It’s simplistic to call Bill Clinton, as Rachel Maddow did in March, “the best Republican president the country had, if you look at the policies that he passed.” But her assertion is certainly an arguable one — as is the former president’s claim last week that Maddow’s statement, if true, “would come [as] quite a surprise to the Republicans, half of whom still think I’m a closet communist.”
Their disagreement embodies just one of the endless arguments (“it’s the sex; no, it’s the perjury” is another one) that continues to dog the Big Dog as he seeks his place in history. Indeed, the Clinton record involves so many contradictions that his legacy will likely serve as a political Rorschach test for many years to come.
As Bill Clinton was preparing to run for president he toured the country as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, which sought to rescue the Democratic Party by remaking it. He campaigned for the Oval Office as a New Democrat; it’s fair to say that, for the most part, he governed as one. And so, did Bill Clinton, with his embrace of the DLC’s reexamination of Democratic verities, revive the Democratic Party or betray it? Did he modernize the New Deal or terminate it?
Did he save liberalism or kill it? Did he reverse or even slow the conservatism that had dominated national politics since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, or did he surrender to it?
Bill Clinton did raise income tax rates for the wealthy (even though he angered Democrats, many of whom had risked their political skins to support the plan, when he went before an audience of fat cats and apologized for the hike). But he also cut the capital gains tax. He raised the earned income tax credit to aid the working poor. But he also pushed hard, with Republicans and against liberals, to secure ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He helped the economy create 22 million new jobs – and that rising tide certainly lifted many, many boats. But the financial deregulation he and Robert Rubin and Larry Summers and Alan Greenspan pushed through in concert with archconservative Republican Phil Gramm enabled the grotesqueries that produced worldwide financial panic at the end of his successor’s tenure.
Balancing the budget seems to be the one tangible Clinton accomplishment that everyone — Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal — can agree merits praise. He did indeed restore fiscal sanity to the federal government — and, with the help of spendthrift Republicans, he took the issue away from the GOP and made it, legitimately, a practice Democrats could embrace and be proud of. But the singular focus on deficit reduction as he took office was not what he intended when he ran for the White House on a program of large governmental investments aimed at “Putting People First.” In fact, he intended to get back to the investment agenda once the deficit had been tamed. But in 1994 he lost the Congress, and in 1995 the GOP forced him to adopt a blueprint for eliminating red ink altogether. And so deficit reduction, while sensible at the beginning of his administration, took on a life of its own and prevented not only him, in the later years of his presidency, but also future Democratic presidents from directing resources to the nation’s troubled human and physical infrastructure. Witness the impossibility of passing a second stimulus now because it will “add to the deficit!!!,” when so many economists — and, one must think, most of the Obama administration’s economic brain trust — believe additional spending vital to avoiding years of stagnation.
Left-leaning Democrats blame Clinton for the travesty of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, but their criticism isn’t entirely fair: He did, at the very beginning of his presidency, try to lift the ban on gays serving in the armed forces. At that point a novice in the nation’s capital, however, he was outplayed by two experienced and skillful Washington operators: Colin Powell and Sam Nunn. Liberals should heap praise on him for taking on the National Rifle Association and winning. During his first two years in office he got Congress to pass two major pieces of gun-control legislation: the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban. But his victory was short-lived; the gun lobby’s fierce opposition was key to the drubbing suffered by the Democrats in the 1994 midterms.
And it wasn’t just any Republican Congress he had to deal with during the last six years of his administration, it was a Republican Congress dominated by Newt Gingrich, the self-styled “defender of civilization” who, more than anyone else, is responsible for legitimizing the vituperation and ad hominem attacks that have since dominated our national discourse. The hostile Congress not only complicated his job from 1995 to 2001 (and nearly separated him from that job in 1998-1999) but also confounds the task of evaluating his legacy as a president and as a Democrat.
Exhibit A: Welfare reform.
Acting on his campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it,” Clinton in June 1994 — while the Democrats still ran Capitol Hill — submitted a bill that would for the first time have imposed a time limit on the payment of welfare. To help recipients make the transition “from welfare to work,” the proposal called for $9.3 billion to be spent on job training, childcare, and job subsidies. But by this time, his health care initiative — and with it his legislative might — had taken such a battering that Congress never took up his welfare proposal.
The following year, the Republicans who had taken over Congress began working on a far different version of welfare reform. It would have ended the federal entitlement to benefits under Aid to Families and Dependent Children and slashed as much as $69 billion of federal funding over five years. Twice the Republicans passed their legislation; twice Clinton vetoed it.
During the summer of 1996 the Republicans softened their bill — a little. Responding to the president’s concerns, they increased funding for day care and eased provisions pertaining to eligibility for Medicaid and food stamps. But the end of the entitlement and budget cuts of $55 billion remained. Clinton still had two bones to pick with the Republican bill — cuts in food-stamp funding and denial of benefits to legal immigrants — but he decided to sign the legislation, with the intent of correcting its flaws later. In November, his cooperation with the Republican Congress on the issue helped insure both his easy reelection and the GOP’s maintenance of its control over both houses of Congress.
More than any other single act during his eight years as president, Clinton’s signing of the Republican welfare bill works as a political Rorschach test: Was it an act of courage for its defiance of his political base? Or was it a craven maneuver to secure reelection on the backs of the poor? Did he give in when he should have held out? Or were his compromises worth making in order to achieve significant positive change in the life of the nation?
Brave statesman or political opportunist? Benevolent pragmatist or betrayer of principle? A fine Democrat or the “best Republican president the country had”?
It depends on how you read the inkblot.