We Will Miss Bill Clinton

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell only echoed a common refrain when one night early this month she attributed some recent environmental good deeds by Bill Clinton to his desire to burnish his “legacy.” Similar cynicism about his motives has nipped at the heels of almost every step he has taken as president. Whatever he was doing, he was doing it, not because he believed it was right but because it would make him look good.

There are two problems with this kind of cynicism. One is that every leader in a democracy must think politically if he’s going to be effective. If the polls tell him there is no public support for a program, it rarely makes sense to expend political capitol on that program. Even when Clinton made major political gambles in pursuit of the idealistic goal of quality health care for every American and on a quixotic quest to restore democracy in Haiti, (for which the public support must have been in the neighborhood of five percent), he was given scant credit for good motive.

Finally, however, the question of motive is irrelevant to evaluating a president. What counts is not motive but performance. And for that I think history will give Bill Clinton high marks. He won’t rank with the Franklin Roosevelts and the Abraham Lincolns, but he will be a lot closer to them than the bottom to which many of his critics consign him.

In the realm of domestic policy, welfare reform has been one of Bill Clinton’s more notable accomplishments. There are still some human beings in need of help, but welfare rolls have been slashed and millions of former recipients have gone to work. His critics say Clinton agreed to welfare reform out of cynical desire to deprive the right of one of its main issues. But isn’t it possible that he was really showing an openness to good ideas even when they are identified with conservatism? Another example of this openness came with his deficit reduction proposal, something that had long been advocated by Republicans but that Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush had not been able to accomplish.

This kind of openess is an essential element of the neoliberalism I have been advocating for twenty years. Equally essential is a devotion to liberal ideas when they continue to be valid, a devotion that Clinton has manifisted in many ways, from his tax policies that have helped the working poor to his environmental policies that have protected millions of acres of public land from the despoilers to his anti-trust policies that have bravely confronted corporate bullies.

In foreign affairs, Bill Clinton has also demonstrated an indifference to conventional doctrine. Vital American interests were not at stake in Northern Ireland, but he got us involved and made us a major contributor to peace. In a more traditional area of American involvement, the Middle East, Clinton’s effort, in the opinion of Jordon’s dying king, Hussein, who had worked with seven American presidents, exceeded that of any of Clinton’s predecessors in “dedication, clear headedness, focus and determination to help resolve this issue in the best way possible.”

As for political risks Clinton certainly took one in the Balkans where the previous Bush administration had feared to tread. He committed U.S. power and prestige in the former Yugoslavia, and the result was triumph: Peace and freedom from Serb dominion in Bosnia and Kosovo, with Milosovic driven from power.

As for the world economy, the Clinton administration not only helped stave off disaster when Asian markets crashed in 1997-1998 but took the considerable political risk of making the forty billion dollar loan to Mexico when the peso was about to tank.

The American economy is, of course, Clinton’s most impressive accomplishment. Even if the great boom over which he has presided is coming to an end, he will have led the nation through eight years of unprecedented prosperity, featuring an unusual combination of high employment with low inflation, and topped off by record deficit reduction. In 1993, he had to overcome ferocious Republican opposition to his economic program. It passed the House by 218-216 and the Senate only by virtue of Al Gore’s tie-breaking vote. Not since the military draft passed by only one vote in the fall of 1941 has such a crucial measure survived by such a hair’s-breadth.

If the economy has been the best part of Bill Clinton’s presidency, what was the worst? In my opinion it was not his sex life about which there has been monstrous hypocrisy on the part of journalists and politicians many, if not most, of whom have been guilty of similar sexual misbehavior and of lying about it. As for my own view of the worst of his presidency, certainly his defensiveness (shared in spades by his spouse), and his self-pity rank high. But a more substantive problem has been his inattention to the operation of the government. He is good at making policy but not at attending to its execution. Environmental policy, for example, has been good but enforcement of environmental laws has been lax. Waco happened on Clinton’s watch, as did the failures of the IRS which were, by the way, more often a matter of being too tender rather than too tough in enforcing the law. And some of those 100,000 cops Clinton so loved to boast about still are not on the streets.

Early in the administration, I had lunch with a senior White House official. We discussed how this White House might do a better job than its recent predecessors of monitoring the work of the executive branch agencies and departments. A couple of years later, we lunched again and I asked him if he had talked to Clinton about the matter we had discussed. His answer was “No, he wouldn’t be interested.”

But the official did say he had talked to Al Gore and it must be conceded that Gore did try to improve the executive branch agencies. Certainly, his Reinventing Government effort led to a substantial slimming down of the bureaucracy which was cut by 300,000 employees. And at least some agencies appear to have improved significantly, with FEMA under James Lee Witt as the most conspicuous example.

All in all, I regard the current administration as a success. As time goes by I think there will be increasing nostalgia for Bill Clinton. That time will begin, I suspect, on the night George W. Bush gives his State of the Union address and people remember how marvelous Bill Clinton’s were.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.