Politics & Prose November 2004

Clinton's Perverse Legacy

Is Clinton to blame for the Democratic Party's plight?

Listening to Bill Clinton—by turns, charming, shrewd, and wise—speak at the opening of his presidential library in Little Rock last week, brought home anew the gap between his gifts of brain, heart, and speech, and what he made of them as president. In this he compares unfavorably to George W. Bush, who has made more of less (and worse) than any president in modern times.

Clinton was a business cycle president who happened to be in office during a time of innovation-driven prosperity. Clinton's legislative accomplishments are modest—at least to judge by his master criterion: improving the lives of ordinary Americans. Speaking in a heavy rain in front of a library that, he joked, one British critic compared to a double-wide trailer, Clinton singled out two of them, the Family and Medical Leave Act and welfare reform.

They are indeed emblematic legacies. Thanks to Bill Clinton, you can take a leave from your job to deal with a medical emergency in your family—but you won't get paid; the law only requires employers to give you the time off. Welfare reform has yielded some positive results since its enactment in 1996, though most of the jobs filled by welfare recipients pay low wages, offer few benefits, and are likely to disappear in economic downturns, and the effects on children who had to bring themselves up in the absence of their working mothers has yet to be measured. But it misrepresents the historical context for Clinton, as he did in his speech, to bask in the humanitarian glow of a policy choice motivated more by his reelection campaign against Bob Dole than by his compassion for single mothers caught up in welfare dependency. This is a point made eloquently by Peter Edelman, who resigned in protest over Clinton's embrace of a "hard" Republican version of reform, in an Atlantic Monthly cover story entitled, "The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done." With welfare reform, Clinton did not "put people first," as he claimed Thursday; he put Bill Clinton first. Elected in 1992 with barely 43% of the vote, he governed as if the goal to which he was willing to sacrifice all other goals was his political viability. He spent his promise largely on himself.

Clinton may not have left a substantial legislative legacy, but his political legacy is potent. He and Herbert Hoover may be the only presidents whose enduring bequest was to the opposition party. Richard Nixon's self-destruction in Watergate decimated his party in the congressional elections of 1974, the first post-Watergate contest. But that setback was transient, as the GOP resurgence under Reagan would show. Twenty years later Bill Clinton led his party to a more consequential defeat—the loss of the House of Representatives, the center of Democratic power since the New Deal. Clinton failed ordinary Americans, and wounded his party, by not bringing Health Care Reform—his one bid for a major achievement—to a vote, even though the Democrats controlled both branches of Congress. With each election cycle, it becomes clearer and clearer that 1994 was the worst defeat in the history of the world's oldest political party. Unlike the GOP in 1974, the Democrats may never recover from 1994—not today, when congressmen pick the voters through computer-directed gerrymandering, not when Congressional districts are becoming ideological affinity groups, the red districts attracting republicans, the blue districts democrats. So long as right-wing cultural populism is in the ascendant, it is hard to see any red state Congressmen losing their seats to Democrats, especially in the South. As for the Senate—also lost in 1994, regained in 2000, and lost again in 2002—three red-state incumbent Democratic Senators have been defeated in the two elections of the Bush era, and Republicans have replaced five retiring red state Democrats.

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Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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