Decision No. 2 looks good in retrospect. Decision No. 1 doesn’t, given what a mess Afghanistan remains. Decisions Nos. 3 and 4 remain arguable, at least to me. Either way, Panetta’s brief acknowledgment that on certain issues he and Clinton agreed—without virtually any details about the way she argued her case inside the administration, the way she swayed foreign leaders and publics to America’s side or the way she viewed the world—hardly substantiates the over-the-top adjectives he showers on her.
When it comes to Clinton’s time as first lady, the incongruity grows even greater. As Panetta notes gingerly in Worthy Fights, he and Hillary disagreed on the two most important economic questions of Bill Clinton’s first term: whether to prioritize reducing the budget deficit or stimulating the economy, and how hard to push for health-care reform.
As budget director and then White House chief of staff, Panetta was among the Clinton administration’s staunchest deficit hawks. Hillary, by contrast, “picked at our economic program, asking why there wasn’t more room for health care reform and other initiatives” that Panetta considered too costly. Once Clinton’s first budget passed, Panetta “thought we should move welfare first” while “Hillary demanded that we … not relegate health care to the back burner again.” Throughout the health-care fight, Panetta acknowledges, he and the first lady “were on opposite sides” and “she vented her frustration about me.” For his part, Panetta calls the “health care team” that Hillary led “painfully naïve about politics.”
Panetta’s description of his tangles with Clinton over domestic policy in the White House years are actually more detailed than his description of their agreements on foreign policy in the Obama years. What’s more, the historical verdict is far clearer. It is now Beltway conventional wisdom that the Clinton administration’s decision to emphasize deficit reduction in its initial budget helped pave the way for the economic boom of the late 1990s and restored the Democratic Party’s reputation for fiscal responsibility. It’s also conventional wisdom that the administration’s decision to push for health-care reform rather than welfare reform in 1994 undermined Bill Clinton’s centrist reputation and helped enable the Gingrich takeover of Congress that fall.
Given that Hillary Clinton’s role in the push for health-care reform remains the most significant domestic-policy episode of her career, one might have thought it would inform Panetta’s judgment of her. But he never factors it into his overall assessment of Hillary’s presidential fitness—either in the book or the book tour. And as a result, the press has ignored Panetta’s description of the episode almost entirely.
You can’t blame Panetta too much for this. Like most former administration officials, he’s trying to both vindicate his own actions and stay on the right side of powerful people (which means Hillary, the prospective president, more than Obama, the soon-to-be-former one).
Under normal circumstances, it would be a tricky balance. But it’s a lot easier when so many in the media feel entitled to sum up a book they haven’t actually read it.