DECEMBER 12, 2016
AMID OTHER SIDESHOWS of the recent circus-like presidential election, voters were treated to a selective rehash of the tenure of Bill Clinton — perhaps the most disputed presidential legacy of the modern era. Inside the Clinton White House, a new book composed of interviews with more than 60 of Clinton’s aides and advisors (and even some political enemies), should bring some much-needed clarity to the discussion, which will persist long after the time when the Clinton name is no longer on the ballot.
Editor Russell L. Riley has organized the recollections chronologically, with each chapter offering multiple perspectives on a key period or event, such as Clinton’s career in state politics, the 1992 campaign, or the failed health care reform initiative. This format allows the reader to observe Clinton and his advisors struggling in real time, as it were, to understand and adapt to a rapidly changing political environment.
The book’s early chapters, which feature interviews with several of the strategists behind Clinton’s 1992 presidential bid, are particularly interesting for what they reveal about the modern Democratic Party’s vexed relationship with the white working class. The story begins in the late 1980s when then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton first came to national attention as part of a wave of so-called “New Democrats.” The Democrats had suffered landslide losses in the presidential elections of 1984 and 1988, and the New Democrats believed that their party stood little chance of recapturing the White House so long as it continued to put traditional liberals like Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis at the top of the ticket. The path to electoral success, they argued, ran through the ideological center.
In the ashes of Hillary Clinton’s stunning defeat, it has become fashionable to blame the New Democrats and their leading think tank, the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), for driving blue-collar white voters from the Democratic fold. But the truth is more complicated. In fact, the movement was born from the realization that industrial workers in places like Macomb County, Michigan, were already voting Republican. The question was not how the party could retain the blue-collar white vote, but whether it was even possible to win it back.
The problem, the New Democrats believed, was that working-class whites had come to view the Democrats as the party of hippies, peaceniks, riots, high taxes, deficit spending, “forced” busing, and abortion on demand. Convinced that Democrats no longer shared their values, they no longer trusted the party to govern. The DLC’s response to this state of affairs was not to ape the Republican philosophy of rugged individualism, but rather to emphasize the value of “community” — a nebulous term that in the capable hands of the group’s founder, Al From, became shorthand for an agenda that deemphasized social issues in favor of moderately progressive policies designed to ease the financial burdens of the middle class (universal pre-K, the Earned Income Tax Credit, market-based health care reform) and promote a sense of civic responsibility (national service).
By 1989, Al From and others at the DLC had concluded that Bill Clinton, the popular Democratic governor of a deeply conservative state, would make the ideal mouthpiece for the new philosophy. Clinton agreed to chair the DLC, and a well-received speech at the group’s 1991 meeting served as the ideological launching point for his presidential bid. According to the DLC’s Bruce Reed, Clinton was “the closest thing to a Bobby Kennedy of [our] time, somebody who could bring together working stiffs and the more liberal parts of the party.”
Clinton’s surprise victory in the 1992 presidential contest suggested that such hyperbolic comparisons were not entirely without merit. And yet, if anyone seriously believed that the country was witnessing the reemergence of the old New Deal coalition, they were quickly disabused of the notion. By early 1994, Clinton’s poll numbers were tanking, his administration plagued by a series of badly mangled policy initiatives and pseudo scandals: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a stillborn economic stimulus package, the health care reform debacle, the Travel Office firings. By the end of the year, the Republicans would recapture unified control of Congress for the first time since the 1950s.
Even today, Clinton’s closest aides seem unsure where to pin the blame for this historic loss, though part of it undoubtedly belongs with the man at the top. Clinton could be chronically indecisive, and he struggled with the task of staffing his administration and formulating a coherent legislative agenda. Assistant Health and Human Services secretary Peter Edelman noted that the president liked to “sit around and let people talk endlessly and sometimes not come to a conclusion, have to leave it to go further.”
Others point the finger at a sclerotic Democratic congressional leadership that, having grown fat on the spoils of power, had little appetite for far-reaching policy reforms. Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Bob Kerrey play the role of villains in several anecdotes, and much is made of their role in derailing health care reform.
Another problem was that congressional Democrats, unaware that the political ground was shifting beneath their feet, generally refused to believe that their Republican colleagues might be negotiating in bad faith. Former Pennsylvania Senator Harris Wofford, an administration ally, recalls his outrage the moment he realized that rank-and-file Senate Republicans had “tasted blood” and were determined to “drive a stake” into health care reform, regardless of how their putative leader, Bob Dole, felt about the matter.
Still, an argument can be made that the two years of unified Democratic control were relatively productive. In the face of monolithic Republican opposition, Democrats pushed through several major pieces of legislation, including the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Brady Bill, an assault weapons ban, and the 1993 budget, which set the stage of for the surpluses of the late 1990s. Why didn’t these achievements resonate with voters?
The short answer is that the nation was in the midst of a once-in-a-generation political realignment that was largely beyond the White House’s power to control. As From rightly points out, most of the House seats lost in 1994 were in Southern and rural districts that had been voting Republican in presidential elections for years. Goaded into action by an emerging cadre of fire-breathing radio hosts, they at last turned out their long-serving Democratic congressmen.
But if the 1994 defeat could not have been avoided altogether, there was also a sense in which it seemed to confirm the strategic insights of the DLC. According to deputy domestic policy advisor William Galston, Clinton concluded that he had unwisely ignored the advice of “the handful of chartered New Democrats in the White House” in favor of “advisors who were oriented toward congressional Democrats.” Henceforth, he would govern mostly from the center, and the result was one of the most productive periods of any presidency in recent memory.
Between 1995 and 1997, Clinton signed legislation that reformed welfare, created SCHIP, increased the Earned Income Tax Credit, and finally balanced the budget. He also signed laws he has since renounced, including the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
Commentators have tended to adopt one of two perspectives on this period. One portrays Clinton as a spineless dealmaker, a man so determined to leave a policy legacy that he was willing to sell out core Democratic constituencies in order to win Republican votes for welfare reform and other administration priorities. The other portrays him as a fighter, a man who labored valiantly to save what remained of the New Deal and Great Society from an axe-wielding Republican leadership. Both narratives find plenty of support in this book.
Several prominent aides recount their astonishment at Clinton’s willingness to negotiate with House Speaker Newt Gingrich on seemingly any subject, including cuts to entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Others point out that the negotiations usually ended with Clinton — perhaps at his aides’ insistence — drawing some sort of line in the sand. Domestic policy advisor Chris Jennings recalls Clinton telling Gingrich, in response to a proposal to transform Medicaid into a block grant program, “I want you to know something. I will do a lot of things, but I will not […] sign this. I can lose my election over it, you can keep sending it to me, but I am never going to sign it.” Clinton’s top aides were so relieved by the uncharacteristic outburst that they were “almost in tears.”
The book devotes only a few pages to Hillary Clinton, but the handful of anecdotes that do appear are frequently revealing. Edelman is one of several administration officials who observes that the First Lady often exhibited the very personality traits — including self-discipline and decisiveness — that were so glaringly absent in her husband. Edelman, who once worked for Robert Kennedy, concludes that if anyone should be compared to the “tough-minded, steely” RFK, it is Hillary, not Bill.
The overall impression left by these 400 pages of interviews is of a president whose governing philosophy, such as it was, was well suited to its time and place. To blame Clinton or the New Democrats for failing to usher in a new golden age of American liberalism is to ignore the deep-seated conservatism of the American electorate in the 1980s and 1990s. This was an era when soak-the-rich liberalism was anathema even to those who should have been its natural constituency, a time when any politician even marginally to Bill Clinton’s left on either social or economic issues would have stood little chance of winning one presidential election, let alone two.
But that world is no more. If the Democrats should return to the White House, their party’s base will demand a far more progressive agenda than the one Bill Clinton pursued in the 1990s — and this at a time when legislative deal-making has become all but impossible, thanks to a combination of a polarized electorate, a badly gerrymandered House, an explosion of “dark money,” and the general erosion of party discipline in Congress. In this changed environment, even the steeliest of personalities may not guarantee a successful presidency.
John Compton is an associate professor of political science at Chapman University and the author of the book The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution (Harvard University Press, 2014). He holds a PhD from UCLA.