Does Clinton Matter?
David Corn
Round One - January 26, 2000

Jack Beatty has convinced me: the election of 1992 was unnecessary. The similarities between Bill Clinton and George Bush are greater than the differences. Still, there are a few differences that do matter for working Americans. Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act that Bush spurned. (The United States, however, lags far behind many European nations that offer paid leaves.) Clinton also succeeded in expanding the earned-income tax credit for the working poor and making income-tax rates slightly more progressive. He hung tough on abortion rights -- though reliable sources tell me he nearly caved during the late-term abortion fight. By taking on the gun lobby and big tobacco, he has helped alter the terms of debate regarding these hot-button issues, even if he did not achieve extensive legislation in these areas.

From Post & Riposte:

"When one considers Clinton, one must consider the unprecedented assault on him personally and politically. Corn would serve the left better if he would spend some time looking at the extreme opposition to anything Clinton has done. If I understand his essay, we should despise Clinton because he didn't defeat the GOP-friendly business interests that set out to destroy his health plan. Get real, David."
--Adam Hirschfelder, "David Corn" (01/27)

What do you think? Join the conversation.

But Clinton has spent much of his presidency perfecting a skill prevalent among our politicians: the ability to double-talk. Perhaps he has been even more talented in this regard than his read-my-lips predecessor. Candidate Clinton promised to push for political reform in Washington. During his first inauguration speech he proclaimed, "Let us resolve to reform our politics, so that power and privilege no longer shout down the voice of the people." Then he went on to master the special-interest money game better than anyone. With the help of Dick Morris and other political mercenaries, Clinton obscenely exploited the soft-money loophole -- using White House coffees and Lincoln bedroom sleepovers to do so -- and violated the fundamental spirit of campaign-finance law. Sure, he kept claiming he supported campaign-finance reform legislation, but he never treated it as a priority. And he surrounded himself with Washington fixers, like Vernon Jordan, who were not in favor of changing the pay-to-play status quo in Washington, which generally favors corporate interests over the public interest.

During the 1992 campaign Clinton charged Bush with coddling China's dictators. He then adopted a China policy indistinguishable from Bush's. He said he would support the NAFTA accord only if there were labor and environmental side agreements. Yet these side agreements turned out to be of little use. He botched health-care reform when he and Hillary Rodham Clinton decided they had to concoct a plan that might win the support of the business community, particularly the insurance industry. This led them to cobble up a package incomprehensible to anyone but an expert in the field. And, of course, the business community then told them to get lost. The Clintons' failure poisoned the atmosphere for further attempts at comprehensive reform. Since then the number of Americans without health insurance has grown by millions, and currently stands at about 44 million. (This week, Clinton finally proposed a ten-year $110 billion plan to cover 4 million low-income adults.) Clinton threw money at the Pentagon as if he were compensating for his highly publicized lack of military service. The Reagan-Bush Administration lied about the Iran-Contra scandal; Clinton's national security team lied about the missile attack launched against the pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. Clinton declared that he was going to make racial reconciliation a top cause of his second term. Then he allowed his race initiative to languish.

With Clinton there are multiple disappointments -- often they are betrayals -- to keep in mind. Remember Lani Guinier? That episode showed that he does not stand by his supporters and allies. Ask any Democrat on the Hill about his triangulating ways. Even when the fate of the planet is at stake, he waffles. Clinton has accepted the science that demonstrates there is a severe threat posed by human-induced global warming. But the proposals he has presented as remedies -- which were crafted with the assistance of Vice President Al Gore -- fall ridiculously short of the measures that scientists say are required. Perhaps his most tragic betrayal was that of history. In 1998, in the midst of a certain set of troubles, Clinton visited Rwanda, which had been the site of a horrible genocide in 1994, and offered a faux mea-culpa. "All over the world," he said, "there were people like me sitting in offices who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror." In other words, Clinton did nothing in 1994 because he had not known enough. That was false. At the time, the massive slaughtering that was occurring in Rwanda was no secret. It was in the media, and, presumably, was being reported by the CIA and the State Department. Human-rights advocates were beseeching the White House to act. It was loathsome for Clinton to suggest that he did not respond because he was not sufficiently informed. This apology mixed his famous feel-your-pain empathy with craven disingenuousness.

Clinton has been a waverer. When the Republicans gained control of Congress in the 1994 elections, he declared himself a "I hate big government too" politician. But after the House Democrats began to find traction by challenging the Republican assaults on education funding, environmental standards, Medicare, and Medicaid, Clinton was delighted to rush to the front to lead the charge.

With his policy prevarications and all-for-me politics, Clinton has debased the national political discourse, pushing it below the low standing it held when he took office. And this conclusion can be drawn without even venturing into that nasty business about you-know-what. So, in that sense, he has made a difference. Furthermore, in assessing Clinton partisan Democrats can look to his impact on the party. When he was inaugurated in 1993, the Democrats outnumbered the Republicans 258 to 176 in the House and 56 to 44 in the Senate. Now his party is in the minority.

As have most outgoing Presidents, Clinton has partly set the agenda for the election of his successor. It's clear that authenticity and trustworthiness are in some demand after eight years of Clintonian slickness. (Whether any of the candidates are offering the real stuff is a topic for a whole other forum.) And Clinton's successful political use of certain issues -- education, especially -- has shaped the political landscape for his would-be successors. Ultimately, his lasting legacy may be demonstrating just how much a single politician can get away with.

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

David CornDavid Corn, Washington editor of The Nation, is the author of Deep Background, a novel of political suspense.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Corn photograph by Ralph Alswang.