State of the Debate:

The Truth of Power: Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White
House
By Benjamin R. Barber. W.W. Norton and Company, 320 pages, $26.95

The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years By Haynes Johnson. Harcourt,
610 pages, $27.00

From the Center to the Edge: The Politics and Policies of the Clinton
Presidency
By William C. Berman. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 141 pages,
$16.95

Political Fictions By Joan Didion. Alfred A. Knopf, 338 pages, $25.00

In Washington, conservatives still roam the Capitol trying to name airports,
post offices, and federal buildings for Ronald Reagan. But Democrats seem
entirely unsure about what to make of their only recent two-term president, Bill
Clinton. In 2000, Al Gore thought Clinton more of an albatross than an asset and
became so spooked by the administration's odor of scandal that he also ran away
from its record of peace and prosperity. In a January speech critiquing President
George W. Bush's management of the economy, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle
praised the economic strategy of Clinton's two terms and even sat Robert Rubin,
Clinton's treasury secretary, on the podium to underscore the point. But he never
mentioned Clinton by name. Meanwhile, Clinton, whose tendency toward self-pity is
his least attractive quality, has been reported to be in his Harlem aerie
characteristically brooding over whether history is shortchanging his
accomplishments.

He's likely to find only limited solace in four new books that begin the
process of framing his legacy. All approach Clinton from a largely sympathetic
center to center-left perspective. Yet all find him wanting. In part, that
judgment reflects an understandable conclusion that Clinton's faults confounded
his talents and produced a record stained by too many missed opportunities and
self-inflicted wounds (in which category the Monica Lewinsky affair would qualify
as a shotgun to the head). But these conclusions also reflect a reluctance,
especially on the left, to recognize the extent of Clinton's political and policy
achievements in a difficult political environment.

Each of these books offers insights into the man and the political passions
that swirled around him during the 1990s. But all slight his most positive
legacy: an economic expansion that spread more benefits to more families than any
since the 1960s. Lower- and middle-income families gained more ground under
Clinton than under any president since Lyndon Johnson, and those gains were
accelerated by government policies designed both to encourage and to reward work.
That fact doesn't fit the story line either of conservative critics, who want to
portray a frivolous presidency that left behind only scandal, or of liberal
skeptics, who see in Clinton a poll-driven opportunist who abandoned traditional
Democratic priorities for a cynical centrism.

In fact, the evidence of the 1990s suggests that Clinton synthesized an
approach to expanding opportunity that was both effective and politically
popular: He simultaneously reduced poverty and increased the party's reach among
upper-income voters. By linking opportunity to responsibility--by demanding work
in welfare reform, but then insisting that government had an obligation to "make
work pay"--he provided Democrats a politically sustainable model for broadening
the benefits of prosperity. His tenure saw many missed opportunities; but his
systematic efforts to reward work, encourage investment in troubled
neighborhoods, expand home ownership, and tilt the burden of taxes from average
families to the affluent displayed a coherent and consistent priority on seizing
the opportunity that good times provided to improve ordinary lives. It's a legacy
that Democrats may fully appreciate only as the government moves on to different
priorities.

Bill Clinton may be so difficult to bring into focus because so
many things about him were contradictory. He reshaped the Democratic agenda to
reconnect it with mainstream values and then flouted those values himself by his
dalliance with Lewinsky. He restored the Democrats' capacity to compete for the
presidency (in the three campaigns immediately before Clinton, the Democratic
presidential nominees won a smaller share of the available electoral votes than
in any three-election sequence since the formation of the modern party system
with Andrew Jackson in 1828); then he lost control of the House and Senate in the
1994 Republican landslide. He recovered to beat back the Newt Gingrich revolution
and then suffered the ignominy of impeachment. His policy achievements carried
Gore to the brink of the presidency in 2000, but his personal failures may have
been just enough to allow Bush to win on a promise to restore honor to the White
House. Clinton was creator and destroyer.

Of the four authors considered here, political scientist Benjamin R. Barber
best captures all of these personal and political ambiguities. Barber, who came
to know Clinton through a series of dinners the White House convened with
"big-think intellectuals," aptly compares him to Walt Whitman in his bottomless,
sometimes debilitating desire to transcend all divisions, political and personal:
"He was many, embracing the North and the South, the East and the West. And
almost making it work."

Barber's book suffers from a restricted angle of vision. Almost all of his
meaningful interactions with Clinton came at these yearly dinners where Clinton
mingled with assorted academics--ostensibly to kick around themes for the State
of the Union, but mostly because it seemed to satisfy the president's endless
capacity for political discussion both abstract and concrete. (Others would
flag--like Tipper Gore, who once lightly dozed off on Barber's shoulder--but
Clinton kept talking, often brilliantly, when even the professors were ready to
surface for air.)

But Barber compensates with generally astute political judgments and an acute
personal portrayal of Clinton. He captures Clinton's all-purpose insatiability
with a deft account of sharing a bowl of cashews with the president at one of the
big-think dinners: "Talk about a common touch," Barber writes. "He would look out
across the table, exchange words with someone down at the other end, but leave
some sixth sense on guard, a third eye marking my hand in motion and parrying my
every thrust with a quicker move of his own. If I got three cashews over ten
minutes, that was a lot." Later, Barber tellingly observes: "Too many people felt
close to the president for it to be true."

He's just as sharp in many of his political conclusions. Barber places
himself to Clinton's left but recognizes the necessity of Clinton's efforts to
reclaim the center: "The poor could not be served by a party of the minorities
that became a permanent minority party," he writes. While Clinton might not have
achieved as much as liberals hoped, Barber notes, he also stymied Gingrich's
drive to roll back the Great Society and even the New Deal. Barber has a point:
Clinton's success in making a case for Washington's role can be measured in the
distance between Gingrich's dream of radically retrenching government and Bush's
more modest hopes of constraining it.

In The Best of Times, Haynes Johnson, the former Washington Post
reporter, offers a similarly mixed assessment of Clinton's impact. Johnson's
book covers more than Clinton: It's a panoramic, sometimes familiar, but almost
always engaging account of politics, business (what he calls technotimes), and
culture (teletimes) in the 1990s. The book's heart is an extended, extremely
well-written recounting of the Clinton impeachment saga. Johnson offers no
"news," no insider revelations from the White House or Special Prosecutor Ken
Starr's office. But he has produced something valuable: keen portraits of the key
players and a shrewd understanding of the decades-long cultural conflicts that
the impeachment saga crystallized. Johnson is an able guide for future historians
through this sorry story: Without ever condoning Clinton's behavior, he captures
the rabid ferocity of his opponents. It's impossible to read his devastating
portrayals of Linda Tripp and Lucianne Goldberg and not think of Shakespeare's
witches, stirring the cauldron with the bile of their own disappointments.

Johnson has less to say about the policy record of Clinton's eight years. But
his bottom line is similar to Barber's, though a bit less sympathetic. Mostly
because of the Lewinsky scandal, he sees Clinton as squandering "a time of
unparalleled peace and prosperity when a second-term president had a rare
historical opportunity to provide significant long-term leadership."

That's roughly the appraisal University of Toronto emeritus history professor
William C. Berman gives, too, in his slim and superficial account of Clinton's
presidency, From the Center to the Edge. Berman's book is little more than
a recapitulation of old headlines; it reads like a CliffsNotes guide to the
Clinton era. Compounding the problem, Berman can never quite fix his perspective
on Clinton. He seems sympathetic to those who believe that Clinton surrendered
too much of the Democrats' traditional agenda. But he acknowledges that the
president advanced several venerable Democratic priorities (such as protecting
the environment and the rights of minorities) in an adverse political climate and
punctured Gingrich's dream of fundamentally shrinking government.

In Political Fictions, a collection of her political journalism from
The New York Review of Books, Joan Didion won't give Clinton even
that much. Didion is often bitingly insightful about Clinton's enemies, like Newt
Gingrich and Ken Starr. Her criticism of the media's performance--particularly in
the frenzy that surrounded the Lewinsky scandal--is devastatingly precise. But
her Clinton is a cartoon character.

To Didion, Clinton represents the triumph of focus groups and the culmination
of what she terms "the determination of the Democratic Party to shed any
association with its traditional low-income base." Guided by polls, fueled by big
money, and fortified by the machinations of the Democratic Leadership Council
(DLC), Clinton was obsessed with "phantom Reagan Democrats," in her view, and was
edging near racism in his appeals to "the forgotten middle class."

The contradictions of Clinton's presidency provide evidence for
and against almost all of these criticisms. (Though not all should be taken
seriously: To consider appeals to the middle class a cover for racism is
lunatic.) Did Clinton rely heavily on polls and focus groups? Yes--though he was
more willing to confront them than Didion suggests. Surely, no poll advised
Clinton that it would be popular to raise taxes in his 1993 deficit-reduction
plan. Did impeachment diminish Clinton's accomplishments in his final term?
Unquestionably--though even before Lewinsky, the conservative backlash against
the 1997 balanced-budget deal was already discouraging the Republican Congress
from making deals with a president their base supporters considered
illegitimate. Did Clinton sometimes vacillate and change course?
Absolutely--though he often arrived at an effective destination, as he did in
sanctioning, after much hesitation, the bombing campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo.
After the events of September 11, which occurred too late to be considered in any
of these books, Clinton will undoubtedly face comparably pointed questions from
historians about his record in preparing America to resist and combat terrorism.

Yet the most common complaint against Clinton in these books is the least
valid: the contention that his "New Democrat" agenda abandoned the poor and the
working-class and thus steered the Democratic Party away from its historic
mission of expanding opportunity. Didion phrases this indictment in its most
simplistic formulation, deriding Clinton's call for policies that reward work as
"silly." She suggests that the agenda he rode to the White House in 1992 could be
read as "based on transferring entitlements from what were called 'special
interests' to those who 'work hard and play by the rules,' in other words
distributing what wealth there was among the voting percentage of the
population." But Johnson, a more serious critic, also concludes that "the boom
[of the Clinton years] was leaving the poor farther behind economically." Berman
accuses Clinton of a "cautious centrism" on the problems of the poor. Even
Barber, the most sympathetic of the four, wonders why African-Americans supported
Clinton so ardently when he "did not necessarily deliver the goods" for them.

Maybe the answer is because he did deliver the goods, though in ways
different from those that Democrats have traditionally used. The deep instinct of
liberals to believe that Clinton's success at expanding the party's electoral
coalition was won solely at the price of sacrificing its neediest constituents
can be sustained only by ignoring the actual record of the 1990s. Under Clinton,
low-income and working-class families made their biggest gains since the
1960s--largely because of the booming economy, but also because of the policies
Didion derides as "silly": a set of initiatives that encouraged and rewarded
work. It turned out that "making work pay" was not only a good political slogan
but an effective strategy.

The 1990s were unquestionably a good time for Americans in the penthouses. Yet
the boom of the Clinton years was defined not only by its length but also by its
breadth and depth; it reached even workers on the margins of the economy,
minorities, single mothers, and people with limited education. Census Bureau
statistics paint a portrait of the decade recognizable in none of these books.

Consider the median income. Overall, in real terms, the median income--the
income level achieved by half of American families--increased by almost 15
percent from 1993 to 2000. But it rose much faster for blacks (33 percent) and
Hispanics (24 percent) than it did for whites (14 percent). It rose faster in
central cities (18.5 percent) than it did in suburbs (12 percent). Despite all
the warnings about welfare reform impoverishing single mothers, the median income
for female householders jumped nearly 29 percent from 1993 to 2001, significantly
more than the 17 percent increase for married couples.

In percentage terms, families on the lowest rung of the income ladder scored
the biggest income gains from 1993 through 1999. According to Economic Policy
Institute calculations, families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution
saw their average income increase nearly 19 percent from 1993 through 1999--while
families in the top 5 percent enjoyed an average increase of about 15 percent.
By comparison, in the expansion of the 1980s, the average income of the top 5
percent grew more than five times faster than the incomes of the bottom 20
percent.

Those broadly shared income gains refute another common liberal complaint
about the Clinton years: that the expansion of the 1990s widened the gap between
rich and poor. Actually, according to Census Bureau figures, the gap between rich
and poor remained virtually unchanged through the decade. In 1993, the top fifth
of households received 48.9 percent of all income; in 2000, the number had
increased only slightly, to 49.6 percent. (The top fifth increased their share of
total income much more rapidly in the 1980s.) The share of total income received
by the bottom three-fifths of families declined during Clinton's tenure, but
only slightly (from 27.7 percent to 27.3 percent). It's perhaps a legitimate
complaint that the Clinton years didn't see more progress at narrowing
income inequality. But given the enormous gains of families at the top during the
1990s, even holding inequality essentially stable has to be seen as a kind of
triumph, for it required significant advances for workers on the economy's lower
rungs as well.

And those gains generated dramatic and almost entirely overlooked advances in
reducing poverty. From 1993 through 2000, the poverty rate in America fell from
15.1 percent to 11.3 percent--a reduction of 25 percent, the biggest eight-year
decline since the 1960s. As with income, the most vulnerable groups recorded the
biggest gains. The poverty rate among blacks dropped by fully a third under
Clinton; among Hispanics, the drop was just over 30 percent. For both groups, the
poverty rate is now the lowest ever recorded. Poverty dropped faster for
female-headed households than it did for married couples and is now, by far, at
the lowest level ever recorded. Children registered the greatest gains of all.
Under Clinton, poverty among children fell by nearly 30 percent, to the lowest
level since 1978. During Clinton's tenure, the number of children in poverty fell
by 4.1 million--compared with just 50,000 during the expansion under Ronald
Reagan. Meanwhile, home ownership among African-Americans and Latinos rose to the
highest levels ever recorded.

Obviously, the long boom itself (in particular, the low
unemployment rates) deserves the most credit for these advances. But even leaving
aside the question of how much Clinton's success in deficit reduction contributed
to the expansion, his administration pursued a coherent series of initiatives
that reinforced these trends by demanding and honoring work. The stick was
welfare reform, which pushed welfare recipients into the job market, where they
could benefit from the rising tide. The carrot was a steady stream of policies to
reward work, beginning with a major increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit
(EITC) and then continuing with a hike in the minimum wage, the creation of the
children's health-insurance program (to provide coverage for the children of
working poor families), extended access to Medicaid for former welfare
recipients, an increase in day-care subsidies and funding for after-school
programs (which provide another source of child care for working families), and a
children's tax credit that significantly reduced the tax burden on many
working-class families. On a separate track, much tougher enforcement of
fair-lending laws and federal subsidies for community lending institutions
contributed to a staggering 97 percent increase in home mortgage loans to
low-income borrowers from 1993 to 1999. The four authors contemplating Clinton
give, at most, short shrift to all of these accomplishments.

But taken together, these efforts tangibly improved millions of lives and
took a significant further bite out of poverty. Under Clinton, the federal tax
burden on families at the median income and below fell markedly. (At the same
time, the 47 percent share of total federal taxes paid by families earning
$100,000 or more jumped to 57 percent--a statistic that doesn't exactly confirm
Didion's portrayal of the Clinton administration as a DLC-inspired surrender to
the wealthy.) Harvard professor David T. Ellwood, a former Clinton welfare
official, recently calculated that a single mother who left welfare for full-time
minimum-wage work would have come out ahead by only $2,005 in 1986; by 1997,
largely because of the expansion of the EITC, work was some $7,100 more valuable
than welfare. That support for work lifted millions of additional families out of
poverty under Clinton. Once the EITC and other government income supports (such
as food stamps) are added in and state and federal taxes paid are subtracted,
the poverty rate in 2000 stood at just 8.7 percent overall and only 11.1 percent
among children, the Census Bureau found.

It's possible to argue that those numbers are still too high in an affluent
society. Or that even those who have escaped poverty still haven't progressed far
enough toward the middle class. Or that Clinton did not increase assistance to
the working poor enough. (The failure to improve health-care security for adults
may stand as his greatest policy failure.) But to ignore the real gains of the
1990s, as these books largely do, is to miss the most important political and
policy achievements of the Clinton years.

During his two terms, Clinton demonstrated that it was possible for Democrats
to deliver for families struggling on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder
without alienating those above them. He did that by grounding his domestic
policies not in the class warfare that Didion pines for but in values that share
broad support across society: fiscal discipline, expanding opportunity, and
demanding personal responsibility. Clinton's failure to behave responsibly in his
personal life will forever cloud these achievements and diminish his place in
history. But it's unlikely that Democrats will regain the White House without
recognizing and building on his success at constructing an agenda that expanded
both opportunity and the party's fragile electoral coalition.

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