Breakdown On The Road To History
Bill Clinton thought 1998 would be the year to cement his place in the big book of Presidents. But now Ken Starr is doing most of the writing
By Eric Pooley
(TIME, August 10) -- Long ago in a kingdom far, far away--Bill Clinton's White House in the days before the Lewinsky mess--a few of the President's advisers liked to play a little game. They would sort Clinton's best deeds and worst misdeeds into what they called "legacy items," then try to project how history would rank each entry. Balancing the budget, presiding over the economic boom, reforming welfare, cutting crime, dragging his party to the center and preparing his people for the new century--these were seen as Clinton's key legacy items. And what of his scandal sheet, which even then was voluminous? "Our hope is that we can accomplish enough in the second term to make those allegations pale," an adviser told TIME last year. "We'd like to reduce them to a legacy footnote."
No one plays the legacy game anymore. The once amusing pastime is gathering dust in some White House cupboard of the mind, because the footnote is threatening to swallow Clinton. Even if he stays in office--and it would be foolish to count him out--the scandal has ruined his Administration's crucial sixth year (typically a two-term President's last best hope for getting big things done) and perhaps his seventh and eighth as well. Clinton's bid to define his place in history--by launching the age of postdeficit politics with a small but activist domestic agenda--is all but over. Ken Starr is writing the legacy now.
For Clinton that's a bitter pill. He is, after all, a President who has long communed with the biographies of his predecessors--F.D.R. and Abe Lincoln in the early days of his Administration, when greatness still seemed possible; Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes more recently, as the truth set in. He once asked his adviser Dick Morris to rank him among the Presidents ("You are right on the cusp of making third tier," the consultant replied). And early this year, buoyed by his balanced-budget agreement with Congress and the success of welfare reform, he began trying to stake out the meaning of Clintonism, promising that 1998 would be a "year of vigorous action [to] shape the century to come."
At first the scandal didn't slow him down. In his riveting State of the Union address, delivered from deep inside the white-hot center of Week Two, Clinton was able to rise above the mess and outline a domestic agenda designed to help Americans navigate this time of good fortune, anxiety and change. The problem was that his spectacular performance, the wonderment of watching a master pitch his way out of a jam, obscured his message that the fruits of prosperity should be used to help those left behind. Among his proposals that night: a plan to let preretirement-age workers buy into the Medicare system, and another to dedicate $21 billion to help working families get child care. Billions more for school construction and 100,000 new teachers. Another hike in the minimum wage. A bill to make Big Tobacco pay for the addiction and crushing health costs smoking can cause. And legislation to reform the kind of campaign-finance abuses that are among Clinton's ugliest legacies.
None of the proposals have been made real. And though it would be simplistic to blame all of Clinton's failures on the Lewinsky mess--a divided Congress and Republican antipathy to social spending account for some of them--the Monica Effect has been crippling.
Clinton has said "great Presidents don't do great things. Great Presidents get a lot of other people to do great things." But Starr's probing of Clinton's sex life has limited the President's ability to do that--not just because his moral authority has taken such a hit but also because he has needed most of his prodigious energy just to keep going, hopscotching the country from event to event if only to prove that he's still the guy with his sleeves rolled up. "He's trying to bob and weave as opposed to moving forward," says former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta. Even more damaging, Clinton has been holding his political capital in reserve for the potential impeachment battles on the Hill. He can't risk the bruising negotiations it takes to pass a bill or resort to the bully pulpit to push his agenda because he must maintain cordial relations with the Congress that may soon be his judge and jury. "It's just a reality," says Panetta. "It's playing with his mind. Deep down in his own gut, it's there."
The Monica Effect helps explain why Clinton made nary a peep while the Senate slowly strangled campaign-finance reform--a legacy item if ever there was one--and why he sat idly in June as Senator John McCain's tobacco bill went down. Tobacco was Clinton's top domestic item for 1998--not just because he wanted to be the first President to face down the industry but also because the estimated $100 billion that was to come from McCain's bill in the next five years would have paid for many of Clinton's other ideas, such as preretirement Medicare and child care. Yet when Senate majority leader Trent Lott set about killing the tobacco bill, Clinton did nothing. Congress then giddily hacked up Clinton's budget priorities, slashing his requests for education, health care, child care and the environment. Last week Clinton complained that his budget requests for education and youth programs--$871 million for summer jobs, $260 million for tutors--"ought to be beyond all debate." He knows better; in Washington, everything's on the table. But he can't dicker and deal because he's on the table too.
If Clinton has seemed distant this year, it's because he has been--traveling to Europe, Africa, South America and China. But with the exception of NATO expansion and the Northern Ireland peace accord, foreign policy gems have been elusive. The Monica Effect is easily overstated here--the sex scandal surely didn't influence Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's decision to ignore Clinton's pleas and detonate underground nuclear tests in response to India's--but foreign leaders are sensitive to shifts in American presidential power. Despite Clinton's warnings, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thumbs his nose at the peace process and Saddam Hussein continues to harass U.N. arms inspectors in Iraq. And the President's China visit--which seemed so triumphant, what with his televised human-rights debate in Beijing and lavish praise for President Jiang Zemin--was immediately followed by a Chinese crackdown on 20 dissidents and an embarrassed admission from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that the Chinese are moving backward on human rights. Great Presidents get other people to do great things.
One thing Clinton has been able to get others to do this year is talk. The President sees his year-long national conversation on race as a major legacy item. But the heart-to-heart won't amount to much unless Clinton moves to address the plight of the urban poor, whose misery helps reinforce pernicious racial stereotypes. Late last year the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist group Clinton helped launch in 1985, urged the President to back up his race initiative with "the first coherent urban strategy since the Johnson Administration." If he were to work with the new crop of dynamic, bipartisan big-city mayors, Clinton could build on welfare-to-work and empowerment zones with a new set of results-oriented job and education programs--before a recession puts welfare reform to the test. But creating a political climate in which an urban agenda is even thinkable requires canny use of the bully pulpit; the Monica Effect prevents him from even trying.
The only real legacy item left on Clinton's menu is saving Social Security--America's biggest and most successful social program, due to go bust in 2032, thanks to the bulge of retiring baby boomers. Clinton loyalists see the program as the final piece in a legacy trifecta. Says former aide Bill Galston, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland: "If Clinton can leave office as the man who licked the budget deficit, saved Social Security and guided the economy through the largest peacetime expansion in history, well, that's not bad." And Clinton has been surefooted on the issue so far. Without committing to a specific plan--he knows that endorsing one now would doom it--he has been leading town-hall meetings around the country. In January he proposed devoting the entire budget surplus to the problem (something he may regret now that the cigarette money is gone), an approach that last week won the support of Republican Senators Pete Domenici and Phil Gramm. (Their surprising move pulled the rug out from under House Republicans, who want to use some of the surplus for a huge election-year tax cut--$702 billion over 10 years.) So far so good. But saving Social Security means making hard choices--moving part of the trust fund into the risky, higher-return stock market; allowing individuals to oversee their own private investment accounts, which means allowing them to risk losing their nest egg; cutting benefits, raising taxes or trimming other parts of government. The battle begins at a White House summit in December, with legislation to follow next year. Since a handful of congressional Democrats agree with Republican calls for private accounts, it may be possible for Clinton to get bipartisan support by going along with them. But many Democrats argue that he should resist and push for government control of the investments to reduce costs and spread the risk. Al Gore's counsel will be pivotal--he has plenty at stake, since fixing Social Security could be a calling card for 2000--but big constituencies like labor and the elderly will be watching for anything that smells like a betrayal. Clinton, who believes a Gore presidency will help cement the Clinton legacy, needs to keep some powder dry for this fight--if he has any left after Starr sends his report to Congress.
After it's finally over for Clinton--whether on Jan. 20, 2001, or somewhat sooner--historians will need 30 to 50 years more to assess the man and his policies. But here's a look at his short-term political legacy.
For those who play the game of politics, it will be one of cynicism, because a man who seemed to have a deep emotional connection to the American people ended up standing for constant polling, malleable beliefs and the relentless War Room tactics of spin, denial and counterpunch. Those tactics are already required reading in political operatives' school, and few insiders think the game can get anything but rougher. To change that would require a transformation in Washington's culture of prosecution--and a good way to start would be by allowing the expiration of the independent-prosecutor statute, which is hard-wired to launch witch hunts, and replacing it with a system that relies on career prosecutors in all but the most extreme cases.
For the country at large Clinton's legacy will be one of disappointment and loss because a man of such promise frittered it away over so little. It is pointless to argue, as his loyalists do, that personal matters have no place in the public debate. Clinton has understood his political time better than anyone else. He beat the odds in 1992, when he tacitly promised to behave and Americans decided his past wasn't the most important factor in the race. He has known ever since that another sex scandal could finish him. Yet if Lewinsky is to be believed, he risked his presidency on a reckless dalliance--and though Americans have made a spectator sport of his close calls and miraculous recoveries, voters won't be looking for that kind of exhausting spectacle again anytime soon.
The 2000 race, says historian Michael R. Beschloss, is likely to field a crop of squeaky-clean candidates--Jimmy Carter manques who lust only in their hearts and promise never to lie. (Their pollsters will no doubt advise them to come out against the use of polls.) "I reject the view that we've become European," says Beschloss, "that we rely on our leaders only for competent government and don't care much about anything else." Because Americans don't have a king, he says, "we have a need to look at our leaders as father figures and role models for our children."
The danger, of course, is a field of cardboard candidates, lifelike creatures who can pass any background check but lack heart, instinct and fire. Already, Dan Quayle and Trent Lott have announced that they have never committed adultery. It's enough to make you start missing Clinton.
--With reporting by Jay Branegan and Karen Tumulty/Washington
From a TIME/CNN poll
Are the allegations about Clinton's sex life hurting his ability to carry out his duties as President?
Is Clinton's sexual behavior during his term as President relevant to how he should be judged in office?
Not relevant 61%