronald Reagan, had failed. 

The combination of a more or less centrist Democratic president, even if his centrism was mostly forced on him by political circumstance, and a Republican Congress should have made enacting Jordan’s immigration-reform recommendations doable. Instead, a left-right coalition mangled them beyond recognition. For decades afterward, Beltway elites never again considered a solution to immigration-related problems that did not include more immigration.

At least it is conceivable that a multiracial working-class GOP could succeed on immigration where the two parties failed. On entitlements, both parties seem to be less interested in solving the problem as it gets worse. Medicare’s hospital insurance trust fund will be depleted in 2036, Social Security’s in 2035. These are actually modest improvements, but there is zero appetite to do anything about this a little more than a decade out.

The 1990s were the time to try. The Baby Boomers were in their peak earning years. Now they are retiring. There was a centrist Democrat in the White House and a Republican majority in Congress—you’ll note the pattern here—that might have crafted a bipartisan solution. Now not only is the problem more difficult to solve painlessly, but Democratic demagoguery on this issue and Republican aversion to arithmetic is arguably worse than ever.

Conservatives might have spent the 1990s reimagining foreign policy at the end of the Cold War. No less a neoconservative than Jeane Kirkpatrick argued it was time for a new era of domestic focus. But with some notable exceptions, conservative opposition to Clintonian military adventures was driven more by partisanship than prudence. The people who billed themselves as neo-Reaganites wanted to celebrate Reagan’s Cold War victory by seeking new conflicts. 

Here too a revamped GOP could make up for past errors, but tragically not before a squandered unipolar moment, years of endless and unwinnable wars, the resumption of hostilities with Russia, and our current political dysfunction.

Perhaps the 1990s weren’t as great as I remembered. Oh well, whatever. Nevermind.