Does Clinton Matter?
David Brooks
Round Two - February 2, 2000

I think we can all agree that the most striking phrase in our first round of exchanges was Sean Wilentz's decision to start a paragraph with "As a historian...." Up until that point I thought I was reading a fax from the White House press office. And then he had the chutzpah to condescend toward us pundits for being simplistic! I'm baffled by Mr. Wilentz's loyalty to a man who, as David Corn captures, has rarely been loyal to anyone but himself. Not even the Clintonistas are as pro-Clinton as Prof. Wilentz.

From Post & Riposte:

"I'd like to remind everyone where we were nineteen years ago, when a newly inaugurated President intoned, 'Government is not part of the solution, government is the problem.' We are so far from that boneheaded moment in our public discourse that there is no comparison between then and now. Much of that was Bill Clinton's doing. The mechanics of public relations seem to overshadow all other aspects of politics for Messrs. Corn and Brooks, but for most Americans the state of the economy, employment, and public finance, the plummeting rates of violent crime, and the improvement of social indicators such as teen-age pregnancy mean much more than the ins and outs of political PR. On those fronts, Mr. Clinton has had a very successful presidency, one that will cast a long shadow indeed."
--Andrew Goodwin, "Why Clinton Matters" (01/31)

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There are two issues getting intertwined here. The first is, How will Clinton be remembered? The country seems to be arriving at a consensus about that, expressed recently by Mr. Wilentz's Princeton colleague, the political scientist Fred Greenstein, who described Clinton as "a politically talented underachiever" responsible for "incremental policy departures." He balanced the budget but debased the presidency and disillusioned a generation of young people. Another historian, James MacGregor Burns, recently echoed that view (and as a mere pundit who am I to differ?).

But there is another question, which is more interesting. What next? What does the world after Clinton look like? I am writing this entry the day after Clinton's final state of the union address. I think there is reason for David Corn to look much happier than he does in the excessively stern photo that accompanies his entry. (Do you guys have Leninist photographers over there at The Nation?) We are seeing nothing less than a progressive revival. Bill Clinton proposed hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending programs -- a far more ambitious collection of programs than anything he has proposed so far. I was waiting for him to pitch a federal program to help people scrub their kitchen floors. And the Republicans, in obvious panic, jumped on his bandwagon. Senator Susan Collins boasted that the GOP had sent more money to the Department of Education than Clinton even thought to ask for. I half expected the Republicans to declare, "The era of limited government is over."

As I tried to indicate in my last missive, the federal surpluses liberate Democrats from the need to triangulate the way Clinton did. They can be more free-spending now because there's all this cash in the federal register (or at least we pretend there is). Clinton's legacy may be that he enables his Democratic successors to be more liberal and more daring than he ever was. Meanwhile, he and his presumed successor, Al Gore, have entirely dropped the New Democratic talk of fundamentally reforming Social Security, education, and Medicare. They just dump more money into the status quo. As for the Republicans, they look screwed. They are forced to fight the election on health and education -- issues that have been traditionally Democratic.

One other matter -- I may have been wrong in my last entry. I said Clinton's political style is in disrepute, as people seek honesty and authenticity. David Corn made a similar point. But the Gore campaign has flourished precisely by lying and spinning. In the last New Hampshire debate, Gore lied brazenly about something that was easy to check. He said he has always been pro-choice, when that is the opposite of the truth. As a member of the House he voted for an amendment that affirmed that a fetus is a human life. He had an 84 percent pro-life voting record in the Senate. He lied knowing that nobody would care, and so far he has been proven correct. Now we have an increasingly progressive country inured to dishonesty. Oh well.

Round Three -- February 9, 2000
Jack Beatty | David Brooks | David Corn | Sean Wilentz

Round Two -- February 2, 2000
Jack Beatty | David Brooks | David Corn | Sean Wilentz

Round One -- January 26, 2000
David Brooks | David Corn | Sean Wilentz

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What do you think?

Join the debate in Post & Riposte. We'll highlight selected readers' remarks as the Roundtable progresses.

David BrooksDavid Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and a contributing editor at Newsweek. His book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There will be published this spring by Simon & Schuster.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.