Clinton's Perverse Legacy

Is Clinton to blame for the Democratic Party's plight?

Listening to Bill Clinton—by turns, charming, shrewd, and wise—speak at the opening of his presidential library in Little Rock last week, brought home anew the gap between his gifts of brain, heart, and speech, and what he made of them as president. In this he compares unfavorably to George W. Bush, who has made more of less (and worse) than any president in modern times.

Clinton was a business cycle president who happened to be in office during a time of innovation-driven prosperity. Clinton's legislative accomplishments are modest—at least to judge by his master criterion: improving the lives of ordinary Americans. Speaking in a heavy rain in front of a library that, he joked, one British critic compared to a double-wide trailer, Clinton singled out two of them, the Family and Medical Leave Act and welfare reform.

They are indeed emblematic legacies. Thanks to Bill Clinton, you can take a leave from your job to deal with a medical emergency in your family—but you won't get paid; the law only requires employers to give you the time off. Welfare reform has yielded some positive results since its enactment in 1996, though most of the jobs filled by welfare recipients pay low wages, offer few benefits, and are likely to disappear in economic downturns, and the effects on children who had to bring themselves up in the absence of their working mothers has yet to be measured. But it misrepresents the historical context for Clinton, as he did in his speech, to bask in the humanitarian glow of a policy choice motivated more by his reelection campaign against Bob Dole than by his compassion for single mothers caught up in welfare dependency. This is a point made eloquently by Peter Edelman, who resigned in protest over Clinton's embrace of a "hard" Republican version of reform, in an Atlantic Monthly cover story entitled, "The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done." With welfare reform, Clinton did not "put people first," as he claimed Thursday; he put Bill Clinton first. Elected in 1992 with barely 43% of the vote, he governed as if the goal to which he was willing to sacrifice all other goals was his political viability. He spent his promise largely on himself.

Clinton may not have left a substantial legislative legacy, but his political legacy is potent. He and Herbert Hoover may be the only presidents whose enduring bequest was to the opposition party. Richard Nixon's self-destruction in Watergate decimated his party in the congressional elections of 1974, the first post-Watergate contest. But that setback was transient, as the GOP resurgence under Reagan would show. Twenty years later Bill Clinton led his party to a more consequential defeat—the loss of the House of Representatives, the center of Democratic power since the New Deal. Clinton failed ordinary Americans, and wounded his party, by not bringing Health Care Reform—his one bid for a major achievement—to a vote, even though the Democrats controlled both branches of Congress. With each election cycle, it becomes clearer and clearer that 1994 was the worst defeat in the history of the world's oldest political party. Unlike the GOP in 1974, the Democrats may never recover from 1994—not today, when congressmen pick the voters through computer-directed gerrymandering, not when Congressional districts are becoming ideological affinity groups, the red districts attracting republicans, the blue districts democrats. So long as right-wing cultural populism is in the ascendant, it is hard to see any red state Congressmen losing their seats to Democrats, especially in the South. As for the Senate—also lost in 1994, regained in 2000, and lost again in 2002—three red-state incumbent Democratic Senators have been defeated in the two elections of the Bush era, and Republicans have replaced five retiring red state Democrats.

In Little Rock, Clinton said he "kept score," and that ordinary Americans were better off when he left than when he entered office. But not for long. Since they don't have "health care that's always there" (because he failed to lead), nothing Clinton did for them can compensate for what the Republican Congress will not do for them. For the twelve years of Reagan-Bush, the minimum wage was not raised; and the GOP Congress did not raise it during Bush's first term, and won't in his second. The working poor lost when the GOP won. The working poor—ordinary Americans who can't afford to take the unpaid family leave that Clinton claims as one of his signature achievements.

The father of the GOP Congress, Clinton also bears condign responsibility for George W. Bush. The Clinton scandals energized the Republican base—and hurt Al Gore with swing voters. As Elaine Karmarck, a former Gore staffer, said last week on the NPR public affairs program On Point, Clinton cost Gore the vote of married women—and the election. Clinton is not so easily blamed for John Kerry's defeat, but Clinton first armed the "morality" issue that played a key role in Bush's victory and that will remain dangerous to Democratic presidential candidates for years to come.

How long will the Democrats travel in the political wilderness? After the election of 1896, they were out of power for twenty-eight of the next thirty-six years. The Republicans failed to shut them out only because they split their vote in 1912 between Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, allowing Woodrow Wilson to win. To re-establish this "system of 1896" is Karl Rove's ambition. Rove's model, Mark Hanna, the brains and money behind William McKinley's defeat of William Jennings Bryan in 1896, devised the strategy that triumphed for the GOP in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1920, 1924, and 1928. Through all those years, the Democrats were culturally unacceptable to today's Blue state electorate—too radical, too Southern, too wet. Protestant Fundamentalists on one side, Irish Catholics on the other. It took the Depression to end the GOP hegemony then, and may take another one today.

The perversity of Clinton's legacy raises the suspicion that the Clinton presidency itself was the "vast right-wing conspiracy."