latimes.com: Clinton presidency one of sweeping promise and missed opportunities
By Ronald Brownstein/Los Angeles Times Political Writer
WASHINGTON (Los Angeles Times) -- No single lens looks wide enough to capture the perplexing panorama of Bill Clinton's presidency.
Clinton was the first Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win reelection--and the first since Harry S. Truman to lose control of the House of Representatives. He produced the first balanced budget in 30 years, ended a 60-year federal entitlement to welfare and memorably declared that "the era of big government is over." But he also won billions of dollars in increased funding for education, launched a major new federal effort to provide health care for uninsured children and significantly enlarged government support for the working poor.
Clinton challenged Democratic orthodoxy on such issues as welfare, crime and federal spending, but he refused to confront the party's resistance to new approaches for Social Security, Medicare and affirmative action. He reshaped his party's agenda to reconnect it with mainstream moral values--and then flouted those values himself, driving away many of the same voters his policies hoped to attract.
The first baby boomer president, Clinton lacked nothing for ambition. His twin goals were to rebuild a political majority for the Democratic Party and to revive a public consensus for activist government. He didn't fully achieve either, but neither did he entirely fail. Following a generation in which Republicans dominated the White House, Clinton restored the Democrats' ability to compete for the presidency. And although many of his plans to expand Washington's role were frustrated, he fought off the Newt Gingrich-led drive to dramatically retrench government and forged a fragile consensus for limited public activism tempered by fiscal discipline. After declining for most of the previous 30 years, the share of Americans who said they trusted the federal government to do what's right had increased modestly, but measurably, during his two terms, polls showed.
With eerie symmetry, Clinton's critics on the left and the right saw a presidency of grand words and small gestures. As president, wrote conservative columnist George Will, Clinton was "like a person who walks across a field of snow and leaves no footprints." Writing in the Nation, liberal journalist Bill Greider concluded: "When Bill Clinton recites the big challenges, he reminds us of all he danced away from as president. . . . Clinton has taught Democrats to think small."
Constrained by a hostile Congress for most of his term, Clinton indeed leaves behind few legislative achievements comparable to those of a Lyndon B. Johnson or a Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yet at the end of his tenure, Clinton has left an unmistakable imprint on both parties.
The Democratic primaries in 2000 testified to his success at shifting his own party's center of gravity: Challenger Bill Bradley, running a campaign largely on the argument that Clinton and Vice President Al Gore had abandoned too much of the party's liberal heritage, failed to win a single primary. "For the Democrats, there's no going back," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist think tank.
But Clinton's influence is evident even in the Republican Party. Without his success at beating back the Gingrich revolution, it is hard to envision a market in the GOP for George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism"--which moderated the party's hostility toward government and consciously echoed Clintonesque themes such as balancing opportunity and responsibility.
Part of the difficulty in assessing Clinton's political and policy legacy is that there appeared to be distinct Clinton presidencies. In his chaotic first two years, he was the Clinton of mixed signals--with centrist achievements such as deficit reduction overshadowed by lurches to the left on issues such as health care and gays in the military.
Then, from 1995 through mid-1997, came the Clinton of triangulation: the disciplined centrist who signed welfare reform and balanced budget measures--under intense pressure from Republicans--and limited his new initiatives.
In his final years, there emerged a third Clinton: a more partisan president, bonded again to his party by the ordeal of impeachment, who cautiously inched back toward a more expansive view of government's role and proposed expensive new initiatives such as a prescription drug benefit under Medicare.
Yet through all these fits and starts, an identifiable policy pattern emerged that could be called Clintonism. At the core was his belief that he could blend liberal and conservative ideas previously considered incompatible. Undeniably, part of his motive was to find a politically unassailable sweet spot between left and right. But Clinton supporters argue that on issues such as welfare, crime, education and urban policy, his goal was also to find new means to old ends--to craft an approach that accepted many conservative critiques of traditional liberal policies, but did not abandon the paramount liberal goal of expanding opportunity.
"It wasn't just a cynical political repositioning; there was a synthesis that needed to be performed to make things work," says Paul Grogan, former executive director of the Local Initiatives Support Corp., a group that helps revive inner-city neighborhoods.
In at least four areas, Clinton forged a policy that differed from both conventional liberal and conservative thinking. They are:
--Opportunity and responsibility: From the outset of his first campaign, perhaps Clinton's most consistent and important theme has been that social policy should be built around a new bargain of mutual responsibility: Government should seek to expand opportunity, but simultaneously demand personal responsibility from those it helps.
This idea runs through many of Clinton's signature initiatives: from the 1994 crime bill, which expanded programs aimed at providing young people with alternatives to crime but stiffened penalties and increased spending on prisons for those who crossed the line, to AmeriCorps, the program that offered young people college aid in return for national service.
This synthesis reached its clearest expression in welfare reform. In 1996, Clinton signed legislation, largely drafted by the GOP, that imposed strict time limits on aid and required welfare recipients to move into the work force. But he also increased federal spending on day care, training and health care for former welfare recipients, and he implemented a wide range of measures meant to "make work pay" for families struggling on the lowest rung of the job ladder. Key among them was a major expansion in 1993 of the earned-income tax credit, which reduces taxes for working-poor families; in 1999, benefits from the credit were sufficient to lift 4.1 million people out of poverty, double the number in 1993.
Indeed, by coupling the end of the welfare entitlement with these new efforts to support the working poor, experts agree that Clinton accelerated a historic transformation of the U.S. social safety net. As Harvard University professor David T. Ellwood notes, federal policy toward the poor is moving from providing minimal sustenance to those who don't work (through welfare) to supporting those who do work (through programs such as the earned-income tax credit and child care subsidies.)
The final verdict on this great social experiment may not be apparent until the economy slows. But the initial evidence hasn't supported liberal fears. For instance, child poverty--rather than rising, as liberals predicted--has fallen more in the past four years than in any comparable period since the boom years of the late 1960s.
--Fiscal discipline and government activism: Through the 1980s, Democrats viewed demands for a balanced budget as a conservative straitjacket to preempt government activism. But as he sparred with the new congressional GOP majority in 1995, Clinton realized that a balanced budget could instead become a shield for government activism--that once the budget was balanced, Republicans would be denied their most potent argument for eliminating government programs.
When Clinton embraced the balanced-budget deal, liberals howled. But his calculation has mostly proved correct. With the help of a strong economy that generated an unexpectedly large infusion of revenue, Clinton has won significant spending increases in education and children's health while producing budgets with surpluses for four consecutive years--the first time that's happened in 70 years--and placing the country on track to potentially pay off the national debt later this decade.
Still, the 2000 campaign exposed the limits of Clinton's political success. Although the balanced budget may have increased public tolerance for new spending, it clearly has not provided a blank check; Bush effectively portrayed Gore's long list of expensive new proposals as a return to "big government."
--Economic globalism: Clinton sought to wean the Democratic Party from its resistance to free trade; in 1993, with broad support from congressional Republicans, he overcame intense resistance from organized labor to win congressional approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada.
His effort to expand NAFTA further into South America, and to build a similar free-trade zone in Asia, foundered during his second term when congressional Democrats refused to support the expedited trade-negotiating authority he needed to pursue those goals. Those failures were partly offset by passage last year of legislation bringing China into the World Trade Organization by granting it permanent status as a preferred U.S. trading partner.
--Government as catalyst: Partly by necessity, partly by design, Clinton tried to change the way Washington pursued its goals--especially after the rejection of his mammoth health care plan in 1994. From then on, rather than launching big new federal programs, he almost always argued that because the Information Age rewards decentralization, the federal government should advance its priorities indirectly--through means such as tax credits and grants to states.
This conceptual shift had two principal elements. One was a policy that might be called "flywheel federalism." Many of Clinton's most ambitious domestic initiatives followed the same model: He identified a promising policy trend that had emerged in a few states and tried to encourage other states to emulate it. In effect, he used the federal government as a flywheel, offering states generous grants if they would pursue emerging innovations such as community policing and charter schools.
The second element consisted of policies meant to empower individuals or local institutions to solve problems. This instinct animated initiatives as diverse as the "V" chip (which gave parents more capacity to block television programming that they consider inappropriate for their children) to the replacement of conventional job training programs with vouchers that workers could use to pick their own course of instruction.
This approach may have reached its fullest expression in an area that critics accused Clinton of ignoring: urban policy. The left complained that Clinton never proposed major infusions of federal aid to struggling cities. In indirect ways, however, Clinton encouraged a significant increase in private investment in urban areas.
Through such means as toughening enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act--which requires banks to lend in low-income neighborhoods--and requiring Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the giant federal mortgage financing agencies) to subsidize more mortgages for low-income borrowers, his administration nurtured a historic boom in homeownership among minority and low-income families. Federal data show that from 1993 to 1999, the number of mortgages to black and Latino borrowers increased at three times the rate to whites; the number of African American and Latino homeowners has each increased by about 1 million since 1994, reaching historic highs in each case.
Many urban neighborhoods remain troubled. But combined with the welfare reforms that have put families back to work and a reduction in crime, those gains have allowed many working-poor communities to begin luring back shops and stores and recovering social stability.
In the political arena, Clinton also leaves behind a complex legacy composed of contradictory trends.
On the one hand, even his staunchest critics credit him with resuscitating his party's capacity to compete for the White House. In the three elections of the 1980s, the Democratic presidential nominees averaged just 58 electoral votes--less than 11% of the total electoral votes at stake. That was the smallest share of the available electoral votes that the Democrats had won in any three consecutive elections since the formation of the modern party system with Andrew Jackson in 1828. The Republican dominance was so pronounced, and seemingly irreversible, that political scientists spoke of a GOP "lock" on the electoral college.
In his two elections, Clinton shattered that lock, averaging 375 electoral votes. With Ross Perot twice splintering the vote, Clinton never won an absolute majority of the popular vote, but his 49% showing in 1996 significantly improved on the party's 43% average over the previous seven elections.
Clinton held the party's traditional base, generating big margins among African Americans, union members and single women. But his centrist message expanded the base. He became the first Democrat since Johnson to carry a plurality of independents. He moved the Democrats up the income ladder, strengthening the party's performance among upper-middle-class voters, especially in 1996. And although he did not improve the party's anemic showing among white men, he made substantial gains among white women, especially the minivan- and SUV-driving married suburban women immortalized in 1996 as "soccer moms."
Those gains allowed Clinton to erase the GOP advantage in the electoral college by recapturing most of the key suburban counties outside of the South. When Republicans dominated the White House from 1968 through 1992, they won prosperous suburbs such as Detroit's Oakland County, Philadelphia's Montgomery County and New Jersey's Bergen County six consecutive times, averaging more than 58% of the vote in the process. But Clinton carried all of them in 1996--and Gore held them in 2000.
Clinton moved such heavily suburban states as New Jersey, California and Illinois--which each had voted Republican in the six presidential elections before his first race--so sharply toward the Democrats that they have become part of the party's electoral base. Indeed, despite Gore's narrow loss, most analysts agree that Clinton left the Democrats a base of reliable states at least as large as the GOP's--a sharp change from the 1970s and 1980s. All 21 states that Gore won, which offer 267 electoral votes, have now voted Democratic in each of the last three elections.
Yet balanced against these gains was the Democratic loss of Congress in 1994. Clinton didn't bear sole responsibility for that debacle. Another key factor, says Rice University political scientist Earl Black, was the increasing willingness of Southerners who had voted Republican in presidential elections for years to finally back the GOP in congressional elections.
But, Black, like most experts, believes that the missteps of Clinton and the Democratic Congress during his first two years accelerated the trend toward the GOP. "The overreaching of his first two years . . . really put the Republicans in a position to capitalize in these districts that were already voting Republican presidentially," Black says.
Many Republicans saw 1994 as their equivalent to Roosevelt's Democratic landslide of 1932: the realigning election that would trigger an era of sustained political control. Six years later, Republicans continue to hold a solid majority of both House and Senate seats in the South; in 2000, Bush won every Southern state. But, notes Black, Clinton's post-1994 turn back toward the center "stabilized the Democrats outside of the South."
In the last three elections, Democrats have fought back to claim an 18-seat majority in the House outside of the South. Democrats also hold a majority of the Senate seats in the states outside of the South. And in 2000, Gore won 71% of all electoral votes at stake beyond the South.
This record suggests that Clintonism has been a political success--but an incomplete and imperfect one. His "third way" synthesis has clearly strengthened the Democratic position in many of the nation's largest suburban areas. But Clintonism was not persuasive enough to reverse the long-term movement of the South and Mountain West toward the GOP's modern blend of small-government, traditional-values conservatism. Nor did he dent the Republican hold over white men, the bedrock of contemporary GOP strength.
Complicating the picture further, Clinton probably repelled on ethical grounds many of the swing voters his policies intended to attract. Analysts in both parties believe the backlash against Clinton's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky (building on earlier antagonism toward fund-raising controversies of 1996) intensified the sharp tilt this year toward Bush and the GOP in culturally conservative regions. "Clinton helped create a values election," says Mark McKinnon, Bush's chief media advisor.
In all these ways, ambivalence may be the only justified verdict on Clinton's presidency. As both party leader and president, he compiled significant achievements. But his time was also defined by missed opportunities, whether in the failure to provide universal health care or the inability to cement a true Democratic political realignment. Even amid the longest economic boom in U.S. history, he leaves the White House with Republicans in control of the presidency and Congress for the first time in nearly half a century--albeit by razor-thin margins.
Clinton's flaws confounded his talents. He changed the country, his party, and the debate between the parties. And he presided over an economy that spread more benefits more widely than any expansion since the 1960s. But as he steps off the stage, Clinton may be haunted by the recognition that for all he accomplished, his mark might have been deeper, and more indelible, if his discipline and judgment had matched his skill and intelligence.