A Man For This Season

Bill Clinton has presided over the longest period of economic expansion in American history--whether by design or default, whether by strategic appointments to critical government agencies or by caving in to the private sector, whether by fine-tuning fiscal policy or by getting out of the way. During the years of the Clinton administration, the U.S. gross domestic product has increased roughly 37 percent after adjusting for inflation, 13 million new jobs have been created, and the GDP for the private sector alone has risen approximately 41 percent.

Wages are up, median household income at $38,000 a year has reached an all-time high, the overall poverty rate is down to 12.7 percent (a historic achievement), and unemployment is at its lowest point in three decades. The net worth--the value of real estate, stocks, bonds, and other assets-- of the typical (median) family has increased dramatically. At the same time, while the largest budget deficit of the twentieth century was $290.4 billion in 1992, the U.S. government was running a $9.5-billion surplus in 1999.

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Clinton has, in addition, overseen--or his tenure has coincided with--an era of cultural stabilization, a decline in the rates of violent crime, a leveling off of troubling social trends (single motherhood, teen pregnancy, worklessness), and a stark drop in the numbers of those dependent on welfare. Racial conflict has been muted, and racially freighted issues (affirmative action, quotas, etc.) have lost some of their divisive power. Clinton himself, while teetering on the precipice of the sexual revolution, has preserved (to date) his long and long-suffering marriage, and has supported his wife's aspirations to win a U.S. Senate seat--and this at a time when half of all American marriages end in divorce.

The Democratic Party, which had failed to win the White House in all but one of the six elections before Clinton's--and which, as recently as 1988, was seen by many voters as mired in "transgressive" social values, as economically incompetent, as impeding wealth generation, and as subversive of the biracial coalition essential to a politics of the left-- has regained its competitive status. Clinton won re-election in 1996 by a decisive margin; the Democrats picked up six seats in the 1998 midterm elections, despite the ongoing impeachment proceedings; and the 2000 contests for the White House and for control of the House of Representatives are expected to be close. And the new class of information technology millionaires includes many donors to Democratic candidates--challenging the historic monopoly of the GOP on the loyalties of the very rich.

The country is at peace and has contributed to the brokering of reduced hostilities in Ireland, the Balkans, and the Mideast. The eight years of the Clinton presidency have seen America reassert global dominance amidst an electronic revolution in a world moving forward at breakneck speed.

It is implausible to argue that this record represents the fundamental failure of centrism. Such evidence notwithstanding, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James MacGregor Burns and University of Maryland scholar Georgia J. Sorenson contend that the Clinton presidency has been a fiasco and that this fiasco stems from Clinton's repudiation of the progres-sive American tradition, a tradition they believe requires addressing inequality and injustice head-on, not through trickle-down economics or through reliance on overflow from the prosperity of the entrepreneurial or capitalist stratum above.

Dead Center is an exceptionally informative and well-researched book, full of detailed reporting, and the first to seriously evaluate the successes and failures of the Clinton administration. Its central accusation, however--that Clinton sought to be a transformative president in the tradition of Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt, but was doomed from the start by his own commitment to a centrist strategy--neither gives Clinton credit for his achievements nor conveys the rocky road toward "centrism" that has characterized the Clinton years.

In the authors' view, the political center is a dead place from which to achieve greatness as a president: "[C]entrists can deal and bargain and transact from the center; they can gain incremental changes from the center; they cannot truly lead and transform from the center." The center is a "flaccid" place from which to govern. The Clinton strategy, in the Burns-Sorenson analysis, effectively rules out "transcending commitment or high moral leadership. It merely requires splitting the difference."

The implication that "centrism" appeared full-blown at the dawn of the Clinton years, a coherent and fully developed doctrine, misses both the nature of the historical moment in which Clinton operated and the provisional aspect of Clinton's adjustments and concessions. As Clinton was forced to navigate the ambivalent views of the American electorate on matters of cultural liberalism, he tacked and jibed, inventing, on the run, a series of compromises.

On social/moral matters--to the extent that mainstream American voters enjoyed, and were reluctant to give up, the freedoms sprouting in the wake of the countercultural move-ments of the 1960s and the 1970s--Clinton was pressed to avoid the puritanical tone of cultural conservatives. But as mainstream voters began in increasing numbers to encounter the human debris--the children and families strewn in the wake of these revolutions--Clinton was forced to reach for a note of moral retrenchment. Much of this was done in symbolic terms, with calls for increased prayer, for example, or the invocation of "families" and "children" and "responsibilities." This was a difficult gap to straddle, and to some extent Clinton did it by displaying the moral contradictions in his own irresolute persona, by saying one thing and doing another, and by demonstrating a certain ruthless willingness to inflict harm on vulnerable individuals and groups.

Similarly, Clinton was called upon to campaign and govern at a moment immediately following the collapse of the world's communist governments--and, indeed, of the entire socialist world view. This collapse constituted a body blow to the economic theories of democratic socialism and represented a critical challenge to the American progressive movement. One key implication of the 1989 revolution in Central and Eastern Europe was that leftists--Democrats, social Democrats, and those further to the left--had an inadequate technical understanding of how to deploy government effectively in modern postindustrial economies, of how competition, markets, incentives and disincentives, tax policy, monetary policy, interest rates, regulatory directives, and so forth interact with government initiatives and strategies to foster or hinder the generation of wealth. This implication has hurt parties of the left everywhere in the world and, again, created a unique challenge for Clinton and his economic policy team.

The Democratic Party under Clinton has come a long way in winning the trust of the public in the competence of a center-left administration to leverage and manipulate economic forces, and to engage with the business sector so as to foster technological innovation and prosperity. The stunning rate of economic growth the Clinton administration has achieved (or failed to derail) has led to immeasurably improved circumstances for large numbers of people, including many of the less well-off, despite the fact that the gap between rich and poor has grown. The drop in the jobless rate alone has alleviated untold misery.

Clinton's first presidential campaign staked out a clearly revisionist posture vis-à-vis liberal orthodoxy. He repudiated traditional Democratic taxand-spend strategies, rejecting "the old notion that there's a program for every problem," forswearing "the big government theory that says we can hamstring business and tax and spend our way to prosperity." He stressed the themes of productivity, investment, and deficit reduction. Clinton actively advertised himself as "a new generation of Democrat"--promoting his record of economic growth and fiscal restraint during three terms as governor of Arkansas, "12 balanced budgets," and promising, if elected, to "cut $140 billion in wasteful spending."

Throughout the 1992 race, Clinton's rhetoric was laced with the cadence and vernacular of conservative religiosity--"opportunity, responsibility, community, work, family, and faith." Clinton called for an acknowledgment of both rights and responsibilities, a tough "new covenant" and "an end to welfare as we know it, so welfare can be a second chance, not a way of life," seeking to reverse the tide of father absence ("I do want to say something to the fathers in this country who have chosen to abandon their children by neglecting their child support: Take responsibility for your children or we will force you to do so.").

Campaigning as a moderate southern governor, Clinton supported the death penalty and lock-'em-up, zero-tolerance policies toward criminals, eagerly positioning himself in a blue sea of police officers, pushing away Jesse Jackson. But there was also a popu-list economic dimension to Clinton's platform: Those who played by the rules should be paid enough to be kept out of poverty and should have health coverage that could "never be taken away." Combining cultural conserva-tism with economic populism--an approach built on an understanding of the tactical errors of the liberal candidates who had gone down in flames before him--Clinton in 1992 stemmed the exodus of white males from the Democratic Party and won the White House with the smallest gender gap since 1980.

All this implied a grasp of the ideological content of centrism--what it would take not only to be elected, but to form an effective governing coalition, with public support sufficient to forge policies essential to economic growth, Clinton's avowed goal. Once in the White House, however, Clinton abruptly reversed course on cultural issues, swayed by his own generally libertarian inclinations and persuaded as well by those liberal interest groups that had been toiling in the wilderness for 12 years.

Interest-group pressures were amplified by the personal convictions of the president's wife and their circle of friends, many from the progressive movements of the past two decades. In the face of pent-up demand from the women's movement, the civil rights community, gay activists, and the liberal intelligentsia, Clinton tacked sharply toward the left.

Less certain of "the middle way" than Burns and Sorenson imagine, Clinton acceded to the Democratic Party's most culturally progressive wing in the first days of his administration. He lifted by executive order the gag rules on abortion clinics that had been imposed in the Reagan era; made good on his campaign promise to admit homosexuals into the military; appointed women and minorities to his cabinet in a process in which the principle of diversity appeared to supersede policy goals (although arguably not to those posts he saw as critical to his economic agenda); and put his wife (now very publicly resuming her maiden name) in charge of an alarmingly large (to many Americans) overhaul of the health care system.

Burns and Sorenson argue that Clinton ought to have tacked even further left, and although their evidence contradicts their own conclusions, they provide some fascinating detail. An account of a "secret Camp David retreat of senior staff members" held shortly after the 1992 election victory is instructive. At the session, the question arose of how the newly elected administration should deal with the "southern, white, male, blue-collar voters who were so problematic" for the Democrats. Bill Clinton argued: "Those bubbas, I grew up with them. I understand them. I know what they're going through. We can't win this thing unless the bubbas are respected too." Hillary Clinton sharply disagreed, declaring: "Screw them. Let's move on."

Without oversimplifying, a "screw 'em" message was in fact conveyed to many moderate voters by the end of Clinton's first 1,000 days, reflecting Clinton's own insulation from the social universe he had read so astutely as a candidate, and indicating the political ineptness of the "playpen," as his neophytic entourage in the early White House was commonly called.

With each of its early socially liberal proposals, the Clinton administration lost credibility. From the perspective of many mainstream voters, Clinton was throwing kerosene on the flames of the culture wars. His nose for politics and for what would sell failed him. Blinded by his own electoral achievement, Clinton's early lapses on cultural matters seemed unnecessarily ham-handed. The contamination of scandal (Whitewater, Travelgate, Gennifer Flowers, Vince Foster, etc.) additionally contributed to what ultimately became the contamination of all of his early initiatives--the economic stimulus bill, the gasoline tax, deficit reduction, aid to the cities, childhood immunization, and the 1994 crime bill--not least by giving his numerous enemies (now fortified with access to 24-hour conservative talk radio) an opening.

By this measure, it is Clinton's squandering of his fragile winning coali-tion, his aggravation of polarizing issues in the first years of his administration, his delay in returning to centrism, that bears explaining. He failed to see that his initiatives would revive the pounding Democrats had been taking for 25 years on "family values"--Nannygate, for example, or the appointment of Jocelyn Elders as surgeon general, or the issue of expanded homosexual rights. He failed, through inattention or bad staff advice, to compute accurately the consequences of an alliance between the health insurance industry and frightened Americans who feared the downgrading of their medical benefits. He failed to grasp the distrust engendered by the routine experiences of Americans as they interacted with their government--the interminable lines, the unanswered phones, and the sullen service. He underestimated, as well, the efficacy of his political enemies in portraying his gasoline tax and, particularly, the raising of rates on the rich (crucial, arguably, to his long-term economic success) as generic "tax hikes." These missteps, among many others, had a devastating cumulative impact.

When Clinton was campaigning, he said he wished to be judged on the economic performance of his administration. As he put it: "The most important family policy, urban policy, labor policy, minority policy, and foreign policy America can have is an expanding, entrepreneurial economy of high-skill, high-wage jobs... . If you don't grow the economy, you can't get it done." And Clinton argued that certain economic initiatives seen by progressives as most clearly "swerving to the right" were, in fact, essen-tial to achievement of the administration's economic goals: deficit reduction and establishment of a broader open trade agreement. To that end, in 1993, Clinton deployed his considerable political skills to secure passage of a $500-billion deficit reduction plan and, in 1994, to push through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and ratification of the Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, establishing the World Trade Organization--policies he and his economic team deemed essential for long-term economic growth.

These measures, complex economic initiatives with diffuse and far-reaching ramifications, made little immediate impres-sion on the electorate at large, and there was a substantial lag between their implementation and any political rewards. Indeed, NAFTA was viewed by millions of trade unionists as pie in the sky, and Clinton failed to persuade them that the future promises of "free trade" were worth the sacrifice of their jobs, houses, and security today. By 1994 the threat of hemorrhaging jobs was uppermost in the minds of many workers, and the memory of Clinton's early cultural missteps was fresh. All of this extracted a price, and in the midterm elections, the Republican Party took control of the Senate and the House. Many of Clinton's 1992 supporters switched their loyalties back to the GOP. Consistent with the "screw 'em" strategy, angry white men once again deserted the Democratic Party in droves. The share of high school-educated white men voting for Democratic congressional candidates fell from 57 percent in 1990 to 37 percent in 1994, a huge drop.

The Republican victories forced the debate sharply to the right. Paradoxically, this opened up an opportunity for Clinton to resume the pragmatist's mantle and to shift emphasis to a range of new centrist initiatives. Clinton displayed an opportunist's skill in capitalizing on public wariness of Gingrich's Republican Revolution with its objective of radically whittling down government. At a time when antigovernment bomber Timothy McVeigh had terrified the country, the strident rhetoric of GOP leadership began to be seen as less than reassuring. In October 1995, Gingrich and the GOP leadership twice forced a shutdown of the federal government, closing national parks, passport offices, and the Veterans Administration, and threatening Medicare, Medicaid, and a raft of other vital government services. Clinton played his hand masterfully, orchestrating the public relations battle as Americans saw just what it was to live without a functioning government. Clinton not only understood, at some intuitive level, the self-destructive forces within the brand of conservatism that had emerged in full force in 1994; he knew how to put those forces onto public display.

Now all the pieces started to come together. By 1996, his earlier economic initiatives bore fruit: The budget deficit had declined three years in a row and, relative to the size of the economy, was the smallest since 1979. The unemployment rate averaged 5.6 percent, down from 7.1 percent when Clinton took office. Between 1992 and 1996, American employers had added more than eight million payroll jobs; consumer prices rose 2.5 percent in 1995, the second-smallest increase in three decades. Long-term interest rates were well below their January 1993 levels, with home mortgage rates low enough to provoke a flood of refinancings. Perhaps most important, private business investment boomed. Stock prices, benefiting from strong corporate earnings growth and low long-term interest rates, had risen almost 75 percent since Clinton's inauguration.

Clinton now seemed to move from success to success. Welfare reform, which represented a sharp swerve to the right for the Democratic Party, was pushed through in 1996. Without economic growth, welfare reform would have been an unmitigated disaster; with it, even as suffering increased in some quarters, countless recipients moved from hopelessness to employment and upward mobility. In 1996 Clinton was re-elected, carrying or substantially narrowing the traditional Republican advantage in key suburban districts, using campaign themes targeted, in particular, at suburban women.

It was Clinton's fate--his tragic or comic flaw--to run his ship aground, again, on the shoals of sex. What gays in the military could not accomplish, Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey, did. Once more, Clinton squandered a priceless opportunity. His economic achievements will almost certainly gather less credit than they deserve in light of the carnival of his private life, and as a model of governance his administration will always provoke snickers. Nonetheless, while Clinton may have moved the electorate to new levels of cynicism and indifference, he has also left a template for center-left political success.

In the aftermath of impeachment, Clinton has taken command of much of the legislative agenda, and with that power he has pressed for a significant expansion of the role of government. He has won approval of spending for the hiring of 100,000 teachers over the next six years and for the hiring of 50,000 more police officers by 2005; he has increased the number of housing vouchers for working families as well as the amount of research money for the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation to explore disease control; and he has pushed for and won general public support for patients' bill of rights legislation. In the early weeks of 2000, boosting the left credentials of his wife in the New York Senate race, and of Gore fighting in the Democratic primaries, Clinton proposed a $15-billion investment in school facilities, accompanied by tougher requirements for teacher performance; the largest funding increase ever for Head Start and resources to double the num-ber of charter schools; rent subsidies for 110,000 more working families; expanded tax credits for child care; individual retirement accounts for low- and moderate-income persons; an expansion of Medicare to provide prescription drug coverage; a $31-billion package in tax credits and financial aid to help families with college tuition; a 10 year, $110-billion plan to expand health care to the uninsured (the biggest federal increase in health coverage in 35 years); an additional $2.7-billion health insurance initiative to sign up more children; an increase of $1 billion for biomedical research; a major initiative to promote scientific research in health care, information technology, and supercomputers; expanded tax credits to businesses that invest in the country's poorest areas; a $2-billion increase in the program of tax credits for the working poor; $1.3 billion in subsidies to help farmers in Iowa and other midwestern states; a doubling of the $1.5 billion that the federal government spends annually on farm conservation; a two-year, $1.3-billion aid program aimed at damming the flow of cocaine and heroin into this country; an increase in housing allowances for members of the military; a substantial tax cut targeted primarily at the middle class; and $280 million in new spending to enforce existing gun control laws. While each of Clinton's initiatives and proposals could singly be called modest, collectively they represent a major enlargement of government.

The very existence of such an agenda, and the fact that the Republican Party is now forced to embrace "compassionate conservatism" and to debate issues it has historically ignored, such as education and health care, suggests that Clinton has been effective in stemming the erosion of confidence both in government as a whole and in the Democratic Party in particular.

Could he have done more? Clinton's legacy is likely to be debated without end. For committed progressives such as Burns and Sorenson, Clinton's failure to directly address social and economic inequalities will mar his record. The gap between rich and poor has grown to extraordinary proportions, largely because of the increasing wealth of the rich. A cyber-barrier has sprung up over the past eight years--a divide between those who are computer literate and those who are not. For those most concerned with race, Clinton's muchheralded presidential commission lacked both substantial presidential commitment and political will. The women's rights movement has arguably been set back by the compromises Clinton forced on it in the course of his sexual harassment defense in the Paula Jones case and his impeachment trial, as well as by his flagrantly humiliating treatment of individual women. At the same time, his appointments of women--to cabinet positions, to the Supreme Court, and in the military--have been, from a progressive standpoint, exemplary.

Men have been unexpected beneficiaries of the Clinton era, particularly men with strong scientific, technical, and quantitative skills. As the principals of the technology boom and the driving entrepreneurial force of the information era, men are positioned to benefit in every way from the burgeoning economic and imaginative opportunities of the new century. Opportunity for men has never been as great as it is today, and the constraints have never been as minimal. As well, a rising tide can be seen as lifting many boats. With his particular brand of gritty persistence--exemplified by his vow, at the height of the impeachment trial, to serve "until the last hour of the last day" of his term--Clinton will be a tough act to follow.

While the full impact of Clinton's eight years in the White House cannot yet be judged, one cannot live in Washington without being struck by the animosity and feeling of betrayal that Clinton has engendered among many of those who were once his fierce partisans. It is perhaps this aspect of Clinton's failure as a leader that Burns and Sorenson most successfully evoke. Clinton is widely viewed as lacking honor, wisdom, moral cohesion, or integrity--as guided not by principle, but by a salesman's instinct for what the electorate will buy. Nonetheless, his flexibility and malleability have made him an unusually apt cobbler of solutions, centrist and otherwise. Perhaps, in that regard, he is "the leader we deserve"--an unusually good fit for our times. ¤