Yesterday, I mused about the Democratic Party's ongoing love affair with Bill Clinton and his presidency. This morning I want to talk about the great paradox at the heart of that infatuation. Simply put, the secret to Clinton's success was, in large part, his betrayal of bedrock Democratic principles dating back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. Despite the right-wing's bizarre insistence that our 42nd president was some sort of postmodern socialist (as well as a rapist, drug runner, and murderer), Clinton's actual record was not even recognizably liberal.
When Ronald Reagan was first elected president in 1980, he brought with him a Republican Senate and a working conservative majority in the House of Representatives. It was the culmination of a twenty-year battle for the soul of the Republican Party, and the most soulless elements had finally prevailed. In addition to lusting for a reinvigorated Cold War, the Reaganites also proposed an audacious domestic agenda that represented nothing less than the rollback of forty years of progressive government. They spoke of crippling the power of organized labor, creating punitive roadblocks for welfare recipients, and balancing the federal budget regardless of the sacrifice required.
Twelve years later, the Reagan Revolution was a shambles. The Soviet Union had imploded, and while the Republicans quickly worked to seize credit for this historical inevitability, the loss of the U.S.S.R. deprived them of their most salient issue and single unifying cause. Domestically, things were even worse. By 1990, Reaganomics had been unmasked as a fraud, and massive budget deficits and economic stagnation had finally forced George H.W. Bush to break the only significant promise he had ever made by asking Congress to enact a comprehensive tax increase. Public welfare, though unpopular as ever, survived the Reagan-Bush years more or less intact. Labor unions suffered serious losses during the 1980s, but even they assumed the worst was likely behind them.
Cagey politician that he was (and still is), Bill Clinton entered the White House selling a progressive vibe, but few specifics. Two of his most prominent pledges, reforming health care and permitting gays to serve openly in the military, were met by unexpectedly fierce opposition and Clinton's feeble response to his foes bore the faint whiff of amateurism. Two years into his administration, the young president had even squandered the Democratic Party's crown jewels as both houses of Congress fell to the GOP for the first time in nearly half a century.
Bill Clinton recovered, of course, in large part because Newt Gingrich and the new Republican majority badly overplayed their hand, their ruthless Social Darwinism contrasting poorly with Clinton's well-honed empathy. Nevertheless, the damage was, to some degree, irreversible. From the president's 1995 State of the Union concession speech ("The era of big government is over.") to the Republicans' obsessive pursuit of scandal, corporate and carnal, the final years of the Clinton presidency were about perseverance rather than promise.
Seven years later, it is easy to identify the three most significant accomplishments of Bill Clinton's tenure in the White House. When history books devote their lone paragraph to the first president of the 21st Century, they will highlight the fact that Clinton balanced the budget, enacted sweeping welfare reform, and championed the North American Free Trade Agreement against the wishes of organized labor. They will, of course, also mention that he was impeached for having sex.
Back in their darkest hours, the post-Watergate years of the mid-1970s, dispirited conservatives would have been overjoyed to know that within one generation, Americans would elect a president who would erase the deficit, take on and defeat Big Labor, and "end welfare as we know it". They would have been stunned, however, to learn that the man of their fondest dreams would be a Democrat. And yet, this very same man, Bill Clinton, having been midwife to so much of the unfulfilled Reagan agenda, remains not only adored by liberals, but also despised by right-wingers nearly to the point of mental illness.
I saw Stephen Colbert on an interview show the other day—I think it was with Tim Russert—and, speaking out of character, he expressed somewhat reluctant admiration for Richard Nixon. Colbert pointed out, quite correctly, that the gains made in environmental protection and gender equality during the Nixon years set the stage for everything good that has happened subsequently on both fronts. Nixon, Colbert suggested, could be considered the greatest Democratic president since Roosevelt. Liberals, however, revile Nixon to this day; conservatives regard him fondly as one of the earliest martyrs of the culture wars.
Maybe in the same way that only Nixon could go to China, only Clinton could clear out the debris of outdated policies and build that bridge to the 21st century that he was always jabbering about. Who knows? Much of Clinton's legacy will depend on outcomes that cannot yet be fully measured. Will free trade, despite the painful dislocations it has created, eventually usher in a new era of American prosperity? Will the incentives built into welfare reform at long last break the cycle of dependence, or will they simply condemn thousands of fellow citizens to the sort of desperate poverty that has been unknown in this country since the 1960s?
In the meantime, we can only marvel once again at the manner in which partisan attachments distort even the most recent memories. This is not necessarily a bad thing; we probably don't want doctrinaire presidents, either on the left or the right. The incumbent, in particular, is busy giving ideological consistency a bad name. Still, historians will struggle to understand how Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, men of compromise and equivocation, managed to evoke such strong loyalties and unrelenting hatreds.