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CNN Today

The Clinton Presidency: The New Democrat

Aired January 18, 2001 - 2:27 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: As Americans prepare to say goodbye to their long-time commander in chief, we look back, as we've been doing all week, at President Clinton's White House years and his legacy.

Today, CNN senior White House correspondent John King chronicles Mr. Clinton's emergence as a New Democrat.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NEWT GINGRICH: Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and the distinct honor of presenting to you the president of the United States.

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was a watershed moment for a president and his party.

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The era of Big Government is over.

KING: A demand that Congress pass a balanced budget, no more deficit spending -- not exactly the message the country had come to expect from the party of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. From the very beginning, Bill Clinton sold himself as a different kind of Democrat.

CLINTON: The change I seek and the change we must all seek isn't liberal or conservative, it's different, and it's both.

KING: Now as he leaves office, Mr. Clinton hopes one legacy is a Democratic Party redefined, free of the tax-and-spend-liberal label: a balanced budget, welfare roles cut in half, more than 100,000 new police on the beat. To allies, it is nothing short of a revolution.

AL FROM, DEMOCRATIC LEADERSHIP COUNCIL: His model has been the model for center -- the revival of center left parties all over the globe, from New Labor in Great Britain to the New leader in Germany, Gerhard Schroeder -- Tony Blair.

KING: Critics don't see it that way. They say Mr. Clinton had no choice but to take a more conservative course after the 1994 Republican rally. They note Mr. Clinton proposed a balanced budget only after leaders of the new Republican Congress promised one of their own. And that he signed a welfare reform measure in the middle of 1996 reelection campaign, after vetoing two earlier proposals. KEN DUBERSTEIN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: He did that only recognizing that Republicans had finally taken control of the House and Senate and things were going to be different from the Big Government, big spending, health care, universal control that he and Mrs. Clinton had advocated so vigorously in the first couple of years.

KING: From beginning to end, the Clinton years were marked by bruising battles with congressional Republicans. But in many regards, the president's meddle more when he challenged fellow Democrats.

The welfare fight still stings even some of Mr. Clinton's closest long-time allies.

DALE BUMBERS, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: It's been working reasonably well, but we haven't had a real downturn in the economy since that happened either, and believe you me, when we have one, that's when the rubber will hit the road. We'll know who was right and who was wrong.

KING: His aggressive push for trade deals was a constant source of internal party friction, beginning with NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER CLINTON WHITE HOUSE ADVISER: That was one of the finest moments of his presidency because he took on his own base, took on the labor unions. He didn't have Democrats with him. He though he was going to lose it in the House and Senate, and he pushed forward anyway.

KING: Hard to argue the New Democrat approach didn't work, at least for him. Mr. Clinton was the first elected Democratic president to win a second term since F.D.R.

JAMES CARVILLE, FORMER CLINTON ADVISER: He moved the party to the Senate and kept as most loyal constituency the traditional Democrats. It's an amazing political accomplishment.

KING: Others took note. Hillary Clinton came to Washington with her feet clearly in the party's liberal wing, was the architect of a health care plan ridiculed as Big Government at its worst. Yet when she declared her candidacy for the Senate...

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: I'm a New Democrat. I don't believe government is the source of all our problems or the solution to them.

KING: Mr. Clinton had hoped his legacy would include handing off to a Democratic successor. A common complaint from centrist Democrats and one voice privately by the president himself is that Vice President Gore ignored the New Democrat script and allowed himself to be pushed to the left.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: He proposed more than Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis combined. This is a big spender, he is. He ought to be proud of it, it's part of his record. We just have a different philosophy.

KING: And when Mr. Clinton came to Washington back in 1993, the Democrats ruled Capitol Hill -- Republicans now.

So it is another case of a mixed Clinton legacy, the next campaign perhaps the test of his lasting impact on the party. This much certain: The soon-to-be-former president is 54 year old and full of energy -- is sure to remain active in the debate.

John King, CNN, the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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