Roundtable
Does Clinton Matter?
David Corn
Round Three - February 9, 2000

Wilentz keeps reminding us he is a historian. After reading his edgy and mean-spirited reply in Round 2, I gained enormous sympathy for his historical subjects, especially those who are no longer around and able to counter the mischaracterizations that flow from Wilentz. I am stunned by Wilentz's reading-comprehension skills. He says that I grudgingly conceded Clinton has "stood up for working Americans." I said that he occasionally did so, but also that he let them down with his health-care fiasco and his embrace of free-trade accords that do not fully take into account labor rights, human rights, and environmental concerns. Yes, I did argue that Clinton deserved criticism because he proposed a convoluted health-care plan tailor-made to win support from big business, but I did not say he should be "despised because big business defeated his plan." That outcome, though, proved that a have-it-all-ways Clinton had calculated wrongly. In doing so he spoiled the opportunity that existed for comprehensive health-care reform. (Jack Beatty made the point better than I did with his reference to John Sasso's evaluation of Clinton's performance in this area.) And I did not propose we "loathe" Clinton for apologizing insufficiently about his inaction in Rwanda in 1994. I bashed him for having lied about his inaction while apologizing. This may be a nuanced point, but I would expect an acclaimed historian to understand the difference. Wilentz can call Clinton's response to global warming "something serious," but I would refer him to the climate scientists who have studied and confirmed the threat. The consensus among them is that the United States' actions are woefully inadequate. Wilentz is so busy comparing Clinton favorably to his Republican predecessors -- on many matters, I wouldn't argue with him -- that he fails to judge Clinton using less emotional and more informative standards.

Wilentz shows the same failing when it comes to my charge that Clinton, with his prevaricating ways, has debased the political culture. I argued this without mentioning Clinton's Monica troubles. Yet on this front Wilentz cannot examine Clinton without aiming a finger at Clinton's antagonists on the right and saying, "Oh yeah, what about them!" He is not debating honestly. I have no trouble denouncing the sleazy practices of those conservatives who hurled reckless allegations at the Clintons and wasted our time with a half-assed impeachment. But why is it so difficult for Wilentz to concede that Clinton has lied to the public on non-Monica matters (his campaign promise to go tough on China, his pledge to incorporate labor and human rights into trade agreements). And why is it so tough for Wilentz to acknowledge that Clinton has further -- Professor, please note the use of "further," which does not mean "by himself" -- tainted the pay-to-play political system dominated by special-interest contributors and lobbyist-fundraisers? Wilentz seems blinded by love of Clinton. Or is it hate of the right? Who among us is the dogmatist?

There is a general consensus among three of the four of the forum participants: Clinton is not to be trusted. Not so oddly, this reflects popular sentiment. Somehow Clinton has not convinced the public he is the champion of good that Wilentz sees when he peers at the President. Is this, too, the fault of the rabid right? Jack Beatty neatly and swiftly punctures Wilentz's pro-Clinton triumphalism by noting that the major accomplishments Wilentz cites are not the stuff of "historic achievement." (As for boosting the minimum wage, Clinton did not become a strong advocate of this pro-worker initiative until congressional Democrats began pressing it and demonstrated that Democrats could score political points against the Republicans with this proposal.) Clinton traded much for his small successes. What fundamental change has he brought to the country via his incremental policy moves? As I've noted, more Americans are without health insurance now than when he entered the White House, and the level of childhood poverty remains shameful. How Clintonian it is for Wilentz to claim Clinton's modest successes comprise a historic accomplishment.

Beatty, for all his sensibility, buys into the new prosperity too much. But he is right that the governing class, be it Democrat or Republican, has emerged with something of a consensus for how to handle the economy. Recall what Clinton said as he put together his first budget -- which concentrated on deficit reduction at the expense of the putting-people-first public investments he had pledged to push when he was a candidate. We are all now Eisenhower Republicans, he griped. Clinton may have helped shift the political culture from a period of anti-government to one of small-step government activism. But whatever success Clinton achieved in "salvaging American liberalism" (as Wilentz would put it) is tenuous. He led his own party into minority status in Congress. Should a Republican win the White House later this year, how lasting will this shift be?

Brooks speculates that Clinton has enabled his Democratic successors to be more bold. Gore more bold? In these good times, he supports a health-care plan far less ambitious than what his Administration proposed in the less-good years of the early 1990s. (By the way, Brooks, thanks for the cheap shot about the photo. Actually, it was taken for the book jacket of my new novel, Deep Background, by a White House staff photographer. Draw what conclusion you like. Next time, perhaps, I'll ask you to have your benefactor, Rupert Murdoch, send over one of his personal shutterbugs.) If there is any Democratic boldness, it will mean little if either John McCain or George Bush are able to exploit Clinton's weaknesses and win the White House as an "authentic" (meaning, non-Clintonlike) candidate. I generally refrain from making predictions about elections. But there is a chance that come Election Day voters will reject both Clinton's spouse and Clinton's most loyal compatriot. Clinton would end up the last man standing. How appropriate.

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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David CornDavid Corn, Washington editor of The Nation, is the author of Deep Background, a novel of political suspense.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Corn photograph by Ralph Alswang.