April 29, 2019


The Lasting Disappointment of the Clinton Presidency (Walter Shapiro, Apr. 29th, 2019, New Republic)

Clinton's campaigns and most of his eight years in power were designed as the belated Democratic response to Reaganism. This explains lines that two decades later make liberals cringe, like Clinton's declaration in his 1996 State of the Union Address, "The era of big government is over." 

The French have a phrase (esprit de l'escalier, loosely translated as "wit of the staircase") for the clever dinner-party comeback that leaps to mind after the guests are long gone and the host is headed to bed. Clinton was the Democrats' espirit de l'escalier.

Clinton had limited goals as president--adoration, reelection, and thwarting Reaganism. His strategy was to take off the table every issue that Reagan and then Bush with his vicious, Lee Atwater-designed 1988 campaign had used to bludgeon the Democrats. As a result, Clinton centered his domestic agenda as president on traditional GOP issues like crime, welfare and budget deficits.

In fairness, Clinton deserves credit for the laudable 1993 expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (which aids the working poor and near-poor) and the 1997 passage of the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIPs), which was a last-ditch effort to achieve something tangible after Hillary Clinton's 1994 health-care debacle. 

The rightly derided 1994 crime bill was a reflection of Clinton practicing the politics of the defensive crouch. As the Clinton Library signage gamely explains, "Though violent crime tripled in the 30 years before President Clinton was elected, the number of police increased by only 10 percent. The President was determined to correct this imbalance [and] the administration provided the funds to put more than 100,000 new police on the streets."  [...]

The saddest aspect of the Clinton Library for me is not about the policy failures of the 1990s like America's inaction in the face of genocide in Rwanda. Nor is it a reprise of the Clinton scandals or a reference to Al Gore consigning the president to the sidelines during the 2000 hanging-chad race against George W. Bush.

No, that laurel has to go to a display heralding the political wonders of 1997, the first year of Clinton's second term. "America entered 1997 more peaceful and more prosperous than it had been in a generation," the signage proudly proclaims. "The contentious debates between those who saw government as the problem and those who believed that government should be part of the solution had given way to a more bipartisan cooperation culminating in an agreement to balance the federal budget, for the first time in a generation." 

This indeed should have been a peak moment for Clinton, the Democrats and America. In 1997, Communism was defeated, a friendly Boris Yeltsin was president of Russia, terrorism (aside from the home-brewed Oklahoma City version) was a problem for other countries, and the unsettling effects of global warming were mostly visible in scientific models. The unemployment rate, fueled by the first tech boom, had slipped below 5 percent and the budget was on a glide path toward solvency. Yes, Newt Gingrich was still House speaker, but he had been largely boxed out by the government shutdowns. And Gingrich privately was a somewhat cooperative figure, at least in contrast to the uncompromising zealot that he delighted playing in the media. 

These were, in many respects, the best years of our lives--and Clinton, still locked in a fetal crouch as he faced the outsize legacies of Reaganism, lacked a vision to take advantage of them. 

Posted by at April 29, 2019 4:05 AM