Does Clinton Matter?
Sean Wilentz
Round Two - February 2, 2000

Unlike other of Bill Clinton's left-wing critics, David Corn is honest enough to concede, albeit grudgingly, that the President has stood up for working Americans. But he won't allow himself to think too hard about this -- because as every good leftist knows, Bill Clinton must be, deep down, a bad guy.

From Post & Riposte:

"Mr. Clinton is a compartmentalist, an accomplished liar, a hypocrite, a user of friend and foe alike, a thief of ideas, and a man whose personal depths set new standards for shallowness of public character. In short, he is an ideal modern politician whose private attitudes bear little resemblance to his public statements and performance, and whose facile stands shall clearly set the standard for years to come among driven politicians with weak rudders. Mr. Clinton revealed what many have always known, that character flaws that would prevent a person from serving as a dog catcher in a respectable small town are no bar to the presidency."
--Bill Welch, "Only the Shadow Knows" (01/29)

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Given Corn's ritualistic damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't style of denunciation, Clinton can only emerge as a villain. According to Corn, Clinton should be despised because his original health-care plan was pro-big business -- and Clinton should also be despised because big business defeated his plan! According to Corn, Clinton should be loathed -- not just criticized, but loathed -- because he apologized about his inaction in Rwanda in 1994 with what Corn says was insufficient contrition. (When did Presidents Reagan or Bush ever take one iota of personal responsibility for any of their political disasters, foreign or domestic? And what about the entire Clinton record on Africa, including America's relationship with Nelson Mandela and South Africa, the creation of an international African response group, and the efforts to build democracy in Nigeria, let alone the fact that Clinton was the first American President ever to visit Africa? It's a far cry from the Reagan-Bush era's cynical "constructive engagement" with apartheid.)

According to Corn, Clinton, who signed the Kyoto accords and has tried to do something serious about global warming, is indistinguishable from Bush the elder, who believed that global warming was a hoax, and who once smirked and called Al Gore "Mister Ozone." Then there's Corn's charge about Clinton's alleged pollution of our public life. Over the years GOP spokesmen and their friends have publicly labeled Clinton as "anti-Christian," a "counter-cultural McGovernik," and, in one of their choicer epithets, a "scumbag." Since 1993 they have accused him of every felony under the sun, including murdering his oldest friend -- an all-time low in American political scurrility. With the aid of right-wing fat cats, including Richard Mellon Scaife, they have spent millions of dollars to pump this filth into public circulation. With additional help from the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, and Matt Drudge, they have repeatedly manipulated the national news media into reporting on numerous false scandals. (Remember Clinton's mulatto love child? For that matter, remember Whitewater, "Filegate," and "Travelgate"?) The grandest result of their efforts was a reckless partisan impeachment drive, led by Ken Starr and the House Judiciary Committee majority, that nearly succeeded in shredding the Constitution. Yet according to Corn, Clinton is the one responsible for debasing the national political discourse, in part because he did not follow The Nation's preferred rhetorical line, and in part because he lied about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky (which he has since publicly regretted).

Corn is aghast that Clinton is a "waverer" -- which is to say that Clinton freely and skillfully engages in the sort of tactical maneuvering that is part and parcel of any kind of democratic elective government. (I can't imagine what Corn thinks of those exemplary waverers Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt.) Corn refuses to acknowledge that Clinton has repeatedly put his presidency on the line, from the health-care battle and the government shutdown to the decision, one month after his impeachment, to intervene in Kosovo. Corn is likewise oblivious to how, in Kosovo, Clinton was the first American President ever successfully to halt a genocidal onslaught.

I seriously wonder if Corn would describe any national elected official, except, perhaps, the quixotic Paul Wellstone, as anything other than a right-winger or a sell-out. (Forget about Ted Kennedy and Tom Harkin: they backed Clinton and now back Al Gore.) And I detect in Corn's contempt for Clinton a deep-seated contempt for American politics and the Democratic Party. Corn speaks superciliously, for example, of "Clinton's successful political use" of the education issue [italics his]. In fact Clinton's record on education includes the following: making the first two years of college universally available, proposing thirty million dollars in federal tax credits to make the second two years of college more widely available, proposing an initiative to hire 100,000 new, well-trained schoolteachers, proposing ambitious federal aid to rebuild crumbling schools, vastly expanding federal support for everything from Project Head Start to Pell Grants, and more. If such be the fruits of Clinton's politics, so much the better for politics -- and for the vast majority of the American people.

Whereas Corn's piece is dogmatic, David Brooks's suggests that its author is in denial. On the one hand, he concedes that Clinton's Administration rescued the Democratic Party from the stigma of what Brooks calls "traditional" liberalism; that it freed the federal government from the immense and seemingly inevitable deficits accumulated under Reagan and Bush; and that it became the first Democratic Administration since the Vietnam era to back an internationalist foreign policy successfully with military force. In the wake of Clinton's presidency, in fact, Brooks claims that "[p]rogressives" -- a group that, in Brooks's view, includes Clinton's Vice President Al Gore -- "are right in feeling as hopeful as they do." In short -- and here a historian can only agree -- a great deal has changed since the elder George Bush's days of decline. On the other hand, Brooks conforms to the conventional pundits' consensus by sticking his head in the sand and claiming that Clinton's presidency has been "diaphanous" and "insubstantial."

Brooks tries to paper over these contradictions by offering up a fanciful account of the presidential politics of 2000. The real story here is that both of the leading Republican candidates have, at least rhetorically, backed off from the hard-right Reagan-Bush era legacy as sustained by the congressional GOP, and have tried to move closer to the center -- a plain consequence of Clinton's political and policy successes. (George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism," for example, is a slogan blatantly designed as a Republican me-too alternative to Clinton's "third way.") Over in the other party, Bill Bradley has positioned himself ever-so-slightly to the left of Al Gore -- but he is hardly running as a Humphrey/Mondale Democrat, as Brooks says he is. Gore, like all Vice Presidents who have tried to move up, has had to distinguish himself from Clinton, but he has done so almost entirely in connection with the Lewinsky fiasco. In terms of politics and programs, Clinton and Gore rightly consider themselves to be the strongest of allies. And however the New Hampshire primary turns out -- I am writing this the day before the balloting -- it appears that most Democrats see Gore as Clinton's rightful successor. In all, pace Brooks, Clinton's policy legacy -- within his party and in the nation at large -- is enormous.

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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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.