Does Clinton Matter?
Jack Beatty
Round Two - February 2, 2000

Sean Wilentz's brief is the most spirited defense of Clinton that I have seen, and Wilentz is convincing, within his premises. Clinton is an activist President, both at home and abroad. Just by raising the minimum wage, after its value had fallen sharply during the Reagan-Bush years, Clinton has made a difference for ordinary Americans. But what is the sum of his activism? With all due respect to the laws (and the people helped by them) that Wilentz enumerates in his second paragraph -- the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Brady Act, etc. -- they do not add up to the dimensions of historic achievement. Nor have they even made the discrete difference in American life their supporters claimed for them, as press reports about the toothlessness of the Portability and Accountability Act and the narrow use of the Family and Medical Leave Act suggest. Had Clinton succeeded with his 1993-1994 health-care plan, insuring millions of the uninsured, it would have been a major policy achievement -- enough to crown any Administration -- given the scope of the problem and the degree of political difficulty.

From Post & Riposte:

"Why is Clinton so maligned? Because for the first time in our history, a mass of people who never had the technology to have conversations like the one [we're having] now, are free to inspire or malign whoever they wish, and all of this can be done in the name of the new economy, a process no one understands, nor knows where it goes. (I understand it, it is called FREEDOM). Imagine our take on Reagan and Kennedy if we had the same resources at those moments in history."
--Manjit Syven Birk, "Why is Clinton so maligned?" (02/01)

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In politics Clinton suffered the worst defeat of any Democratic President in the twentieth century -- his party's loss of the House of Representatives, along with the Senate. This defeat has to be balanced against Clinton's "salvaging of American liberalism" when assessing Clinton's political record. And the salvaging is more prediction than fact. Much depends on Al Gore's being elected in November -- until then, the "salvaging of American liberalism" claim awaits evidence that it applies to any other politician beyond Bill Clinton. Some would argue that Clinton redefined (and damaged) liberalism by appealing to suburban voters, for whom, with the help of Dick Morris's stethoscope, Clinton's boutique activism was fashioned.

Perhaps Wilentz is right about the Clinton years not being a propitious time for LBJ-style change. So the standard of achievement I'm implicitly using is unfair to Clinton, no? I accept some of that criticism. But still, were the nineties really such a bad time for ambitious policy? As late as August, 1994, polls showed that around 80 percent of Americans were still in favor of the major premise of Clintoncare -- universal coverage. This doesn't fit with the times-would-only-allow-small-measures (and gestures) argument. That summer the Massachusetts political strategist John Sasso told me that if a politician can't succeed when 80 percent of the people are behind him on the essential point of his program, then something is wanting in the politician. He is hoarding his political capital, seeking a riskless unanimity.

David Brooks puts his finger on what many Americans have come to dislike in Bill Clinton -- the bullshit. Last week on C-Span, voters at a Manchester, New Hampshire, bowling alley were asked what they want in the next President. They said they're looking for someone who does not habitually lie to them, who does not stonewall or spin, someone of strong character. They thought Clinton was doing a good job, basically, but did not trust him. This complex judgment is more in accord with the gray of reality than Wilentz's one-eyed take.

I like David Corn's subtle point that, even in fights where he lost, Clinton helped "alter the terms of debate" about, for example, the gun lobby, the cigarette makers, and, I'd add, welfare. But, again, was this altering Clinton-specific and part of his successful suburban strategy? We await evidence.

I agree with pretty much everything in Corn's indictment, yet I still don't regret my two votes for Clinton. He showed that the Democrats can steer the economy to prosperity without triggering inflation, as Johnson failed to do in the 1960s and Carter, in a different way, in the 1970s. This used to be the GOP's big issue: managing the economy. No more. I was one of those who wanted Clinton to follow Robert Reich's blueprint Putting People First after he won in 1992. I see now that my economics were all wrong; they were untested Keynesian dogma. Like it or not, this is a big-business economy with a tested orthodoxy: win business confidence by naming an investment banker as Secretary of the Treasury; keep interest rates low by moving to erase the budget deficit; support free trade -- but no monkey business about labor rights in the Third World (Clinton looks to be changing on that); reappoint Alan Greenspan; continue deregulating the economy; raise income taxes and payroll taxes, not taxes on the corporation. That is how the business system works. It does not produce all the results for ordinary Americans that we'd like, but it keeps them in jobs and creates opportunities for their children and the unemployed. At the end of the day, isn't that what we all want?

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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Jack BeattyJack Beatty is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly and the author of, most recently, The World According to Peter Drucker (1997).

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