The Promise Keeper

At least when it came to campaign pledges, Bill Clinton told the truth

After winning re-election in 1996, President Clinton held a press conference in the East Room. I asked him about a specific campaign promise he had made at the Chicago convention: to virtually eliminate one of America's most hated taxes, the capital-gains tax that people paid when they sold their homes. Did you mean it? I asked Clinton. Will it be in the budget you submit to Congress?

"The answer is yes, my homeowners' exemption, capital-gains exemption, is in the budget," the President replied. He added, "Everything I talked about at Chicago is in the budget."

And so it was. The capital-gains provision went into the budget, stayed there, and became law. And this is emblematic of the most underappreciated legacies of Clinton's presidency: his consistent efforts to follow through—and deliver—on his very many, and quite specific, campaign promises.

In 1992 Clinton vowed to cut the projected annual federal deficit in half during his first term, raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, increase assistance to the working poor under the Earned Income Tax Credit, increase federal spending for worker retraining, greatly expand Head Start, support the North American Free Trade Agreement, beef up the Pell Grant program (which provides assistance to disadvantaged college students), and give all Americans access to "quality, affordable" health care. These things taken together, he promised, would jump-start the economy, which would respond by creating eight million new jobs. The attempt at health-care reform foundered, but in all other respects Clinton did everything he said he would, and the economy created nearly 11 million new jobs in his first term alone.

Clinton also promised in 1992 to push for a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases, quash regulations that would sharply restrict abortion counseling at health clinics receiving federal funds, use federal money to put 100,000 new police officers on the nation's streets, establish a new youth service corps, personally forge a compromise on logging in the Northwest, sign the Violence Against Women Act, push for campaign-finance reform, and "end welfare as we know it."

Clinton fought for all these things except campaign-finance reform, which he dropped when congressional Democrats balked. The rest are now law. Whatever one thinks of Clinton, or of these policies, it must be pointed out that the Democrats' campaign slogan of 1996, "Promises made, promises kept," has a retrospective ring of truth to it. Sure, one can quibble here and there: The 100,000 cops actually amounted to something closer to 60,000. He vetoed welfare reform twice before signing it, under protest. But many other results exceeded Clinton's promises: The budget deficit wasn't just cut in half; the budget is now in surplus. And whether it was 60,000 cops or 100,000 cops, violent crime decreased markedly year after year on Clinton's watch.

This habit of delivering on his promises continued after the 1996 election. Besides granting capital-gains relief, Clinton vowed that year to set aside vast tracts of pristine land for environmental protection, to increase spending on teaching kids to read by the third grade, to offer working-class American families $1,500 tax credits for college, and to expand Medicare coverage. He delivered on those promises, too, and most likely would have accomplished much more in his second term if not for the chaos of impeachment.

One irony of that fight is that Clinton and his supporters were able to fashion a defense on the ground that whatever the failings of his personal life, Clinton had kept his word to the American people on the issues that mattered to them. It wouldn't have worked if it hadn't been true.

Carl M. Cannon, a correspondent for National Journal, has covered the White House throughout the Clinton Administration.