Does Clinton Matter?
David Corn
Round Two - February 2, 2000

Perhaps we ought to praise Bill Clinton for uniting the left and the right -- in mutual disgust of the President. The job of defending him in this roundtable falls to the champion of the slightly left of center, who begins his argument with enemy-of-my-enemy reasoning. The right, Wilentz reminds us, pursued Clinton relentlessly. Thus, Clinton must have done something worthwhile. True, Clinton did achieve success with modest liberal-leaning policy initiatives: the half-a-loaf parental leave (with no pay!) measure is a good example of Clintonism. And the Health Insurance Portability Act, a small reform that is meaningful for those Americans to whom it applies, is but a tiny step when one considers that 44 million Americans -- more than ever before -- have no health-insurance coverage.

From Post & Riposte:

"I hear very often that Clinton is a 'liar.' Yet what has he lied about? His personal behavior. Sure we can find maybe a few things, other than his personal behavior, where he might have stretched the truth, but has this been more so than other presidents? Nixon, Reagan, Johnson all lied on matters of state. Had other presidents been made to testify under oath about their personal behavior, would they have told the truth?"
--Frank Mincz, "Why is Clinton so maligned?" (01/30)

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What drove the right nuts was not so much policies like these, but that Clinton also embraced portions of the Republican agenda -- welfare reform, for instance. Conservatives believed Clinton was, at his core, a dope-smoking, McGovernik, sixties leftover who may even have been a Soviet sleeper-agent (certainly his wife was a closet commie!). And this guy had the nerve to talk tough on crime, advocating frying criminals? To pronounce himself the king of welfare reform? A budget-balancer? And, in the wake of the Republican congressional victory in 1994, the foe of big government? So Wilentz is half-right: conservatives were no fans of Clinton's liberalish policy initiatives, but they loathed his expropriation of their issues. Call it Clinton-envy.

Clinton's critics on the left -- count me in -- were offended by his willingness to trade values for political gains. Early in his first Administration Clinton's methodology stirred me to recall a lesson from high school biology. He was, I realized, a phagocyte: that's a cell that surrounds a hostile cell and absorbs it, taking on some of its characteristics but neutralizing the threat. Wilentz cheers Clinton's welfare-reform maneuvers, maintaining that passage of this measure made "federal action respectable once more." I'm no fan of polls, but I would like to see a pollster ask Americans if they have more trust in the federal government now owing to that action. Moreover, while welfare rolls are thinner at the moment, the data regarding what has happened to the former beneficiaries remain sketchy. And the final judgment on welfare reform should be withheld until the next economic downturn. But what is clear is that Clinton, by pushing welfare reform as a priority, reinforced the Republican attempt to define the poverty problem in America as a welfare problem. In the meantime, nearly one out of five children in this prospering nation of Internet millionaires and online day-traders still live in poverty. Where's Clinton's response to that sad reality?

Yes, hail Clinton the savior of liberalism. But why does Wilentz the historian ignore all the sleazy fundraising practices of this great President? Never before has special-interest money so flooded and poisoned the political system, threatening our democracy. Clinton's pioneering ways have led to a presidential campaign in which George W. Bush and the Republicans will spend hundreds of millions of dollars -- much of it raised from corporate sources -- to win the White House. The Democrats, of course, will try to keep up. Why does Wilentz compliment Clinton for Haiti and Kosovo and not mention Rwanda or Clinton's arguably illegal use of force in Sudan? What about Clinton's pointless expansion of NATO -- a policy that has made arms control with the Russians far more difficult? And why does Wilentz let Clinton off easy on trade? With his capital uber alles position, Clinton has more in common with the corporatists of the GOP than the mainstream Democratic constituencies. And why does Wilentz give Clinton a pass on global warming? Clinton's minimalist policies could end up being cited by future historians -- who may well be living in an era of disappearing coastlines, spreading tropical diseases, and accelerated species eradication -- as the most signficant mistake ever made by a U.S. President. Why does Wilentz ignore all this? Because Clinton angered the right. Granted, it is hyperbolic to say the following -- hey, this is a cyberforum -- but Wilentz's position reminds me of one of the best justifications in the historical record: we had to burn the village to save it. Clinton may have rescued liberalism, but at an ugly price.

My colleague David Brooks -- we often appear on radio shows together -- speaks of Clinton as if Clinton invented spin. The President indeed has been a skilled practitioner of the scoundrel's craft and, as I previously noted, has contributed to the debasement of the political culture. But please, do not overlook the contributions of the Reagan-Bush crowd. (The leaders of those Administrations lied about Iran-contra and so many other matters. The Reagan White House tried to cut a secret deal with drug-thug Manuel Noriega of Panama. Even Colin Powell misled congressional investigators about the Iran initiative, once it had been revealed.) And then there was Newt Gingrich, who was having a fling with a congressional aide while leading a family-values crusade. Worse, he and Representative Tom Delay allowed corporate lobbyists to sit in on legislative drafting sessions -- as long as the lobbyists contributed to the Republican Party. That's more serious than renting out the Lincoln bedroom.

Brooks believes that Clinton's slickness has forced George W. Bush into a "more antipolitical mode." His evidence? Bush's "real life" commercials. Talk about the triumph of spin! And look at the heart of Bush's campaign platform: the tax cut. Bush keeps calling it a tax cut for working-class Americans. But one third of the $1.7 trillion tax cut will go to the top one percent of income-earners (people who make more than $319,000 a year). If Bush ends up convincing voters his tax-cut claim is true, it will be an achievement in political slipperiness that Clinton could appreciate. Clinton lowered the bar for honesty in politics, and, alas, there are many Democrats and Republicans who are happy to crawl in his footsteps.

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

Return to Introduction

What do you think?

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.