Dear E.J. Dionne:
Did Clinton succeed or fail? It depends on how you define success. We need to consider him as a president, as a party man, as a world leader, and as a political figure who we hoped would rebuild confidence in the enterprise of democratic government.
The U.S. economy certainly boomed during his presidency. For this, Clinton shares credit with Alan Greenspan, and with fortunate timing. Thanks to information technology and the disinflation of the 1990s, these were likely to be good years. Clinton had the wit to strike a deal with Greenspan and the markets: a lower federal budget deficit in exchange for eased interest rates. Early in his presidency, when the Democrats controlled Congress, Clinton even achieved his deficit reduction by raising taxes on the rich rather than by slashing public services.
But also, during his first two years, Clinton made big mistakes as a partisan--two in particular. First, he contrived a national health insurance scheme in a manner more befitting a parliamentary government. Congress was not much involved in the design or political management of his plan. Worse, Clinton bungled the interest-group and popular politics of health reform. The managed competition scheme was complex, and it did not fire the public imagination. Politically, Clinton hoped to make a deal with the big employers and insurance companies, but this proved naïve. In the end, both turned on him--and he didn't have public opinion on his side as a counterweight.
Worse still, Clinton spent what remained of his political capital in 1993-1994, to ram the NAFTA deal through Congress. The plan was a leftover from the Bush administration. It badly split the Democrats, and it was not even wise geopolitics. In the end, Clinton got NAFTA enacted with heavy Republican support, dispiriting his own party. Republicans took control of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, and Clinton deserves some of the blame.
What followed was of course a turn to the right. Clinton did play a weak hand well, helping Newt Gingrich's Republican Congress to overreach itself. But during the mid-1990s, Clinton himself tacked further to the right than the situation required. He embraced a Republican view of welfare reform. He went along with a brutal immigration bill and assaults on civil liberty in the name of crime control. He accepted the idea of a balanced budget--and then when an economic boom pushed the budget into surplus, he declared that he would pay off the entire national debt.
To a point, all this was a kind of tactical Dunkirk: a strategic retreat to enable the Democrats to fight another day. But this particular Dunkirk moved the fleet not just to Dover but to Bermuda. The entire center of gravity moved to the right. On most aspects of domestic policy, Bill Clinton has been to the right of Richard Nixon.
Today, there is a government budget surplus projected at $200 billion a year as far as the eye can see. But the Democrats have so distanced themselves from public spending that the most imaginative thing Clinton and Gore can think to do is to pay off the national debt a year earlier.
The welfare state, thanks to Roosevelt and LBJ, does a fair job of taking care of the elderly. It gives little to working families except tax bills. Now is surely the time for increased spending on child care, lifelong training, first-time homeownership, and universal health insurance. This would give working-age voters, as well as the elderly, a reason to vote Democratic. But Clinton has made the politics of budget balance sacrosanct, and Gore will needlessly lose liberal votes to Ralph Nader.
In fairness, Clinton is not alone with this problem. Throughout the West, men and women of the center-left are governing on center-right programs. In general, center-left parties have failed to rein in the global market. In Europe, at least, this is seen to be a problem.
On foreign policy, Clinton's presidency has been a mixed bag. He did well to advance peace in Ireland and in the Middle East. He intervened late in the former Yugoslavia--but better late than never. His Russian policy has been a failure, and his effort to launch a new World Trade Organization round was naïve. His International Monetary Fund and World Bank policies are too solicitous of investors and too casual about the stability of the global system.
Domestically, Clinton did take some risks for unpopular causes, as in the Elián González case. By doing so, he sometimes made them popular. He defended affirmative action for blacks when it would have been easy to abandon it. He backed tolerance for gays. He went out of his way to find talented women and minorities for senior jobs. Yet he also left government and politics blemished by personal and financial scandal. The Lewinsky disgrace had some benefits: Americans decided that they would rather be governed by Casanova than by Torquemada. But most people would rather not have to make that choice. So while Clinton survived, even thrived, the party and the government he led both continued to fall in public esteem. After Clinton, American progressivism is weaker: more centrist, less imaginative, less inspiring to voters. As I have observed elsewhere, Clinton became the Typhoid Mary of U.S. politics--a carrier who maintained his own health while infecting others. Al Gore may contract the fatal rash.
Best, Bob Kuttner
Dear Bob Kuttner:
Almost everything you say about Clinton is true--and so is its opposite. Did his failures in the first two years lead to the 1994 Republican sweep that weakened the Democrats at every level? Yes. Did Clinton beat back Gingrich's revolution and push American politics so far away from the right that George W. Bush is forced to defend government? Yes.
Did Clinton preside over a golden age of capitalist growth and create a climate in which the public imagination is dominated by stock ownership and high-tech millionaires? Yes. Did he make taxes far more progressive? Yes. Did he sign a Republican-sponsored welfare bill that ended public assistance as an entitlement? Yes. Did he preside over unprecedented increases in public spending for the working poor (expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicare, and child care for the low paid)? Yes. In sum, did he move the United States to the right? Yes. Did he move it to the left? Yes. Welcome to the Clinton paradox.
The paradox is that a politician of extraordinary talent missed the opportunity to be an extraordinary president. A Republican opponent who knows him well has said that Clinton was "Roosevelt without the steel." This Republican sees Clinton as the most talented American politician since FDR, but without the discipline and the toughness (and, in fairness, without a war and a depression to create opportunities for heroism).
The paradoxes of Clintonism have a parallel: the paradoxes of interpreting Clinton. Where people stand now often depends on where they stood in 1992. If you believe that the Democrats needed to make strategic corrections--on crime, welfare, family policy, defense, and fiscal prudence--you're inclined to be sympathetic to what Clinton tried to do (even if, as in my case, you opposed his signing the welfare bill and dislike his embrace of the death penalty). But if you thought that New Democrats were always and everywhere sellouts, you probably start out being tough on Clinton.
Clinton never fully governed as either a New Democrat or an old one. He understood that a Democratic president needed to blend the two. So he went for a balanced budget, but courtesy of progressive taxation; he sought to establish national health insurance, but with a plan that tried to balance state and market; he spoke more respectfully of religion and tradition than most liberals, but favored gay rights.
Yes, he may have made all the mistakes on national health insurance that you suggest, but he was the first president since Truman to make a serious effort to close the largest gap in America's social insurance state. On the health care fiasco, Clinton is assailed from the left (he made too many concessions to the market), from the right (his plan involved too much government), and from the center (he bungled his dealings with Congress). Still, if he had pulled off health care reform, his presidency would have been very different.
It would have been different, too, if he had ignored the leaders of the 1993 Democratic Congress and insisted on political reform. Democrats should be ashamed that Republican John McCain is identified by the public as the leading foe of big money in politics. Democrats have embraced the cause now, but because they blew their chance of enacting reform when they had the opportunity to do so, their current claims ring hollow. (And the campaign finance abuses during Clinton's re-election effort hardly make it easy for Democrats to stand as the party of clean government.)
Did the fleet really withdraw to Bermuda? It is plausible to argue that the net result of the Clinton term has been to move the political debate slightly toward the left. If you doubt that, remember that Reagan's slogan was "Government isn't the solution; government is the problem." George W. Bush says, "Government if necessary, but not necessarily government." Bush underscores this shift in rhetoric--described as "the fourth way" by Bush's chief domestic policy adviser--when he says, "Too often, my party has confused the need for limited government with a need for government itself."
My favorite comment from the right came from a young conservative writer, Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review. "Whatever they may say, conservatives know in their bones that their position is weak," he wrote last autumn. "What these conservatives sense is that, at a level of politics deeper than the fortunes of the political parties, the ground is shifting away from them... . The 2000 election is shaping up not to be a ratification of conservatism, but of Clintonism--and will be even if the Republicans win."
So, is the United States, on balance, better-off now than it was nearly eight years ago? The answer, for most Americans, is yes. Could Clinton have accomplished more? The answer, for this American, is also yes. How you judge Clinton depends on which question you judge to be the more important.
As always with our Bill, we can emphasize the half-full or the half-empty glass. Is American liberalism stronger or weaker as a result of eight years of Clinton? Can Clinton be faulted for tacking further to the right than he tactically needed to? On these questions, you judge him more kindly than I do. It was not inevitable that the Democrats had to lose both houses of Congress in 1994. It was not inevitable that Clinton had to make budget surplus the test of virtue, much less to pledge to retire the entire national debt.
You say that he moved the country both to the right and to the left. On tolerance issues, we have moved to the left. But on the big issues of political economy, the choices today are further to the right than when Clinton took office. In 1992 no politician was talking about paying off the entire national debt. Nobody was talking about privatizing Social Security--even in part. Universal health insurance was on the agenda. The share of GDP devoted to nondefense spending other than Social Security was larger then--it has been steadily cut during the Clinton years. Meanwhile, big money dominates political life to an unprecedented degree, and political participation continues to dwindle.
Yes, the Earned Income Tax Credit and higher minimum wage laws have helped ordinary people--although the latter was foisted on Clinton by Ted Kennedy, Robert Reich, and the unions; it proved too popular for even the Republicans to resist. Even so, inequality continues to widen, despite full employment.
The budget surplus is not, as you claim, mostly the result of the 1993 tax increase on the top-income bracket. It is mostly the result of the 10-year spending cuts in the 1997 budget, together with higher-than-projected growth. You say that the Democrats needed to make strategic corrections on crime, welfare, family policy, defense, and fiscal prudence. I agree. But in each case, Clinton moved further into conservative territory than he needed to. Besides disliking his welfare bill, what do you think of his views on gun laws? Or the death penalty? Or immigrants' rights? Or habeas corpus?
With a Republican Congress, he certainly had to compromise. But why didn't he try to lead public opinion in a more liberal direction? With an economic boom fattening tax revenues and a big federal budget surplus, I can imagine a liberal Democratic candidate for president declaring that now is the time to put universal health coverage back into the debate; to inject serious federal funds into failing schools; to construct rules of engagement for global commerce that include rights for workers as well as for capital. Clinton's shift to the center-right has made it more difficult for a successor to run for office on these themes and still seem mainstream. To the extent that Gore is sounding more progressive, Ralph Nader probably deserves more credit than Clinton.
The problem with the third way, in the style of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, is that you begin by meeting the conservatives halfway. When that doesn't quite succeed, you meet them halfway again. And again. Soon, you have two conservative parties. You can narrowly win elections by being a little less conservative than the other guy, but it rouses no passion in the electorate. So while even George W. Bush grudgingly concedes that there is some role for government, Clinton's legacy is a diminished faith in democratic politics. To the extent that government and politics are the sources of economic redress for those in the bottom two-thirds, I am not so sure that most of America is better-off after Clinton.
On many of the specifics, I am with you. You are right that the Democrats didn't have to lose Congress. But here, I think the fault lies not just with Clinton, but with the Democratic Congress. It was wrong for congressional Democrats to resist campaign finance reform. It was wrong of liberals to resist Clinton's earlier efforts at welfare reform, which were more socially generous than the bill that was ultimately enacted. Clinton not only lost the health insurance battle as a result of his own mistakes; he also lost because liberal groups did not realize until too late how powerful were the forces arrayed against them. Moreover, the Democratic majority in Congress was not coherent. It was badly split among conservative Democrats who resisted the health insurance plan, liberal Democrats who thought Clinton didn't go far enough, and the rest. Congressional Democrats share with Clinton the responsibility for the failures of those first two years. (Most of them know it, which is why the party is more coherent now than it was then.)
On the budget: Yes, the tax increases were not the only factor in balancing the budget. But I find it remarkable that liberals give Clinton so little credit for making the tax code more progressive. He increased taxation on the wealthy and increased benefits for the working poor. And by making the tax code highly progressive, Clinton made it very complicated for advocates of lower taxes on the rich. Now, all across-the-board tax cuts give most benefit to the very well-to-do, which is why Republicans struggle to pass them.
I am with you on the death penalty and habeas corpus. (A lot of the anti-immigrant provisions of the welfare bill were eventually knocked out.) On gun laws, we disagree: The cause of gun control is much more advanced now than it was in 1992. Indeed, one reason the Democrats lost Congress was the willingness of both Clinton and many House members to support stronger gun laws, which proved unpopular in many rural constituencies. And by the way, the falling crime rate has allowed many Americans to rethink their position on the death penalty. The proportion favoring capital punishment has dropped from 80 percent in 1994 to 66 percent now. It is a positive legacy for progressives that many of the old "wedge" issues that so divided the United States along racial and cultural lines are no longer so powerful. And it is useful, as Richard Parker argued in The American Prospect, that liberals have dropped some of their prejudgments against religion. Isn't that part of the cultural transformation which occurred in the Clinton era?
As for growing inequality, the current boom--whether it is Clinton's doing or not--has proven a point progressives (you especially) have made for years: If unemployment went low enough, at least inequality would stop growing. To the extent that a welfare reform bill we both opposed has worked, it is because opportunities for the poor exist now that did not exist before. Isn't 4 percent unemployment the essence of Truman liberalism?
You say that the third way leads to the existence of two conservative parties. But New Dealish, progressive social democratic parties have all, one way or another, concluded that there is no alternative to the market economy. This leaves all such parties confronting three big questions. First, what can the social insurance state do to correct the injustices markets inevitably leave in their wake? Second, what forms of regulation can national governments--separately or in cooperation--impose to protect workers' rights, the environment, and other values not naturally protected by the market? Third, how can governments, through both action and strategic retreat, protect the civic institutions that citizens build independently of government and market?
Clinton could have gone farther on all three fronts. But I'm not convinced that the Clinton era has left us as bereft of democratic possibilities as you suggest. Part of our problem is that we won't really know how to assess him until we know what comes after. If Social Security is partially privatized, if there is no movement whatever toward universal health insurance and decent child care, if little more is done for those left out of the boom, then you will be proved right. If we succeed in building on the achievements of this era, we'll look back more kindly on our Bill--even as he continues to frustrate and mystify us.
Like so many other Americans, you are more charmed by this guy than I am. You cut him more slack than I do. I will credit Clinton with much that you credit him for, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
Clinton has the gift of being a superb public teacher. He has educated Americans on the fact that gays are people, too, that the struggle for racial justice isn't over, that the revolution in gender equality is incomplete. Suppose he had used some of those gifts to provide a more complex view of the virtues and limits of markets. Suppose he had proposed more than token initiatives in health and education, if he had said positive things about trade unions as well as the new economy. He might have inspired a real popular movement, as Roosevelt, Truman, and the Kennedy brothers did.
You say that there is no alternative to the capitalist economy, but a capitalist economy need not be a laissez-faire one. Capitalism can and should be housebroken so that it provides a measure of security to temper the famous creative destruction. This requires, as you say, decent social welfare, government regulation, and a strengthened civil society. But above all, this enterprise of building strong countervailing public institutions requires a politics.
With his gifts, Clinton might have helped define and animate that politics. Mostly, he didn't. So his aspiring successor faces resurgent laissez-faire ideologues and institutions far more bereft of popular counterweights than might have been the case. Today, a newly reinvented, populist Al Gore is trying to contrive such a politics from scratch. But Gore as Clinton's vice president necessarily starts from a center-right posture, facing a cynical electorate. This makes it hard for him to credibly seem the pocketbook champion of the workaday voter. Bill Clinton is an extraordinary politician. But his signal failure as a progressive was, ironically, political.
To the extent that we disagree, I don't believe it's because of Clinton's charm. And I don't think the troubles of the first two years can be attributed only to a failure of progressive will, but rather to a poorly organized administration, some bad choices (what if Clinton had tried health care in cooperation with Congress, including some Republicans, as part of his 1993 budget?), and the difficulties congressional Democrats had in dealing with a president of their own party.
While I don't much like it when others harp on them, I think that the twin scandals--Monica Lewinsky and campaign fundraising --are the biggest scars on Clinton's legacy, in part because they turned people off public engagement at a moment when they were ready to be turned on. A new generation was prepared to be excited by social commitment, much as Clinton's generation was inspired by John Kennedy. Americans under 30 are far more inclined than their forebears to volunteer in social service activities. But for now, such good work is seen as an alternative to politics, where--under more promising circumstances--it might be connected to a larger project of social reconstruction. That is a loss for which Clinton bears some blame.
My sense is that at the end of these eight years, there is less hostility to government, more open questioning about what the market can accomplish all by itself, a larger willingness to deal with the problems of the poor, significantly greater social tolerance, and an abatement of cultural warfare in which elites often sneered at the values of average Americans. Those changes create political opportunities. You, Bob, will be the first to take advantage of them. If you succeed, you will have to revise your opinion of this era upward. Let's meet in five or 10 years and figure out who was right. ¤
First published in the August issue of the London-based Prospect magazine.