Monday, June 21, 2004
Book-launch week for our 42nd President, and everyone wants to know how the history books are going to remember him. So?
Bill Clinton accomplished three significant domestic policy goals: he signed welfare reform; he signed the treaty that expanded NAFTA to include Mexico; and he turned a structural budget deficit into a cyclical budget surplus. Welfare reform will, I have no doubt, become established as part of a "consensus" of intelligent social policy reforms of the 1990s, along with the Bratton-era policing reforms in NYC. But I think these will be part of the story of the 1990s as a whole, rather than a story about Bill Clinton. Ditto for NAFTA and the budget, though I have more doubts as to whether these achievements will become part of the "consensus" of the future.
In foreign policy, Clinton achieved nothing of note. He managed the disintegration of Russia and the rise of China without sparking war, but also with the result of significantly higher anti-Americanism in both countries that may have big consequences down the road. He terminated a humanitarian intervention in Somalia, refused to stage humanitarian interventions in Bosnia or Rwanda, but did stage a humanitarian intervention in Kossovo. He made no robust response to the rise of al Qaeda, but engaged in small skirmishing in Iraq to keep Saddam Hussein in his box. And he invested enormous Presidential prestige on diplomatic initiatives between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (and a lesser amount of prestige in parallel initiatives in Ireland) that bore no fruit whatsoever (and, I would argue, were counterproductive). But these are all small-potatoes; I'm sure Johnson, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland and Harrison had foreign policies, but I couldn't tell you what they were. From 20,000 feet, the period between Lincoln and McKinley is a picture of America expanding relentlessly to fill its continental space, with no grand foreign policy to speak of. I think the Clinton years will look similarly vague from a similar distance.
Clinton's most significant accomplishment was to rehabilitate the Democratic Party, which had been deemed largely unfit for the Presidency for the previous generation. He achieved this with a bit of luck (in the haplessness of his 1992 opponent, the over-reaching of Congressional Republicans, and the end of the Cold War, which took foreign policy largely off the table), enormous political skill, and a series of policy choices that were both responsible in and of themselves and responsive to the changing demographic and financial base of his party (basically, making the Democratic Party safe for big business and its employees).
(There are those who argue that he, in fact, destroyed the Democrats, because on his watch they lost both houses of Congress, most governorships, and, after eight years, the Presidency. This is silly. Almost all of what was lost was lost in 1994; under the next six years of Clinton the Democrats clawed back to parity in the Senate, retook a number of key governorships, and, though they lost the Presidency, lost it with a plurality of the popular vote and a larger absolute number of votes than ever. Clinton won in 1992 in a fluke, and that fact has a lot to do with the fury of the backlash against him, but over the course of his Presidency he most certainly built up his party's fortunes, he did not tear them down.)
If I had to compare him to a President of an earlier generation, it would have to be Grover Cleveland, another President dogged by sexual scandal ("Ma, Ma, where's my Pa? Gone to the White House - ha, ha, ha!"), associated with relatively conservative economic policies (the gold standard and free trade in Cleveland's case; debt reduction and free trade in Clinton's), and responsible for the rehabilitation of his political party (Cleveland was the first Democrat to be elected after the Civil War, though - like Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton - he never won a majority of the popular vote). And there was actually a mini-Cleveland vogue at the end of the Clinton Presidency, funnily enough. Where would that put Clinton in the historical sweepstakes? Somewhere in the middle of the pack, above those who came close to wrecking the country (Buchanan, Hoover, Carter) and above those who came to exemplify mediocrity or worse (Harding, Ford), but below those who truly left their stamp on the history of their time. Do Democrats really need to think better of him than that, or do Republicans really need to think worse?