I come to explain Bill Clinton’s presidential record, not to praise it. For most committed Americans on the left (I eschew that weasel word progressive), the administration has been, at best, a disappointment. On his election in 1992, the Arkansas schmoozer seemed to be a matchless meld of populist and policy wonk. He could charm his way through an audience large or small, then segue effortlessly to the intricacies of education reform and national health insurance. “Now is the moment for liberal renewal, in every sense,” declared archliberal columnist Robert Kuttner at the time. Perhaps, we allowed ourselves to hope, a fresh era of true reform was at hand.
What happened instead was decidedly more modest: a turn of the political wheel from far right to something close to dead center. Though hardly the second coming of FDR, Clinton did sign several worthy pieces of legislation — from the Family and Medical Leave Act and a higher minimum wage to an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and a doubling of federal funding for childcare — that signaled a policy tilt towards Americans with few resources and little control over their working lives. The president also appointed hundreds of liberal judges (many of them black or Latino); for top posts at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Labor Relations Board, he chose officials who actually cared about protecting the environment and the rights of workers. And no veteran of the “culture war” could doubt that this administration was more friendly to the pro-choice and gay-rights causes than any before it. Without Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, the only justices appointed by Clinton, the Supreme Court would have a pro-life majority.
But the president’s major political accomplishment was strategic: He blocked and reversed the growth of the right. For a quarter century before his victory in 1992, conservatives had feasted on an image of liberals as arrogant, effete, and out of touch with the problems of ordinary Americans. Clinton — with his bus tours, his galvanic empathy, and his praise of people “who work hard and play by the rules” — helped make at least a mild brand of social reformism palatable to mainstream audiences again. The ensuing years of low unemployment, low inflation (albeit aided by stagnant wages), and lower crime rates further brightened the public mood. A disgruntled people usually hunger for order, but peace and prosperity can enable compassion to gain a hearing.
Except for Newt Gingrich’s thankfully brief moment in the sun, conservatism declined during the ’90s. The once-mighty Christian Coalition was losing members even before the impeachment debacle, and George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign has repudiated the strategy of intolerant polarization that held sway in his party since the rise of Barry Goldwater. Though the right retains a hard corps of well-funded journalists and single-issue dogmatists, it no longer boasts the kind of optimistic young cadre who crashed into prominence during the ’70s and early ’80s.
Unfortunately, movements on the left have just begun to awaken from their own long spell of insularity and division. The battlers of Seattle last fall and the triumphant janitor unionists in Los Angeles this past spring may be sprouts of a new green/labor alliance, analogous to the broad insurgencies that generated waves of reform in the ’30s and the ’60s. But the newest left has emerged far too late to shift Clinton away from his centrist path. The absence of strong liberal and radical movements made it inevitable that the president would follow a cautious, poll-driven course.
Politics is a contest between social forces, and the sad truth is that, through the Clinton years, the American left possessed neither the ideas nor the numbers to be much of a force. Black and Latino activists lacked a common agenda, and most spent their energies defending affirmative action and/or immigrant rights rather than building a visionary movement. Labor was reeling until John Sweeney and his team took over the AFL-CIO at the end of 1995, and it took the new leaders the rest of the decade to persuade even a minority of unions to devote sizable resources to organizing. There was, to be sure, no shortage of radical intellectuals in the universities during the past decade. But far too many mistook their theoretical enthusiasms for political insight and wrote prose only an insomniac could appreciate.
The weakness of the left guaranteed the defeat in 1994 of the most ambitious domestic initiative of the Clinton administration — universal health care. The managed competition model designed by Hillary Clinton and other advisers certainly had serious flaws, but a majority of Americans supported the principle of universal coverage that inspired it. Nonetheless, only a scattering of grassroots activists tried to build pressure for the Clinton plan or a single payer alternative. Soon “Harry and Louise” rushed loquaciously into the vacuum, cheered on by a solid GOP. In the wake of the defeat, Clinton abandoned thoughts of large-scale reform and, of course, the number of uninsured Americans continued to climb.
Such timidity is hardly unique among chief executives. In fact, extreme caution has been the rule even among presidents with far loftier liberal reputations. During the 1932 campaign, the now-sainted Franklin D. Roosevelt accused his Republican opponent of spending too much on government programs. Once in office, Roosevelt actively backed industrial unionism and Social Security only when it appeared that mass social movements might threaten his reelection. John F. Kennedy cared far more about fighting the Cold War than about helping minorities or the poor. It took more than two-thirds of his 1,000 days in office before he threw his support behind a civil rights bill. Not until powerful independent movements — marching, sitting down or in, and mobilizing voters — opened a space for them on the left did FDR and JFK become the crusaders of public memory.
Absent such pressure, it’s not surprising that Bill Clinton was most vocal about cultural issues that didn’t directly challenge big corporations, the most powerful interests in the land. He could speak eloquently about “racial healing” and denounce gay bashing and other blatant forms of bigotry without incurring the wrath of K Street lobbyists. Such stances did have meaning; they helped diminish the nastiness built up over the backlash years and made “diversity” seem an unassailable (if occasionally banal) goal of institutions, both public and private. But to grapple seriously with the wage gap and hardcore poverty in the inner cities requires some redistribution of wealth. It would have taken extraordinary courage for Clinton to spotlight such issues in the absence of a grassroots movement and with Congress in the grip of the GOP.
In foreign affairs, Clinton actually showed more backbone than at home. Unless you assume, as does Noam Chomsky, that U.S. power inevitably serves evil purposes, the administration deserves at least some credit for good intentions. For one who came of political age during the Vietnam era, Clinton’s attempts in Haiti and Kosovo to aid people oppressed and in peril were refreshing, if not completely successful. (If only he had had the courage to dispatch the Marines to Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of slaughtered Tutsis might be alive today.) And don’t forget his part in brokering a peace agreement in Northern Ireland and striving diligently to do the same between Israelis and Arabs. Clinton was the first president since 1945 who didn’t use U.S. military might to protect undemocratic rulers or raw economic interests. That deserves a huge sigh of relief, if nothing more.
Of course, Clinton made his share of mean decisions and more than his share of stupid ones. From the 1994 election through his 1996 campaign, he essentially ran away from the core of his own party to embrace the GOP’s definition of “welfare reform” and “smaller government.” In so doing he helped stymie the right, but neglected to build a durable constituency for reform ideas or proposals, the only long-run advantage the Democrats have over their rivals. And the Monica follies, besides stamping the president as a sexual idiot, prevented him from accomplishing anything substantial during his second term.
Clinton’s most important legacy may be that, through a combination of economic luck and political skill, he presided over a long stretch of good times. Sadly, he used the boom of the ’90s to put his opponents on the defensive rather than to chart a humane future for the nation or the world. But then reformers and radicals, particularly in our increasingly apolitical age, should neither expect nor want chief executives to be our saviors. That’s not how democracy is supposed to work, nor is it the key to its revival. As Eugene V. Debs, the perennial Socialist candidate for president, warned during the heyday of working-class radicalism, “I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, someone else could lead you out.” The fault, fellow leftists, is not in our president, but in ourselves.