William Jefferson Clinton
The PBS account of the Clinton Presidency presented on The American Experience is too psychological; it doesn’t take into sufficient account the sea change in American politics that took place when in 1993 the Republicans decided to fight Clinton at every step, just as they had fought Jimmy Carter, who was denied some early victories on spending cuts just so the Republicans could show Carter could be rolled. The same thing had not happened when Democratic controlled Congresses had opposed Bush ‘41 and Reagan. Why the Republicans took this yield nothing stance has still to be explained because it occurred before the Tea Party or even Gingrich exercised any power. But it is not going away any time soon.
That account of Clinton is also more poignant than tragic. It was a character flaw rather than a great love that made him philanderer. Yes, he felt your pain, and yes, you felt he was instantly accessible to commentators as well as the people he met on the campaign trail. But it is to be remembered, and the program could hardly acknowledge this because such a hypothesis fell outside its scope, that very little of what Clinton accomplished outlived his administration. The economy tanked after he left office and the savings he was accumulating disappeared and Bin Laden attacked the homeland. Sure, blame Bush. The fact remains that Bill had not build any institutions that could last. The best he could manage was the claim made for his doppelganger in The West Wing that he had overseen economic growth for a number of quarters. That is not a Presidency.
Look at Clinton’s numerous misjudgments, most of them acknowledged on The American Experience. He abandoned Zoe Baird, which meant he would abandon Kimba Wood, and that set the scene for accepting Janet Reno, who was too naïve not to trust the FBI about what would happen at Waco. He accepted “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell”, which made no sense on arrival, and worsened the condition of the gay military, and was abandoned under Obama. He himself admitted to having been insufficiently daring about the Rwandan genocide, though there I think the fact that the atrocities were taking place a thousand miles from a sea coast considerably limited American options. He abandoned the poor because it was politically useful to push the Welfare Reform Act, and even if the worst possible consequence—starvation—did not occur, the situation of the poor was not significantly improved. He tried to negotiate a peace treaty between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and even though he put a lot of prestige and intelligence into the effort, and what he offered was the outline for any eventual two state solution, should there be a two state solution rather than some other long term outcome, such as a stalemate for a hundred years, he could not get the Palestinians to accept it. And even after he left office, his failures continued. The UN representative to Haiti after its earthquake, he was supposed to get the place going again, and he did not, no matter how much money he raised and how much organizational skill he brought to the enterprise. The President of the country is now a bandleader with no political skills; there is little development, and the debris has not yet been cleaned up.
What of Clinton’s successes? The long period of economic growth was supposedly created by his conservative budgeting: reduce the deficit rather than prime the pump. To get that legislation, he had to pull out every plug. The Republican imposed gridlock meant that they would and will cooperate at nothing, not even policies that are taken from their playbook. Obama learned that when he went for the Heritage Foundation’s mandatory insurance plan. So Clinton took his bruises and lost his initiative by pushing a Republican economic policy. And, anyway, the economic accomplishments of the second Clinton term were probably the result of the productivity gains that finally kicked in from the computer revolution. The next new thing is what drives economic growth, not government tinkering with the economy. The government can promote that growth by putting down the seed money, as it did for the Internet and as it has done with genetic research, though there the new biological industries have not yet proliferated. And the government can keep the economy from falling too far by the use of Keynesian measures. Obama did that, though not to the extent he wanted to and certainly not to the extent advocated by Keynesians because, again, he was stymied by Republican imposed gridlock.
Clinton’s greatest success was in Europe. He put a stop to genocide within Europe, not that the Arab world proved especially grateful for that, and most importantly he permanently moved the boundaries of Europe to the eastern border of Poland, including the three minor Baltic nations of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. This is a boundary that is natural in that it is the eastern limit of non-Orthodox Christianity, the first two of these nations Protestant, and the other Roman Catholic. This religious boundary had been violated since the rise of Communism. That unheralded accomplishment of Clinton has lasted.
Yes, he was locked in a death struggle with Newt Gingrich, and for a while this year and maybe for longer, depending on what happens on Super Tuesday, Gingrich had risen from the dead. But the bitterness and the wretchedness of sexual politics, so demeaning to everyone, has not disappeared. The terms of the national debate have not improved. A Democratic President is again villianized by Republicans who have nothing to offer but hate. Clinton did not find a way to neutralize that and so improve the national view of government, and indeed he deepened it with his personal shenanigans. The first line in his obituary will include a reference to Monica. What a shame. We can feel his pain.
And yet I was mesmerized and could only take in short takes of an hour apiece the PBS review of Clinton. Too much remembered heartache, and he so vulnerable through it all, even as he took terrible advantage of his aides, not to speak of his wife, whom he so clearly loved and who loved him as became clear from dozens of moments captured on the campaign trail and reprised on The American Experience. The events recalled were too fresh in memory and the faces were too familiar: Hillary, Newt, Boehner, Panetta all still around--as well as Stephanopolis, who did not get interviewed for the program but felt compelled to acknowledge on his Sunday talk show that he had not caught up with the film. He is probably still too bitter to do so. These wounds go deep and we have had this cast of characters around for twenty years.
Obama is Clinton's rightful heir and not just because he has staffed himself with Clintonians. Obama delivers, partly because he decided to turn health care over to Congress rather than keep it close to the vest, as Hillary did. Both he and Hillary understand the limits of American foreign policy. He was tempted for a while last summer to negotiate with the Republicans to accomplish a giant bargain, trying like Clinton did to reach across the aisle, but all he got for it was sand kicked in his face, as also happened to Clinton, and he will have no more of that.
But Obama is the last of the Clinton Administration. I don't think Hillary or Biden will run. The country gets tired of the same faces. (The second Bush provided a very different face for the country than did the first one: "Hee Haw" rather than "Upstairs, Downstairs".) It will be up to a new generation, perhaps Cuomo, to take up the Democratic mantle.
Obama is not as good a campaigner as Clinton who is up there with FDR and JFK. Most presidents are good campaigners. Reagan was, even if all he had to sell with his sunny disposition were platitudes. Clinton was lucky in facing George 41 who wasn’t a good campaigner but couldn’t believe he could be beaten by this upstart. Never, never take an election for granted, I tell all those people who say the Republicans are or have already destroying themselves. Clinton prevailed over the slime, but to what end? Just to keep the Republicans from office? Is defeating Republicans enough of a reason to be President? It probably is, given what happened when Bush ’43 took office, and the Republicans do not seem to care very much, this time, about nominating a candidate who will add luster to their party rather than one who is already the object of either fear, in the case of Santorum, or loathing, in the case of Romney, for the majority of Americans.