Recalling the Clinton Years
Princeton historian Sean Wilentz has a piece in the New Republic commemorating the 20th anniversary of Bill Clinton’s run for the presidency. Wilentz concludes: Bill Clinton saved liberalism from itself. A sample:
In order to overcome the Reagan ascendency Democrats needed to advance the rights secured during the 1960s while returning to more traditional political bedrock. To a remarkable extent, Clinton delivered on that promise. In doing so, he made the nation comfortable once again with the idea that the well-being and future prospects of most Americans require strong and effective leadership by the federal government.
The 43rd president certainly reshaped the Democratic Party. His New Democratic message, influenced by the Democratic Leadership Council, offered a template of reformed liberalism. This championed ideals similar to those examined in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic: hard work, individual responsibility, faith, family and community.
Though Clinton never said so explicitly (and Wilentz doesn’t mention it in his piece,) this was a rejection of Ted Kennedy liberalism. It sought a right-turn for Democratic politics, embracing bourgeois middle class values and toning down the egalitarian rhetoric
Wilentz chronicles the liberal crack-up that took place from the Vietnam War until the early 1990s. The party spent nearly three decades fighting internecine battles. John Farrell’s Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century details many of those feuds. Civil rights destroyed the New Deal coalition; in its place came a new, disparate set of interest groups (that still make up the Democratic coalition) of doves, labor unions, environmentalists, homosexuals, blacks, Hispanics and feminists.
Appealing to one interest group often offended the sensibilities of another. For instance, creating a jobs program (a la Roosevelt’s WPA) to build roads, dams, etc outraged environmentalists. Appealing to homosexuals upset blacks. A common Right wing parlor game would guess which interest group Democrats would favor at a given time (based on the political situation of the moment).
The created a raucous environment for Democrats. It led to violence at the 1968 Chicago convention and chaos at the Miami convention four years later. The Walter Mondale candidacy in 1984 showed how outside the mainstream contemporary liberalism had fallen.
Mondale went around the country promising all things to all people. He ran as an unabashed liberal. Ronald Reagan crushed Mondale in the general election and won 49 states, the second time a Republican had won that number in a twelve year period.
Reagan’s vice president George H.W. Bush cruised to election in 1988 and looked unassailable after winning the Gulf War in early 1991. Most serious Democratic contenders (notably New York governor Mario Cuomo) decided to sit the 1992 election cycle out. Commentators called the 1992 Democratic primary field the seven little dwarfs.
The Arkansas governor emerged from a weak field and won the Democratic nomination. Bush alienated conservatives by raising taxes to fix a budget deficit. A weak economy turned voters against the incumbent. Pat Buchanan challenged Bush during the primary season. Ross Perot siphoned votes from the Republican ticket during the general election. This perfect storm ended twelve years of GOP rule: Clinton won a plurality of the votes on Election Day.
His first two years in office were tumultuous. He had some liberal accomplishments, to be sure. His first budget hiked Taxes on the rich to 39.6%. He put Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court when Byron White retired. A year later, Stephen Breyer joined Ginsburg on the Court. Both liberal jurists still sit there. But health care reform negated those liberal accomplishment in the public’s mind and weakened the Clinton presidency.
Democrats could not agree what they wanted in health care legislation. Liberals wanted a single-payer system (Medicare for all). Conservative Democrats—those referred to as Boll Weevils during the Reagan years and Blue Dogs in the Bush 43 years- thought market reforms would help expand access to insurance. Clinton, meanwhile, named his wife Hillary to head a presidential task force on the issue.
The resulting Hillarycare debacle cost Democrats Congress in the 1994 election. The legislation never even came up for a vote in Congress. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell said the legislation was dead in September 1994, foreshadowing the coming electoral landslide. The president went back to the drawing board after the shellacking. He brought in pollster Dick Morris and decided to move towards the center.
This famous triangulation strategy helped Clinton save his presidency. Republicans did their part to help as well. They shut down the government in 1995; Clinton came out looking like the only adult in town. He played House Speaker Newt Gingrich like a drum.
Despite their animosity towards one another, Gingrich and Clinton were great together. They balanced the budget. They worked on welfare reform. Gingrich kept passing it through the House and Clinton finally acquiesced to the measure-after two vetoes,-signing the bill into law shortly before the 1996 presidential election cycle. He then famously proclaimed: “the era of big government is over.”
George Will famously said Clinton’s presidency was the least consequential in memory, “like a person who walks across a field of snow and leaves no footprints.” Perhaps that opinion has merit: after all, Clinton’s liberal initiatives went nowhere after 1994. He had no heir. His wife, the most prominent Democrat in the country, failed to win the party’s presidential nomination in 2008.
But after a lost decade, the Clinton presidency looks better than ever. Divided government tempered Washington and the economy soared. Who wouldn’t want that right now?