Category: Stonewalled Visionary
Term in Office: 42nd president, 1993-2001
Political Party: Democratic
Home State: Arkansas
Reading Jared’s commentary on my presidential lists made me want to keep the series going, at least while I am home on Christmas break. So, after a several-months delay, the fourth installment of my presidential ranking.
For those of you who weren’t alive or cognizant or watching the news back then, let’s quickly recap how dire things were for the Democratic Party on the eve of the 1992 race. The party had not only lost 4 out of the previous 5 presidential elections, but lost all four of them in demoralizing landslides. Two of these (’72 and ’84) were elections that were lost by 49 states. The one time they did win in that timeframe, 1976, featured an idiosyncratic man (Carter) from an idiosyncratic region (the Deep South), in an idiosyncratic time (first election post-Watergate). Some pundits were already claiming that the Democratic Party, while dominant in Congress and sensitive to local concerns, did not have a viable path to the 270 electoral votes necessary to secure the presidency. (Are you seeing any parallels to the GOP in 2013?)
Enter Bill Clinton, the man who restored the party’s presidential fortunes. As of this writing, Democrats have won the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 elections starting with Clinton’s 1992 victory, and the electoral college in 4 out of 6. Clinton had, of course, served as governor of Arkansas since 1979 (with a brief two-year interregnum when voted out in the Reagan election of 1980). What made Clinton stand out from other small-state governors was not only his longevity, or his charisma, but his association with the Democratic Leadership Council. The DLC was a loose collection of governors, congressmen, and think-tankers devoted to moving the party into a fundamentally post-liberal, business-friendly, smart-regulation-not-more-regulation institution. (Howard Dean would later aptly call it “the Republican wing of the Democratic Party.”) In the same way that Eisenhower and Dewey brought the Republican Party into a reluctant peace with the New Deal, then Clinton, one might argue, brought the Democratic Party into a reluctant peace with Reaganism. So, on these grounds, Clinton was not only a party-reformer (and a party-animal), but also a visionary. Not necessarily a vision I completely agree with, but a vision nonetheless.
Where, then, does this leave Clinton’s legacy? For all of his DLC sympathies, he was still amenable to his party’s historic championing of the little guy. Bear in mind, Clinton’s administration was really the only window within an entire generation for any remotely progressive legislation to get through Congress — 1993 to 1995 were the only years between 1981 and 2009 when Democrats had control of both houses of Congress and the presidency. Nevertheless, those first two years were impressive– the Brady gun control bill and the Family Medical Leave Act (which allows workers to take time off for childbirth and to take care of gravely ill relatives without fear of losing their jobs– I mean, how common-sense is this act?) are possibly the two greatest legacies of these first couple of years.
Of course, 1994 happened. Blowback from Clinton’s very clumsy attempt to achieve universal health insurance resulted in 73 Republican freshmen in the House, and 11 in the Senate. You’ve probably heard of some of the freshmen members of this class– Joe Scarborough, Mark Sanford, Mark Foley, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum and John Ashcroft. This crew was led by Newt Gingrich, the talisman of a reconstructed, reluctantly integrated, much more suburban, redoubtably more Republican-friendly South, as the Speaker of the House. For the first time since 1955, both chambers of Congress had Republican majorities. Of course, presidents have to deal with opposition parties all the time; it is one of the cornerstones of the U.S. political system, and one of the principal ways in which our country differs from a parliamentary model, where the head of government is ipso facto, a member of the legislature’s majority party. This situation became very different, and unusually rancorous, because many of the Gingrich Republicans viewed the presidency as a Republican possession after twelve years of Reagan-Bush, and refused to accept Clinton’s legitimacy as president.
What followed much of the time was farce and fodder for late night television; indeed, Jay Leno and David Letterman were the two most obvious beneficiaries of the Clinton presidency who weren’t pardoned for anything. More than any of the other presidents in the “stonewalled visionaries” category, Clinton was stonewalled by his own personal failings as much as by the opposition. His well-known sexual adventurism aside, Clinton craved a substantive historical legacy, to the point where it drove his policy, settling at times for bad deals just to get any deal, most notably in his attempts to broker a middle-east peace.
Both Steven Schier and Bruce Miroff have written about the postmodern nature of Clinton’s presidency- he was the only modern president to lack a fixed personality, who tried to be all things to all people. Clinton was a master of what became known as “triangulation”, playing off Republicans and Democrats as too extreme and presenting his own proposals as a sensible “third way” (a practice called “hippie-punching” by some.) Consider, for example, Clinton “ending Welfare as we know it,” and lending credence to the ugly stereotyping of those receiving government assistance to meet basic needs (see my earlier piece on Reagan.) He championed NAFTA (which had been more or less agreed upon by the time he became president, but still…), and other attempts in his time to expand free trade. He promised, and may have believed, that these initiatives would not jeopardize American jobs. But instead it inaugurated a slow but inexorable age of factories in Pittsburgh and Cleveland closing, and rising up again in the Yucatan. While he said at the time he would never sign NAFTA if he thought it would cost American jobs, and he might have meant it, that is not what happened. He presided over an age of prosperity, and while he did try and create a more just and reasonable tax structure after Reagan-Bush, much of the prosperity was from the tech and dot-com booms. Whatever else happened, 60s liberalism, and 80% tax-brackets for the super-wealthy never came back.
Still, I am being too critical– virtually every fair, non-Wall-Street-Journal-funded assessment I’ve seen of the presidents puts Clinton in the upper 50%, and I continue that historical trend. On many of the marks of a successful presidency, he did strikingly well. Despite negligible foreign-policy experience, he successfully navigated U.S. policies in the only post-WWII era where we were not fighting either a Cold War or a war on terror. The use of force to stay the genocides in Bosnia was controversial at the time, but in hindsight almost certainly the right thing to do, although it properly raised questions about why we didn’t intervene when Africans in, say, Rwanda were the victims of genocide.
And then, after doing reasonably well on issues of global magnitude, there was the impeachment mess. Here, we have to put things in perspective. It seems obvious, at least to me, that Clinton did not deserve impeachment. Or rather, impeaching Clinton was absurd if Lyndon Johnson avoided impeachment for the Gulf of Tonkin, Reagan avoided impeachment for Iran-Contra and probably undercutting Carter’s efforts to free the hostages before being inaugurated, and George W. Bush avoided impeachment, for, well, the balance of his presidency. Getting impeached for lying about oral sex under oath seems, well, almost Monty Python-esque compared to real, hand-to-God war crimes that preceded and followed him. And yet, and yet….the man still lied under oath. He willingly cast aside the unwritten rule that a president has responsibilities as a role model. A kid should grow up wanting to be president, but what parent would want their kid behaving like Bill? The number of awkward conversations he indirectly started between parents and their teenage kids about oral sex must have been staggering. I still remember trying to rent his grand jury testimony at Video World in 11th grade, and not being able to, since you had to be over 18 to take it out of the store. Although put in an absurd situation by Congressional opposition out for blood, he acquitted himself poorly, and only came out of the incident well because his opponents came out worse. Still, there was always the air of a flim-flam artist about Clinton. From the grossly exaggerated-but-still-troubling Whitewater allegations, to renting out the Lincoln bedroom, to the unconscionable pardons doled out to his political supporters, he could make the highest office in the land seem like seedy county courthouse politics. Clinton’s reputation has improved exponentially in retirement, but in doing so, we’ve forgotten a great deal about the times he embarrassed us. This might seem a silly critique, but so much of the presidency is wrapped into abstract, and it is perilously difficult to define concepts like honor and dignity. If we only look at the stock market or the unemployment rate (both areas where Clinton excelled), we lose so much of the story– this is why I am a historian, and not a political scientist.
When Clinton left office in January, 2001, it was unlikely indeed that we would view him as a top-20 president, and yet that is there he lands, both here and in the historical consensus. But like Grover Cleveland, another centrist Democrat with sexual skeletons in his closet, he looks quite a bit less great with each passing year, even if you like him more than either of his successors. In an age where same sex marriage is outpolling traditional marriage, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell looks feeble even by 1990s standards, as does the Defense of Marriage Act. When I drive through my grad school town of Buffalo and see rows of empty factories, it is difficult not to think about how NAFTA might have contributed. Such are the perils of marshmallow moderation.
So, I propose we remember Clinton, one of our most complicated presidents, in this way: a dynamic and charismatic technocrat, a virtuoso empathizer, a man who sinned boldly, but to his credit, never claimed to be any person’s moral superior. He presided over good times, and tried, in his way, to make sure as many Americans as possible could share in that prosperity. Competent but rarely wise, visionary but not necessarily principled, the Clinton years were a wild, 8-year-ride that got more crazy as you went along. I could not have imagined a more fitting man to preside over my teenage years in the 90s. There have been better presidents in my lifetime thus far, and there may be more still, but he is the only one I am likely to miss.