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The Natural

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.

He was, all in all, the most gifted political leader since Franklin Roosevelt -- but, in the words of one historian, he was "Roosevelt without the backbone."

HOW MUCH OF THE DEMOCRATS' RETREAT FROM LIBERALISM WAS due to Clinton, and how much to the times themselves, is a question historians will surely debate. It's important to remember that before Bill Clinton burst on the national scene, an entire generation of national Democratic leaders -- Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, Jerry Brown, Michael Dukakis -- had already distanced themselves from the expansive vision of government that had emerged from the New Deal and the Great Society. Clinton differed from them chiefly because they clung to policies of social liberalism (such as opposition to capital punishment) that he had abandoned. But he also differed from them in that he spoke of a more active role for government -- in providing health care, building schools, funding more cops, offering more college loans -- than they had.

Clinton has always argued that he was trying to rebuild support for government in the wake of the Reaganites' assault on it, and that that entailed jettisoning support for failed programs such as welfare. Less euphemistically, he was trying to de-radicalize the Democratic Party, to shuck the policies that had driven the historically Democratic white suburbs of major Northern cities into the Republican column during the preceding quarter-century, that had created the Nixon and Reagan Democrats. By that standard, he was a clear success. Clinton in 1996 and Al Gore in 2000 carried the suburbs of Detroit and Philadelphia and Northern New Jersey; outside the South, America's major cities and their suburbs have become a powerful base for the national Democratic Party.


Los Angeles, Democratic rally, June 1991 (left); Los Angeles, Democratic National Convention, August 2000
Photos by Ted Soqui(left) and Associated Press

At least in part, Clinton changed the thrust, and certainly the image, of Democratic policy from welfare to work. Probably the single most effective and necessary accomplishment of his administration was to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the government program to bring full-time low-wage workers above the poverty line. Part of the 1993 budget, which was enacted over unanimous Republican opposition by a single vote in each house of Congress, the EITC today lifts 4 million Americans out of poverty, at an annual cost of $30 billion -- twice what the main federal welfare program, Aid to Families With Dependent Children, used to cost. A range of other Clinton-created programs have also been targeted at the working poor -- chiefly, child-care subsidies and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Both are only partial successes, but then, both were scaled back to win the approval of a Republican-controlled Congress: The child-care subsidies reach just 10 percent of eligible parents; CHIP, after a slow start, now covers 3.3 million children.

All of which has led to the most notable success of the Clinton presidency: the considerable decline in the poverty rate, from 15 percent when he took office to 11.8 percent today, and, more tellingly yet, the decline in the African-American and Latino poverty rates to 23.6 and 22.8 percents, respectively -- in both instances, historic lows. This is partly Alan Greenspan's doing, since his willingness to entertain a lower unemployment rate than economic orthodoxy said was sustainable produced an upward pressure on low-end wages. But Greenspan's policy is itself partly a result of Clinton's decisions to bring down the deficit and pay off the debt. Even then, without the increase in the EITC and the 1996 minimum-wage hike, fewer than half the Americans who escaped poverty during the Clinton years would have done so.

The effect of Clintonomics on the middle range of the economic spectrum has been somewhat less pronounced -- ironically, since it is the Democratic tilt of that part of the spectrum that is Clinton's most significant political achievement. Median household income adjusted for inflation, rose by 12.2 percent during his presidency -- from $36,379 in 1993 to $40,816 in 1999 The decent-paying blue-collar manufacturing job was already an endangered species when Clinton took office, and his trade policy only accelerated its disappearance.

Trade is another area in which Clinton changed traditional Democratic policy -- except in this instance, he didn't really bring his party along with him. In 1993, when Congress enacted NAFTA, 40 percent of House Democrats voted for the agreement. In 2000, when Congress passed the bill establishing permanent normalized trade relations with China, 35 percent of House Democrats voted for the agreement.


United States Supreme Court, Inauguration Day
Photo by Ted Soqui

Since the China deal, however, a new Democratic synthesis on trade has begun to emerge. Under pressure from such industrial unions as the United Auto Workers, Al Gore pledged during his campaign that any trade treaties negotiated by a Gore administration would place guarantees of worker rights and environmental standards in the treaty itself -- not, as in the case of NAFTA, in an easy-to-ignore side agreement. In the past half year, the Clinton administration negotiated and signed just such an agreement with Jordan, and has laid the groundwork for a similar pact with Chile (though there's no reason to think the Bush administration has any desire to see such guarantees in the final document).

Clinton's two-step on trade illustrates his general approach to issues that pitted the party's core values against the nation's most powerful constituency. When big business as a class mobilized behind a cause -- and, more particularly, if Wall Street, which was becoming increasingly and generously Democratic during Clinton's presidency, led the way -- Clinton would not go against it. Intellectually, he understood how global laissez faire ran counter to the Democrats' commitment to a mixed economy, and during the Seattle WTO debacle, astonishingly, he even gave an interview in which he said the demonstrators were right to demand binding penalties for violations of labor standards. But none of this affected the laissez-faire treaty that his own trade representative was negotiating at that very moment: That was real, not theory, and not to be mucked with by an excess of Democratic ideology. Later, when corporate and financial America didn't really care, when the question was trade not with China but with Jordan, there would be time for conscience, to craft a more humane global order.

Clinton's had plenty of time for conscience during the final month of his presidency, when there no longer was any reason to hoard his political capital against future storms. Since the Supreme Court awarded the White House to George W. Bush, Clinton set aside vast tracts of land as national monuments, or extended them protection against loggers and developers; he imposed regulations requiring employers to adhere to ergonomic standards in the workplace, and enabling government agencies to deny contracts to companies that violated labor laws. Progressive bookends now frame his otherwise centrist presidency at its beginning and end: On one side, the 1992 campaign, where he held out the promise of universal health care; on the other, his legislating by fiat when it was finally safe to throw his realpolitik constraints to the winds.

And in between, it was all largely improvisation.

THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM ON CLINTON IS THAT he lost his footing in his first two years as president, tacking so far to the left that the Republicans blew the Democrats away in 1994. But the conventional wisdom doesn't have it quite right. Clinton got two major pieces of legislation through Congress in 1993-94: his first budget, which raised taxes on the rich and thus dispelled the deficit, and NAFTA. As countless commentators have noted, the Democrats paid a price for the first of these -- the Gingrichites attacked them as tax-and-spend old-timers -- but, as hardly any commentators have pointed out, they paid a price for the second as well. Union turnout in the wake of NAFTA's passage was abysmal; in 1994, just 14 percent of the electorate came from union households.

Clinton's inability to get his (and Hillary's) health-care proposal through Congress was the most critical failure of his first two years, and indeed, of his entire administration. It was a failure both of process and of substance -- the plan was shrouded from view all the while it was being put together, then was all but incomprehensible when unveiled. The Clintons were hardly the only parties responsible for its failure; a number of centrist Democratic congressmen took a dive when it came to the Hill, turning against the plan at the behest of the hospital or small-business lobbies. Besides, mobilizing support for a universal plan when the middle-class already had private insurance was always going to be tricky at best.

But if Clinton failed to deliver for his own plan, he was a genius at thwarting the Republicans'. Gingrich stormed into the speakership vowing to abolish whole departments of government and scale back such programs as Medicare and the Clean Air Act. Clinton conceded the principle of balancing the budget -- and within those constraints, fought successfully to preserve the programs the GOP sought to kill, while crafting nice-sounding micro-programs of his own. When the deficit turned to surpluses during his second term and the Republicans sought a tax cut, Clinton headed them off by using the money to retire the debt.

Still, the dynamic was largely one of retreat: Clinton would give ground on ideology, would pledge that "The era of big government is over," then fight for this program here, that program there, all in the framework of a fiscal policy that Calvin Coolidge would have loved. Historian Eric Foner has argued that Clinton is to Reagan as Eisenhower was to Roosevelt, that Clinton was the Democrat who ratified Reagan's turn away from big government, just as Ike had been the Republican who ratified Roosevelt's embrace of it.

It was ideology by tactical concession, wedding his party to the narrowest kind of fiscal rectitude as a way to stay three steps ahead of Gingrich and Trent Lott. The markets loved it, and rewarded Clinton with the longest peacetime boom in U.S. history. But there are social ills the market has no interest in remedying (providing health care for all, building more affordable housing), that only government can remedy, and Clinton bound his party in an ideological straitjacket that would make any such large-scale remedy impossible, even if the Republicans no longer controlled Congress. On a smaller scale, however, he did establish and expand CHIP, and enforce the Community Reinvestment Act in a way that significantly increased minority homeownership. His watchword -- the same watchword that guided his trade policy as it moved from China to Jordan -- was don't upset the markets, but when the markets are napping, slip some decency into the mix.

This watchword was not Clinton's alone. These were also the words by which Britain's Tony Blair and Germany's Gerhard Schroeder lived, a credo of the Third Way, a statement of how to govern in an age in which capital can and does punish nations that place the interests of workers, or anyone, over shareholders. Clinton and his cohorts understood that capital mobility was the ultimate power, the giant whose ire they never could risk. But it was Clinton above all who gave it that power, whose own Treasury Department made sure that the International Monetary Fund impoverished millions of East Asians rather than place any constraints on the free flow of capital.

One place that capital was flowing was straight into Democratic coffers. Under Clinton, the financial community moved at least partially into the Democratic column -- so much so that our new Republican president has yet to find a Wall Street investment-type to serve in his Treasury Department. The Street's affinity for Clinton made perfect sense. Clinton's Democrats shared the fiscal conservatism and the growing cultural liberalism of the new rich. Bush and the congressional GOP threatened to unbalance the budget with their sweeping, untargeted tax cuts, and espoused a growing cultural intolerance that made all the young investment bankers and dot-com millionaires very uncomfortable. For the new American elite, the choice between parties was stark and fundamental: Clinton was the biggest Bobo (writer David Brooks' term for "bourgeois bohemians") of them all, and Bush, the biggest Bozo.

IT WAS THE AMERICAN BACKWATERS THAT TURNED against Clinton -- or, more accurately, that loathed him from the start and sought to bring him down. The most surprising set of figures in the 2000 election was the gap that opened up between rural and urban voters. White, rural America took out its rage at Clinton on the hapless Al Gore, who lost the rural vote to W. by a 37 to 59 percent margin, while winning the urban vote by a 61 to 35 edge.

The only other American president who inspired this kind of rage during the past century (other than Richard Nixon, who was a uniquely polarizing figure) was Franklin Roosevelt, whom the rich in particular hated as a traitor to his class -- that is, to them. A similar dynamic may explain the hatred that the moralist right has always felt toward Clinton -- that this son of Arkansas is also traitor to his class, to the rural Protestant America where he grew up. Clinton is the smart guy who moved straight into the elite, but insisted he was still one of them, though he mocked and flouted all their values. He is the Bubba turned Bobo, the ultimate betrayal, for which he was made to pay.

The most common assessment of the Clinton presidency is the lament that he wasted it -- that all kinds of grand compromises were there for the making in the past four years if he'd only resisted the combined attraction of Monica's thong panties and the pizza she'd bring him. But some opportunities -- and I'm not talking about the panties and the pizza -- are better off wasted, and it is a blessing that Clinton didn't make a deal with Newt to "save Social Security." Raising the retirement age or scaling back benefits might be fine with the Democrats' donor base, but it would have infuriated labor and triggered an intra-party class war that would have dwarfed the fights over trade. Moreover, by spurring economic growth, Clinton ensured that the system would remain solvent without having to take such drastic expedients.

What he did waste was the Democrats' majority in Congress, and with it, his ability to carry through on the progressive promise of his '92 campaign. It is a mark of Clinton's brilliance and tenacity that he's been able to increase, if incrementally, health coverage for children, and homeownership, and the incomes of the poor -- all over the opposition of the Republican congressional leadership. The shame is not that he did not deal with the Republicans more, but that he had to deal with them at all, that he squandered the political majority that could have enabled him to universalize health care and realize his original platform in a more fundamental way. The shame is that he, more than anyone, built a global financial order that further limited his good deeds, and those of his fellow world leaders, to dribs and drabs.

For most of his presidency, he played defense -- against his opponents, against himself. That he played it so well only makes his inability -- and his considered reluctance -- to go on the offensive, to move ahead of public opinion, to realize the hopes of 1992, more poignant still.