Does Clinton Matter?
Sean Wilentz
Round One - January 26, 2000

The premise of Jack Beatty's introduction is at once banal and absurd. The claim that Bill Clinton has merely advanced a leftover Republican agenda, playing Tweedledum to George Bush's Tweedledee, long ago became a journalistic cliché. But the claim isn't true. Why, during Clinton's first term, did Republicans and their allies fight so fiercely to defeat his ambitious health-care proposal? Why, during his second term, did they fight so fiercely to remove him from office? Why, even now, does Bill Clinton remain, in GOP circles, the most despised Democrat since Franklin Delano Roosevelt?

From Post & Riposte:

"Beatty's introduction is insightful. Brooks is thoughtful; Corn is thoughtful; Wilentz just sounds angry. The thing that's always bothered me about the Clinton administration is the complete denouncement of the previous administrations while continuing their policies--particularly with respect to economic policies. Wilentz's accomplishments he lists are side-effects or continuations of policies that the Clinton administration claims to repudiate. It's no wonder his writing sounds angry, the economic spin won't be able to stand the test of time."
--Gregory Alan Bolcer, "Tweedledee and Tweedledum" (01/27)

What do you think? Join the conversation.

Why are the Republicans so angry? Could it be because, under Clinton, real wages have risen faster, and in a more sustained fashion, than at any point since the 1970s? Or because the unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest level since 1969? Could it be because of Clinton's success in raising the minimum wage, along with his support of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Brady Act, the Violence Against Women Act, and the proposed ban on assault weapons? Might it be because of the Administration's attempt (thwarted by the GOP-controlled Senate) to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty? Is it because, despite Republican jeremiads about the Clinton era's supposed slouch toward Gomorrah, crime rates have fallen to their lowest levels in a generation? Or are we really to believe that the adulterers Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde, and Bob Barr, and their supporters, are truly shocked -- shocked -- at Clinton's lame attempts to cover up the Lewinsky affair?

I could go on and on listing Clinton's hard-won achievements, each of them out of step with the Republican agenda of the Reagan-Bush years and after. But even that would not do justice to how Clinton has changed the political landscape. For Clinton has led the way in salvaging American liberalism, particularly the Democratic liberal spirit of the early 1960s. Liberal Democrats achieved a great deal between 1961 and 1965, banning de jure racial segregation, enacting Medicare and Medicaid, and striking down the nation's racist immigration laws. So strong was the liberal tide, even President Richard Nixon could not reverse it, at least on the domestic front. But a backlash set in during the mid-to-late 1970s, when oil shocks and an eroding economy set the stage for Ronald Reagan's counterrevolution. For more than a decade resurgent conservatives successfully tainted their opponents as "tax and spend liberals." The backlash culminated in the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, when the traces of liberalism that helped elect Bill Clinton two years earlier seemed extinguished once and for all.

But things have turned out very differently. After the failure of his health-care initiative, Clinton emphasized fiscal responsibility and balancing the budget, while at the same time -- yes, it's true -- increasing federal spending on social investments. The turning point may have been Clinton's welfare reform, which at the time was deemed a GOP victory, but which wound up shattering Republican claims that the federal government could do nothing right and, paradoxically, made federal action respectable once more. (It should be noted that Clinton helped rescind the Republicans' mean-spirited attacks on legal immigrants in connection with welfare payments.) Since then, public confidence in government action -- on protecting Social Security, reforming health care, and improving public education -- has risen, while the Republicans' outdated call for regressive tax cuts and across-the-board budget reductions has cut little ice. The Reagan-Bush era is dead. Bill Clinton killed it.

Of course, Clinton's liberalism is not the same as the liberalism of the Great Society. Times change; lessons get learned; and political traditions that are not busy being born are busy dying. One sign of the profundity of Clinton's innovations is that so few pundits (with the notable exceptions of some harsh but candid Clinton critics, including Michael Kelly and Norman Podhoretz) understand what has happened. Far from merely following the polls, or serving up warmed-over Republican ideas, Clinton has run considerable political risks, with his interventions in Haiti and Kosovo, his bucking of many in his own party over trade issues, his squaring off against Congress in 1995 over the government shutdown. And Clinton initiated a blossoming of left-center politics in both the Western and Eastern Hemispheres, a blossoming that stretches from London to (as of last week) Santiago, Chile, and shows no signs of ending anytime soon.

As a historian, it is fascinating and somewhat amusing to hear the pundits and inside dopesters declaim about the timid, supremely self-protective, uninspired Clinton Presidency, or about the press-invented disorder called "Clinton fatigue." Yes, Clinton has his flaws, as does his Administration. His abysmal handling of the Lewinsky scandal will forever scar his personal reputation (though his enemies' reputations will fare even worse). But taking the long view, Clinton has done what all liberal Democratic Presidents in this century have done, which is to use the powers of the federal government, within the constraints of his political situation, to advance the interests of ordinary Americans. All the more remarkably, he did so after a cold season of conservative rule, in which it became the conventional wisdom that the nation's problems can best be solved by doing nothing. Clinton has exploded the Reagan-Bush idea that government is the problem, and not part of the solution. It took skill, savvy, and courage to pull it off as well as Clinton did.

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

Return to Introduction

What do you think?

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

Sean WilentzSean Wilentz is the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History and the Director of the Program in American History at Princeton University.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Wilentz photograph by Robert Matthews.