By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Associated Press|
BILL CLINTON MAY BE KNOWN FOR REINTRODUCING THE CONCEPT of personal responsibility into the Democratic Party's lexicon, but it was as an apostle of social responsibility that he first truly impressed me. It was a mid-November morning in 1991, and he was talking to a history class at Memorial High School in Manchester, New Hampshire. He began with the personal -- telling the kids that what they'd earn would be a function of what they'd learn, and expanding that to a discourse on comparative education policy: Stacked up against the other leading industrial nations, our school terms were too short and our vocational education programs wanting. ("Our school years run 180 days. In Germany, it's 220; in Japan, it's 243," he said, wonking happily away.)
Then a girl raised her hand and in a halting voice told Clinton that there'd been a wave of teen suicides in Manchester that year, among them some Memorial High students, kids that she'd known. Clinton paused and started talking very quietly about the stresses that young people often feel in disintegrating families and changing societies and failing economies. He did not need to tell the kids that New Hampshire was Exhibit A of a failing economy; in the past year, all seven of its largest banks had gone under, and Elm Street -- Manchester's main drag -- was lined with shiny office buildings, built just a few years earlier, that now had almost no tenants. What he did tell them was that there were problems stalking Manchester that were not of their own making. "Lots of people blame themselves when they lose their jobs," he said with rising intensity. "If your parents lose their jobs, and I know that's happening a lot, you must remember, it is not their fault. It's our fault -- that we are the only country that doesn't have an economic strategy for its people."
It was a poignant moment then, and it is in some ways even more poignant now -- now that the Clinton presidency is history, now that we know that Bill Clinton diminished some of America's historic commitment to its most vulnerable citizens, even as he also augmented that commitment with new policies. It is poignant as seasons of hope that don't quite live up to their promise are poignant, and his '92 campaign was most certainly a season of hope. After 12 years of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the Democrats finally had a candidate who, while sticking to the center on such cultural issues as crime and punishment, also spoke again about a government that could provide its citizens with universal health care and affordable college educations. They finally had a candidate, in short, who could win -- and voter turnout (which is nothing if not a barometer of hope) in the '92 election rose by 5 percent over that in '88.
And this was also the moment when I realized that Bill Clinton was the most talented political leader, and certainly the most talented campaigner, I had ever seen. It wasn't simply a matter of feeling pain: He could connect with it, validate it, restate it at the level of a more general problem, and point to the particular solution that he'd calculated had the greatest chance of surmounting the political hurdles -- all in a moment. In his years as president, he never delivered a great speech in the manner of Churchill or Lincoln, but he was nonetheless, for our less heroic time, a great speaker. His highest rhetorical achievements were one-liners memorable not for their eloquence but for their political force. When, in his 1998 State of the Union address, he said the proper use of the unprecedented budget surplus was to "save Social Security first," the Republicans' campaign for tax cuts was doomed.
What was not yet clear, in Manchester or for some time thereafter, was that Clinton lacked one crucial component of political leadership: a willingness to get in front of and try to mold public opinion. When the polls told him the public would back him -- as they did during the government shutdown, the result of a standoff with Newt Gingrich's Republicans over their proposed cuts in health and environmental programs -- he could be the most tenacious fighter imaginable.
But his presidency is just as notable for the fights he ducked. For fear of offending the military and its supporters, he refused to scrap a dangerous and impracticable missile-defense project, and never really scaled back the Pentagon budget, which is still premised on our ability to fight two conventional wars simultaneously, despite the nonexistence of even one adversary capable of engaging us in a conventional war. For fear of offending Colin Powell, gays in the military were kept in the closet and the military itself was kept out of Bosnia -- in the case of the latter, until Powell left his post. For fear of offending swing voters as his 1996 re-election campaign drew near, he signed the GOP's welfare-reform bill although it contained almost none of the protections he had supported. For fear of undermining his tough-on-crime reputation, he persisted in waging a drug war whose only effect (as he himself all but acknowledged earlier this month) has been to imprison a large number of inner-city small-time users.