Respond to this Article December 2000

Bill's Excellent Adventure

The hits and misses of a protean president

By Nicholas Thompson

When Bill Clinton took the oath of office in 1993, Serbian forces were running rampant in Bosnia. Villages were burning; men were being lined up behind their houses and shot. Civil war was spreading, but the new president was shackled by Colin Powell's doctrine that the United States should never enter battle without decisive force and clear objectives. So Clinton put his thumbs in his pockets and continued the dithering of the Bush administration for a year and a half until shame essentially forced the Dayton peace settlement.

Six years later, when Serbian forces cut loose in Kosovo, Clinton threw Powell's doctrine out the window. Obviously unclear about his goals, the president alienated Republican and Democratic traditionalists alike. The United States certainly didn't use decisive force, nor did we pursue a clear objective: Were we trying to force Milosevic from power, or just stop human-rights abuses? And what was going on with our relationship with the U.N.? Clinton limited his options by pledging at the outset not to commit ground troops. So he waged the battle exclusively from bombers 15,000 feet up, fully aware that no country had ever won a war that way. No matter. Genuflecting to public opinion while juggling new strategies worked. Milosevic threw down his cards, and the end game was a rout. The Serbian dictator has been forced out of power and, despite minor snafus, victory came without the sacrifice of a single American life.

Neither Bosnia nor Kosovo was the defining moment of the Man From Hope's eight years in the White House. But the essence of Clintonism can be found in the difference between his responses to the two crises. For eight years, whenever Clinton let himself become constrained by grand themes and conventional wisdom, he failed. When he stayed in motion and used his instincts like a political fox, he triumphed.

He abandoned large legislative ideas when his health-care plan imploded and Newt Gingrich took over Congress. He ditched the public investment plans he had campaigned on soon after being sworn in. He tried half-heartedly and unsuccessfully to come up with a big foreign policy idea, and instead produced a mishmash that infuriates experts but works fine for everybody else. He sometimes argues that his presidency does have a central theme: stewarding the country from the industrial age to the information age. Then this brilliant communicator essentially discredits the very notion with each garbled explanation.

Still, by simultaneously pushing and pulling in hundreds of directions, and sticking by a series of evolving moderate themes, Bill Clinton has justifiably won enduring popularity. The country is far more prosperous, safer, and internationally strong than when he took office. He has failed frequently, sometimes succeeded through sheer dumb luck, and changed the culture of politics for the worse. But ultimately this protean and often-maddening president is a big factor in why we're so much better off today than we were eight years ago.

Running the Economy Grade: A

Presidents don't run the economy. They don't drive delivery trucks or lay electronic switches in silicon. But they do have their hands on the various levers that push the economy forward. They send signals to business; they help set key economic indices; they determine much of our trade policies.

Running for office, Clinton vowed to concentrate "like a laser beam" on the economy. This was still the era when Japan seemed like the biggest bull in the barnyard, and Clinton's economic plan was modeled on their industrial policy: ramping up our investment in public infrastructure and taxing companies to set up worker training programs. As Clinton said during the final presidential debate, "My passion is to pass a jobs program."

Once in office, Clinton quickly tacked. He learned both that the economy was gaining steam and that the budget deficit was worse than anticipated--consequently, his top economic advisers argued that deficit reduction, which should reduce long-term interest rates, was the surest way out of the slump. Clinton listened carefully and decided that being right trumped being consistent with campaign rhetoric. So he rolled up his sleeves and started doing what he does best: molding a policy, brawling in the back rooms, and charming potential supporters.

He navigated through a protracted battle within the administration and Congress, and wrote a budget that mixed deficit reduction with progressive policy and second-best compromises. He sharply reduced the deficit by lowering spending and raising the federal gasoline tax along with taxes on the affluent. He hiked up funding for the Earned Income Tax Credit, a reverse income tax that gives money back to poor people who work. He abandoned an energy tax, dear to Vice President Gore, which seemed like a last-minute deal killer.

Clinton's budget bill received absolutely no Republican support. It passed the House by two votes and squeaked through the Senate when an anguished Senator Bob Kerrey finally voted for the bill, relenting to hours of presidential arm-twisting, and Gore swooped in to cast the tie-breaking vote. That budget, the fruit of endless hours of presidential labor, probably remains Clinton's most important accomplishment. It set the economy on the right track and laid the groundwork for the coming prosperity.

Boom!

Immediately after the bill passed, long-term interest rates dropped. Clinton had not only taken a strong swing at the exploding deficit of the past 12 years, he had convinced the financial markets that he was going to work in concert with Greenspan. Traditionally, presidents and Fed chairmen have worked at cross-purposes--one foot down on the accelerator, one pumping the brakes. Clinton broke that destructive cycle with his political and personal skills. He invited Greenspan to sit between Tipper Gore and Hillary during his first State of the Union address. More important, he stuck firmly to Greenspan's specific deficit goals, passed on covertly by Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen. The role of the Federal Reserve is to take away the punch bowl before the party gets out of hand, but Clinton made it clear that he was serving everyone ice water. So the chairman kept short-term interest rates virtually constant and the markets soared.

Clinton also pushed free-trade agreements through Congress by mustering a bipartisan coalition. With the help of a team of seasoned veterans, he steered the United States through the firestorms that menaced the world economy in 1997 and 1998. Clinton even courageously defied public opinion in offering Mexico a $40 billion loan when the peso crashed in 1995.

He also, through an act of cunning, stymied the Gingrich Congress' efforts to roll back taxes and revert to the trickle-down policies of the Reagan and Bush years. In his 1998 State of the Union address, he lyrically proclaimed that we should use surpluses to "save Social Security first." As Michael Waldman, then the president's chief speechwriter, writes in his recent book, POTUS Speaks: "The Democrats leapt to their feet, cheering. Gingrich paused for a discernible instant--then he, too, stood, applauding Š In that instant, a trillion dollars silently shifted on the budget ledger from the column marked Œtax cut' to the column marked ŒSocial Security.'"

Clinton's four-word phrase was misleading: No president or Congress can really lock revenues away from future politicians. In practical terms, Clinton had guaranteed that surplus money coming from the Social Security tax would pay down the debt. Clinton knew that the country needed increased savings, not tax cuts that could well push the needle of the fast-moving economy into the red. Once again, Clinton had outfoxed his opponents--almost certainly for the country's good.

Domestic Policy

Grade: B+

When Clinton ran for office, Democrats had lost five of the previous six presidential elections. Their policies were seen nationally as mushy or excessive: They favored welfare cheats and snail darters and opposed accountable schools and crime enforcement.

Clinton entered the country's spotlight as a New Democrat and during the '92 campaign he gained traction by disavowing old Democratic gospel, espousing positions ranging from the death penalty to requiring welfare recipients to work. Once elected, he moved left and stumbled trying to push a more traditional Democratic agenda. He was only saved, it seems, by the Republican takeover of Congress.

Like a jazz musician who can only play by ear, at his best, Clinton listened carefully and moved forward by snatching ideas from every side. On environmental protection, for example, Clinton seemed at a loss during his first two years as he worked to implement pent-up Democratic initiatives. He first tried to reform mining and grazing laws, but Western Senators chewed him up. Then they clobbered him for trying to elevate the EPA into a cabinet level agency. Defeated there, and punched out on his proposed energy tax, Clinton's first term passed with little success.

After the 1994 election, Clinton found his stride. He rhetorically batted down the Republican Congress for their sudden attempt to take hatchets to environmental law. He stopped every single one of Gingrich's major environmental reforms. Clinton then bypassed Congress, using executive orders in lieu of legislation, to push politically popular conservation initiatives, culminating last year with an order forestalling new roads in over 40 million acres of national forest.

Clinton, however, wasn't a demagogue or a strict partisan. His most important accomplishment was ending the public perception that there is a choice between environmental protection and economic growth. He broke the stalement between loggers and environmentalists over the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest--a conflict about which George Bush had said "It's time to make people more important than owls"--by developing a plan that conserved sensitive land while offering job retraining and economic aid to logging communities. Instead of mandating that polluters strictly limit their nitrous oxide emissions, Clinton allowed them to set up a market-based trading system. Companies that were able to greatly reduce emissions were allowed to sell the right to pollute to less efficient competitors--a scheme that encourages innovation and ultimately makes conservation far more efficient, even if it does have unfortunate side effects for some communities. Clinton also tried to write such tradable permit schemes into the tabled Kyoto global warming treaty and introduced the possibility into the Clean Water Act.

He Got Game

Clinton came to office famously promising to "end welfare as we know it" and, in so doing, put the issue on the table. But his obsession with health care blocked him from moving on welfare early, and Republicans used the issue as a political wedge to help win Congress in 1994. Clinton was forced into reactive mode, responding to Newt Gingrich's proposed reforms. The president vetoed the first two. Despite including the agreed-upon premise that people on welfare should work, the Gingrich legislation was loaded down with poison pills such as removing the federal guarantee of Medicaid and slashing Supplemental Social Security Income benefits--a long-standing program of payments for the elderly and disabled poor.

The third Republican bill of 1995 included some punitive measures--most brutally revoking all welfare benefits for non-citizen immigrants--but Clinton defied most of his top advisers and signed it, promising to fix the immigrant provisions, as he later partially did. Largely as a result, welfare rolls have declined by more than 50 percent nationally. There might be serious problems when the next recession hits, and the bill has done little to help the great number of people who have led such troubled lives that they struggle to hold any sort of job. The reform though seems to have worked as well as its proponents boasted it would. There are hundreds of thousands of people who have benefited, and welfare reform has changed the political discussion of poverty in America. It's not a coincidence that this was the first presidential election in recent memory where one or the other candidate didn't use aid to the poor as a bogeyman, or use criticisms of poverty in inflammatory coded language for race.

Clinton employed the strategy of bouncing, co-opting, and sticking with modest ideas to earn success on other issues, most prominently crime and education. The Republican line on crime for decades has more or less been lock 'em down or string 'em up and the GOP consistently earned higher ratings from the public. George Bush had fried Michael Dukakis in 1988 with his Willie Horton ads that portrayed the Massachusetts governor as soft on crime. But Clinton was pro-death penalty and, in 1992, Bush was left stammering by the governor's proposal to put 100,000 policemen on the street using a new style of community policing. The only way the vice president could try to gain a toughness edge during the first debate was to declare that he "happen[ed] to think that we need stronger death penalties for those that kill police officers."

On education, Clinton also did a very good job of rubbing the belly of his inner politician. He pushed a few issues from the traditional left, like piling up money for university students through an alphabet soup of grant programs and tax credits. But his real success came from his own ideas and his ability to cut an original path through the teachers' unions on the far left and the education slashers on the right. Clinton helped charter schools move forward, improving school innovation in at least modest ways. He also created a program that grants loans directly from the Department of Education to college students, instead of routing them through politically powerful middlemen. Previously, loans were primarily granted by Sallie Mae, a tremendously profitable quasi-governmental organization, and backed up by the government. Sallie Mae, which was privatized in 1996, now has to compete with the Education Department, resulting in lower-interest loans and savings for students. Clinton was also the first Democrat to really push standards nationally, requiring them for all states receiving federal funding through Title I. Standards aren't the magic bullet for our education problems, but it's a pretty good indicator of Clinton's success that the presidential debate in 2000 wasn't over whether we should have standards--it was over how to make them tougher and fairer.

The Hillary Trap

Of course, Clinton's domestic policy has not been an unbroken string of successes. He initially and halfheartedly tried for campaign finance reform but, once stymied, decided to blow a hole in the system and cut every conceivable legal corner. He essentially invented soft-money ads during his 1996 presidential race and seemed to follow the prayer of St. Augustine: "Lord give me chastity and continency, just not now." The president talked about reform, but he reveled in thousand-dollar-a-plate fundraisers and spent more energy finding new loopholes than closing them.

Clinton's biggest problems have come when he hasn't given himself space to move. After flirting with Social Security reform, the president eschewed the small steps that could solidify the system: from raising the retirement age to means testing benefits to reducing and rationalizing cost-of-living adjustments. On health care, Clinton tried to pass an ambitious bill, but he gave the project to his wife and Ira Magaziner and they flamed out on the politics. They didn't listen to critics; they didn't scratch the backs of potential friends; and they scuttled potential coalitions. Afterwards, the president tried to play catch-up. He signed the Kennedy-Kassebaum Act allowing workers to keep health insurance after switching jobs, and he created the Children's Health Insurance Program. Although important, both bills fell short of what is needed. Since Clinton became president, the number of Americans without health insurance has climbed from 37 to 42 million.

Not coincidentally, the worst mistakes of the administration have come because of Clinton's inability to separate political reality from his relationship with Hillary. It's not that she was a fount of bad advice. But when Clinton dealt with her, he stopped listening to advisers and allowed Hillary's rigid instincts to wrestle his more flexible ones to the ground. This is what happened with health care. It's also what happened when The Washington Post asked Clinton to hand over all of the documents relating to Whitewater. According to both David Gergen and George Stephanopoulos, top Clinton advisers, the president wanted to hand everything over but insisted on first talking to Hillary.

She didn't want to do it. Hillary thought the attacks would continue indefinitely regardless and she didn't understand that stonewalling would only pour gasoline on the fire. Still feeling sheepish after the publication of long exposes of his infidelity in The American Spectator and Los Angeles Times, Clinton acquiesced and refused to give the documents over. The media were infuriated and started charging hard, forcing Clinton to appoint independent council Robert Fiske to investigate the matter. Fiske dove into the ultimately innocent nuances of Whitewater and continually expanded the probe, a trend continued in spades by his replacement, Ken Starr.

Four years later, confronted by the Monica Lewinsky story, Clinton again went into hunker-down mode, quite likely because of his fear of facing his wife with the truth about his abominable behavior. Breaking with the pattern that had brought him so much success, Clinton decided to stick with one tactic. In a sense he was pursuing the mirror image of the Powell doctrine, move as slowly as possibly and follow each provable accusation with an admission and nothing more. He parsed words and gradually retreated, like a hedgehog sticking up its spines and backing into the corner. The result was the greatest shame of his presidency.

Foreign Affairs

Grade: B

Clinton has never had the respect of the foreign policy elite. He campaigned for office, denigrating George Bush's fixation on foreign affairs and his first few months on the job were disastrous. American soldiers were murdered and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu; a ship bringing Americans to train a civilian police force was turned around at Haiti's port by menacing thugs; villages burned in Bosnia as Clinton thumbed through briefing papers.

For many, the first few months set the pattern for the administration. John McCain has said repeatedly that Clinton has followed a pattern of "strategic incoherence" that will come back to bite us. Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, wrote in Foreign Affairs last May that Clinton's "foreign policy suffered from a lack of presidential interest, attention, and respect. It suffered, in short, from malign neglect."

It is true that Clinton never offered a sweeping vision. He never convinced the public that he knew where he was going to move his chess pieces, and there's no Clinton doctrine that high-school students can memorize off of note cards. He flummoxed his allies and, in large part because of his decision to skirt the draft during Vietnam, seemed to cower before anyone in uniform.

But, Clinton did have a set of notions, and he did know how to push them through. He was consistent in his efforts to enlarge the community of market democracies and equalize the importance of international economics and policy. Previous presidents have been willing to pay almost any price to prop up anti-Communist leaders, from the brutal Duvaliers to the malevolent Mobutu; Clinton has been willing to do almost anything to open foreign markets and to bring peace. He fought tooth and nail for NAFTA and GATT and many lesser trade agreements.

Clinton also, as always, reacted well to unpredictability and, aggravating experts irked by successful amateurs, was able to dance his way out of every quagmire. Even with China, the bugbear of much of the Republican Congress, Clinton seems to have played his cards just about right. As China emerged as the greatest challenger to American hegemony, Clinton didn't take a uniform line. He pushed hard rhetorically on issues of human rights and intellectual property piracy. At the same time, he worked to integrate China's booming economy with ours and eventually was able to obtain a permanent normal trade relationship agreement. He also played tough by calling out war ships when China threatened Taiwan. Partly as a result, relations between Taiwan and the mainland have improved, our companies are flying into Beijing, and there are even signs of fledgling democracy in China's outer provinces.

There is also, in part due to Clinton, increased peace in Northern Ireland, and although Molotov cocktails are presently flying in Jerusalem, Israel has been able to forge peace with Egypt and Jordan and, at least, smooth relations with Syria. And this isn't just because of luck and inherited policies. Clinton is a skillful, indefatigable negotiator. As King Hussein of Jordan said to him: "I have never--with all due respect and all the affection that I held for your predecessors--have known someone with your dedication, clear headedness, focus, and determination to help resolve this issue in the best way possible."

Dealing with Washington and the Government

Grade: C+

When Bill Clinton debated George Bush and Ross Perot in 1992, he boasted endlessly about his accomplishments in Arkansas. After the governor ran on a bit too long, Perot noted that "I could say, you know, that I ran a small grocery store on the corner, therefore I extrapolate that into the fact that I can run Wal-Mart. That's not true."

That may have been Perot's most prescient line. Clinton came to Washington confident that he could handle the sprawling bureaucracy, and he quickly bumped his head. He appointed his buddy Mack McLarty as chief of staff despite McLarty's lack of federal experience. He devoted far too much energy to drafting a cabinet that looked like America and dawdled over choosing a White House staff. Not surprisingly, he soon lost control over the confrontation between the FBI and Branch Davidians at Waco, spun in circles over gays in the military, and with the firing of the White House travel office, set off a conservative hunt that ultimately ended up finding him innocent of malice but guilty of incompetence.

Clinton also struggled with his staff, bouncing between the advice given to him by senior aides and his young campaign team. At the same time, Clinton was frequently pushed into reactive mode--not unlike previous administrations, but with an unprecedented level of chaos. According to senior adviser Bill Curry, "most White Houses are floating ad-hocracies. This one just happened to be a bit more so than others."

Dollar Bill

Clinton has always loved to make policy more than to carry it out. He wanted to pass bills, he was terrific at partisan battles, and he seemed able to master the intricacies of every issue. According to Mike Cohen, a senior education adviser to Clinton for the past 15 years, "From the first time I met him, to the last time we talked in the White House, I have never failed to be impressed that he is the smartest person around on education policy."

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Clinton's interest wasn't as deep as it should have been. He could make a great case for why Medicaid shouldn't be block-granted with welfare, but once a bill was passed and the press conference chairs had been folded up, Clinton seemed to move on to the next thing in his inbox. He did request weekly memos from cabinet members and was constantly looking for cabinet-level initiatives to wrap up in red ribbon. But he delegated the entire effort to reinvent government to Gore and disengaged from the issue so much that aides were often reluctant to even bother him with discussions of government reform. According to chief of staff Leon Panetta, the president didn't want to look at restructuring government because it "seemed in the past that it was a wasted effort."

Clinton paid almost no attention to the IRS until Senate hearings in 1997, even though it was revealed in 1993 that, in just one regional office, more than 350 employees had been investigated for snooping through the tax returns of friends, relatives, and celebrities. That wasn't enough for Clinton to act. It was only after the appalling, if exaggerated, stories of the men and women who testified at infamous 1997 hearings that Clinton decided to lock the barn door. The testimony had been politically motivated and a bit overblown, but no one could deny there was a serious problem. So the president crafted a reform bill that, as Al Gore said, would create "an IRS that is not just taken off people's backs but put on their side." But by trying to come out with a response as soon as the problem hit the newspapers, Clinton's reform was seriously flawed. It solved the public relations problem: The IRS no longer harasses people. But the agency has been forced to overcompensate and enforcement has bottomed out. Seizure of property to pay back taxes, for example, has declined 98 percent since the law was passed two years ago.

When The New York Times was about to publish a scathing report on the administration's failures at inspecting imported food, the president quickly cobbled together a measure to allow the FDA to ban food imports--making good press, if not good governance. When the National Academy of Sciences released a report saying that medical mistakes killed tens of thousands of patients annually, Clinton announced that he was shocked and prepared a defiant legislative response. Either he wasn't on top of a relatively well-known issue, or he was lying and should have acted well before the issue hit the front of The Washington Post.

The pattern also holds in ensuring that legislation is implemented effectively. Clinton's crime bill revolved around 100,000 cops being moved into local police forces. But the implementation effort was understaffed, and seven years after the bill passed, the Justice Department estimates that only about 60,000 policemen are actually on the streets. Numerous departments have received so-called police-equivalents, like laptops, a large part of the money is still to be doled out, and a 1999 Inspector General's report estimated that 40 percent of the grantees were using the money to supplant local funds. In a suburb of Chicago, an audit found that thousands of dollars in COPS money helped bankroll dog-track gambling and trips to Florida and Arizona.

In fairness, there will always be some problems stemming from the complexity of the federal government: Agencies will disintegrate, space ships will crash and contractors somewhere will screw something up. But a president has to minimize mistakes, and the way to do that isn't to run an administration that seems to stop at the White House.

Graduating With Honors

If there is a central theme to the career of Bill Clinton it's that he always wanted to have his cake and eat it too. He wanted to balance the budget without sacrificing core government programs; he wanted clean air without cutting corporations off at the knees; he wanted welfare recipients to take personal responsibility without ending up on the streets; he wanted free trade with China without having to give in on Taiwan and human rights. And to his great credit, Clinton has been smart enough, and shown a deep enough love of policy, to get what he wanted almost every time he allowed himself space to move.

The results have been magnificent. Since Clinton has come to office, we've gone from having the biggest budget deficits in history to having the biggest surpluses, and the boom is spreading fairly equally across society. We now have the lowest recorded African American and Hispanic poverty rates in history, the lowest percentage of Americans on welfare since 1965, and even indicators like teen pregnancy rates are dropping. We are experiencing the longest continuous crime drop in history. We have basically open and positive relationships with all of our potential major allies and antagonists. Clinton doesn't deserve all the credit, but he surely deserves some.

It's hard not to wish that Bill Clinton hadn't been so absorbed in himself that he was willing to act personally reckless, and that his love of the bright lights kept him out of the dark corners where so much government reform is needed. Even so, he got most of the big things right. It's only fair to grade him well now that the era of Bill Clinton is over.

Nicholas Thompson is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly. You can email him by clicking here or read his other articles by clicking here

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