A Consequential Presidency

tags: Bill Clinton

David Greenberg, a professor of history at Rutgers University, is the author, most recently, of Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency. He is a contributing editor to Politico and tweets at @republicofspin.

... In Bill Clinton, [journalist Michael] Tomasky doesn’t advance any penetrating new thesis about his subject. But his clear-headed judgments, his ability to assess Clinton critically, even at times harshly, but always fairly, is itself something of a novelty in a literature dominated by shrill polemics and wagon-circling defensiveness. Tomasky opens and closes with the theme that Bill Clinton was a survivor. He was subjected to a battering that was close to unprecedented in the annals of the American presidency, yet he was reelected handily in 1996 and left office in 2001 with the highest public approval ratings of any departing president since polling began. The survivor theme is basically a framing device for Tomasky’s narrative that doesn’t entirely do justice to Clinton’s historic achievements, even though as a substantive matter, Tomasky doesn’t neglect those attainments.

That said, Tomasky salts his book with important and profound insights that can be understood as key themes of the book, even if he doesn’t flag them as such. One of them, floated toward the book’s end, is that “Bill Clinton rescued the party from permanent minority status.” From 1972 to 1988, the Democrats had lost every presidential election—in landslides—save one: the victory eked out in 1976 by Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford. And that occurred immediately after Watergate, when the Republican Party was at a historic nadir. By the end of Clinton’s presidency, on the other hand, the Democrats were, if not the majority party again, at least on parity with the GOP. Issues that had been liabilities—economic management, fiscal responsibility, foreign policy, crime, welfare, cultural issues—Clinton had neutralized or turned into Democratic advantages. In the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush was the first Republican in forty years not to run on a program mainly of scaling back government.

Tomasky explores the rocky road Clinton traveled to implementing a “Third Way” agenda that, though progressive and pragmatic, was also heterodox and on occasion upsetting to traditional liberal groups. Tomasky re-situates some of Clinton’s most controversial enterprises in their proper context, reminding readers that the final bills signed weren’t pure expressions of Clinton’s own philosophy but reflected compromises he was forced to make with a hostile Congress led by Newt Gingrich.

The 1994 crime bill, for instance, was far from an act of capitulation to the right. It was a flawed but effective package of reforms that contributed to a spectacular drop in violent crime. That drop saved tens of thousands of lives, greatly enhanced the quality of life for citizens of all races and backgrounds, and made possible a rejuvenation of American cities that was unimaginable just a decade of earlier. It also continued (but did not create) a trend toward greater incarceration of criminals that is now widely seen as excessive. But at a time when, as Tomasky reminds us, there were 23,000 murders a year, failing to address the issue would have been derelict.

Moreover, the bill, which had broad bipartisan support, included lots of liberal solutions that Clinton pushed. These included an assault weapons ban, support for community policing, and the Violence Against Women Act. The more punitive measures, to which Clinton (and other Democrats, like Bernie Sanders) acquiesced, were insisted upon by Republicans. Ironically, it was Clinton’s resolve to include the assault weapons ban—coming as it did after the passage of the Brady Bill—that, among other factors, cost Democrats control of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections. ...

Read entire article at Washington Monthly

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