Bill Clinton Revisited - What Liberals and Moderates Get Wrong

January 20, 2006 is the 5th anniversary of the end of Bill Clinton's presidency.  It's not exactly a day that people will be taking note of, but it is an opportunity to revisit his legacy as it relates to how Democrats feel about him and how they have reacted to the Clinton era in the past 5 years.
One comment that I have heard quite a bit over the years is that Clinton was a politician of convenience, thus reinforcing the image of "Slick Willie" that Republicans like to promote.

But is this really true?  Certainly, Clinton would not be classified as a strict liberal, and most would call him a moderate.  But this does not indicate a lack of philosophy.  And I would argue that this philosophy embraced progressive objectives, even if the tactics may have differed from those embraced by Democrats previously.

In the case of Bill Clinton, his overall philosophy can be summed up by the following:

1.    Embracing the future instead of the past
2.    Recognizing that the world is constantly changing, and that the United States must continue to adapt
3.    A policy of good governance

There are those on the left who view Clinton as a sellout.  However, Clinton's overall view of governance did not change between his tenure as governor of Arkansas and his presidency.  

Based on the failures of Democrats since the end of the Clinton presidency, some liberals have decried the "moderate" era ushered in by Clinton, and that has continued after the end of his presidency.

So let's take a closer look at the Clinton presidency.

The first major initiative of the Clinton presidency was health care.  As we all know, the effort failed, and the election of a Republican Congress would ensure that this effort would not reappear for the remainder of his presidency.  Still, Clinton was able to implement small health care initiatives throughout his presidency.  Obviously, this is not a substitute for real health care reform.  But Clinton did consider it a priority, though his results were not nearly as successful as we would have liked.  Healthcare is a liberal idea, and Clinton tackled it head on from the outset.

With regards to welfare reform, it is true that Clinton signed it into law, angering many liberals - including his own strategist James Carville, who publicly stated his disagreement.  It should be noted, however, that Clinton vetoed two bills before signing one into law because they were draconian and did not meet his goals.  It should also be noted that Clinton embraced welfare reform as governor of Arkansas.  So it is hard to call him a sellout on this topic, as some have alleged.

In 1995, Clinton battled the Republicans, with the result being the government shutdown.  Clinton fought to prevent deep spending costs in programs in many programs that progressives supported.  Clinton won this battle.  If Clinton was a sellout, he would not have fought this battle.  

Clinton also emphasized education.  As Governor of Arkansas, he helped improve the education system there.  As President, he continued to emphasize education, promoting programs that would allow Americans to compete in an ever-changing world.  This is line with his philosophy that the world is constantly changing and we must adapt.

The "changing world" concept applied to Clinton himself.  After he took office, he realized that his proposed middle-class tax cut would not be sound economically.  With this in mind, he emphasized balancing the budget while resisting deep spending cuts to critical domestic spending programs.  He also raised taxes on the wealthiest 1% of Americans.  The results speak for themselves:  22 million new jobs and a budget surplus.  It also illustrated his commitment to good governance, as he adapted his policies to make sure that government was working effectively.

In addition, Clinton achieved a significant reduction in the poverty rate - from 15.1% to 11.7%.  Clinton may not have been a "liberal" president, but this would be a positive result that progressives should be happy with, though of course, we should not be satisfied with 11.7% rate, either.

In general, the above examples show that Clinton was not a bland moderate who would sell out at any cost.  He was vibrant President who knew "one-size fits all" and "simplistic" solutions were not a way to govern.  He adhered to the general philosophy that I laid out above pretty well.  And Clinton achieved more of his campaign initiatives from 1992 during his presidency than many other presidents.

In summary, those on the left who may be dissatisfied with Clinton may have legitimate issues regarding specific policies but they should not dislike him because of a lack of philosophy, because Clinton did have a philosophy.  They should also remember that it is not the tactics that matter but the achievement of overall objectives.  Clinton was about results, and he got them, particularly in areas that matter to progressives.

But if some on the left are wrong about Clinton not having a philosophy, many moderates have also gotten the Clinton era wrong.  Since the end of the Clinton presidency, moderates have settled in many cases for Republican-lite pandering (see Joe Lieberman).  They assumed that Clinton's success was because he was a moderate (if he is one).  So they just looked for positions that were "popular." However, they had not developed a philosophy, and the results have been telling.  Many argue that the Democratic Party does not know what it stands for.  This is the result of moderates who are more interested in having the "right" positions but not having a governing philosophy.  Clinton's success was the result of having an overall philosophy, not being a "moderate." As some of the above examples show, Clinton was not averse to liberal ideas, as evidenced by healthcare and his commitment to keeping domestic programs well-funded.

In summary, candidates that have an overall governing philosophy will succeed, whether it is liberal, moderate, or a combination of both that transcends either label.  Those who are looking to be on the "right" side of the issues and pander will fail.

Bill Clinton understood this.  As a result, he became the first 2-term Democratic President since FDR.

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Pardon me,
but that was a Clinton/Gore Presidency for Gore worked his ass off for that administration probably at least as much as Bill Clinton did. Credit where credit is due.
by NeuvoLiberal 2005-12-09 12:53PM | 0 recs
Re: Pardon me,
Now that's off my chest, i'll sit and respond to your post's content in details.

My basic summary view before reading your arguments are these:

Bill Clinton is one of most intelligent presidents we've had. While I don't think that he really "feels your pain", I do think that he cares about making the world a better place than when he found it.

I think that he used poor judgement when succumbing to his primal instinct in getting involved with Lewinsky. He should have thought about the potential ramifications of his indiscretion, the most telling victim of them was Al Gore, who IMO was one of the main reasons Bill Clinton got elected in the first place (along with other reasons, of course). In fact I distinctly remember this: Clinton surged ahead of Bush-I for the first time after he endorsed Gore and it stayed that way through the election, period.

I view his going along with Hillary's Iraq war positions and votes as a betrayal of sorts. But my guess is that it was a calculation arrived at by Hillary and Bill went with it as a show of solidarity (perhaps reciprocating how Hillary stood by him after the Lewinsky scandal broke).

I admire Clinton immensely and think that the Clinton/Gore administration will be the standard against which all administrations will be compared for a very long time to come (the current regime is off the scale, of course).

by NeuvoLiberal 2005-12-09 01:06PM | 0 recs
d*** my the typos:
Now that that's off my chest, i'll sit and respond to your post's content in detail.
by NeuvoLiberal 2005-12-09 01:07PM | 0 recs
and: "after he picked Gore"
by NeuvoLiberal 2005-12-09 01:25PM | 0 recs
Re: and: "after he picked Gore"
We've been running into each other a lot lately.
Good conversation!
by v2aggie2 2005-12-09 01:29PM | 0 recs
Re: and: "after he picked Gore"
by NeuvoLiberal 2005-12-09 02:11PM | 0 recs
Re: and: "after he picked Gore"
I'd be pleased to continue our conversation over email; please feel free to write to me (email at).

thanks, v2a2.

by NeuvoLiberal 2005-12-09 02:33PM | 0 recs
Re: Pardon me,
Gore is the greatest Vice-President that we have ever had.  No disrespect was intended.

Having said that, Bill Clinton was the President, and not a figurehead like GW Bush.

I think that Al Gore would agree with this assessment.

by v2aggie2 2005-12-09 01:06PM | 0 recs
Re: Pardon me,
all I am saying is that they were a team that worked hand in hand all the way through the two terms.

I also think that Bill and Al have great admiration and respect for each other.

by NeuvoLiberal 2005-12-09 01:09PM | 0 recs
Re: Pardon me,
I will agree with that!
by v2aggie2 2005-12-09 01:13PM | 0 recs
Liberals and moderates didn't get it all wrong
He was the first Dem president to get impeached and tried and because of this Dems have lost power ever since.  
by mleflo2 2005-12-09 02:08PM | 0 recs
Re: Liberals and moderates didn't get it all wrong
Democrats lost because they let impeachment dictate a lot election decisions.

I think this plagued Gore in 2000.
If he had focused on the Clinton/Gore record, which he was a major contributor to, Bush v. Gore never would have happened.

Clinton had a 65% approval rating during the impeachment saga.

It's been quite a while since George W. Bush had a 65% approval rating.  And it took September 11 to get it.

by v2aggie2 2005-12-09 07:48PM | 0 recs
Re: Liberals and moderates didn't get it all wrong
But aren't you forgetting the fact that Clinton's favorability ratings following the impeachment were mostly in the cellar? And Rove managed to tag "Restoring Honor and Intergrity" tag on the Gore'2000 campaign. In fact Gore'2008 can run on exact same theme but in the opposite direction and with legitimacy, and romp home.
by NeuvoLiberal 2005-12-10 08:28AM | 0 recs
Re: Liberals and moderates didn't get it all wrong
I remember his approval ratings were about the same, if not slightly higher after impeachment.
He certainly did not tank

The Rove campaign shouldn't have worked, but we fell into the trap of letting that define the campaign instead of celebrating our successes.

by v2aggie2 2005-12-10 10:24AM | 0 recs
Re: Liberals and moderates didn't get it all wrong
The time line of interest is:

1/19/98: the scandal surfaced
9/21/98: Starr report released to the public
2/12/99: Senate trial concluded

Here is's Clinton's fav/unfav ratings history: Link.

There are varying trends there, but here are Zogby's numbers (highlighting the best and the worst): (fav/unfav/unsure)

    1/3-5/00     50     47     3     879LV    
    9/21-23/99     45     50     5     1,005LV    
    5/14-16/99     47     50     2     1,023LV    
    4/5-7/99     54     45     1     916LV    
    2/15-17/99     54     44     2     756LV    
    1/19-21/99     51     46     3     993LV    
    10/11-14/98     46     52     3     864LV    
    10/4-6/98     47     49     3     861LV    
    9/21-22/98     50     47     3     898LV    
    9/11-13/98     47     52     1     796LV    
    7/29-31/98     55     41     4     976LV    
    7/6-9/98     61     36     3     1,206LV    
    5/17-19/98     61     38     1        
    4/98             59     39     2        
    1/98             56     41     3        
    10/97             66     32     2        
    4/97             63     35     2        

LV = likely voters

There is considerable variability here and in other polls at that link, but here is my general reading: WJC's unfavorables went from high 30s before the scandal and the impeachment to mid to high 40s after it, peaking shortly after the Starr report came out.


"The Rove campaign shouldn't have worked, but we fell into the trap of letting that define the campaign instead of celebrating our successes."

Unfortunately, since the biased gate-keeper MSM sets the table for discussions, it's quite hard to counter the spin. If anyone knows how, they could've helped prevent a similar thing from happening again in 2004. And, that remains the biggest hurdle going forward as well.

by NeuvoLiberal 2005-12-10 11:35AM | 0 recs
Re: Liberals and moderates didn't get it all wrong
From your data, it looks like a post-impeachment spike upward or Clinton (early to mid 1999)
by v2aggie2 2005-12-10 12:38PM | 0 recs
My response to your post
  1. IMO, his philosophy and that of most "progressive" thinking politicians is and should be simple: good governance, sensible and logical policy that in totality is good for the country which IMO is well-served by growing the economy, while at the same helping those in need and helping to provide opportunities to all citizens to make good of themselves.

  2. Many of the accomplishments you talk about (22 million new jobs and a budget surplus etc) came about due to Gore's work too, and I think that is only fair to ask that he be given due credit along with Bill Clinton in every context of their mention.

  3. You'd need to provide a list of specifics programs to substantiate your claims about healthcare and education.

  4. I agree on the tax cuts. IMO, the targetted middle-class tax cuts were one of the keys to spurring the economy from a mildly recessive one into one that facilitated the enormous growth to follow.

  5. poverty rate figures you mentioned are interesting; i wasn't aware of them. Do you have a link?

  6. Joe Lieberman is not a "moderate". With his gung-ho war-hawking, he carved a whole new class for himself that's beyond even most republicans.

Finally, I agree with the theme that all these labels don't mean much (except being progressive in one's outlook and approach). It boils down to getting things done and keeping the greater and common good as the guiding rail.
by NeuvoLiberal 2005-12-09 02:08PM | 0 recs
Ross Perot gave us Bill Clinton...
Say what you will about ol' Bill Clinton.  Like him or love him or, like me, be somewhere in between (he signed the Repug Welfare plan for God's sake!) you are only kidding yourself -- and a lot of people seem to be on this issue -- if you think Clinton was some kind of electoral juggernaut.  Clinton's election was just a happy accident.

In 1992 Clinton bumbled his way into the White House on a WHOPPING 43% of the vote.  Perot ran as a third party candidate and split up the usual Repug/conservative vote and Clinton stumbled in to office.  In 1996 -- the economy was roaring at record levels (something that normally gives an incumbent President a landslide victory) and Clinton was reelected with a HUGE 49% of the vote (Perot again saved a day by running again and mangling the Repug/conservative vote).

So any analysis of how Clinton got elected is just a waste of time.  Clinton got elected because Ross Perot interfered with the normal anti-democratic party vote and the re-elected for the same reason.  Period.

by Blue Dreams 2005-12-09 02:48PM | 0 recs
Perot was factor
but you make no convincing case that Clinton would not have won without Perot being in the race.

Let me make a quick case to the contrary:

Now, Perot got 19%, and Bill would've needed only 7 out of that 19, which is about 36%. I don't know if this data is available, but based on my own hunch, I'd claim that Clinton would've got some 40% and hence would've won anyway.

Prove me wrong.

by NeuvoLiberal 2005-12-09 03:04PM | 0 recs
Re: Ross Perot gave us Bill Clinton...
Exit polls show that Perot took evenly from both sides.

With this in mind, in a 2-man race, the results would be:

Clinton 52.5%
Bush    47.5%

The best case scenario in the Electoral College for Bush in a 2-man race would have been

Clinton 281
Bush    257

It probably would not have been this close.

by v2aggie2 2005-12-09 07:44PM | 0 recs
Well, well, well
You can't have a good flame war without a little collateral damage to innocent bystanders. Have ten 1s NuevoLiberal.

They should go very well with the 1s I already gave v2a2.

by Gary Boatwright 2005-12-10 07:19AM | 0 recs
Re: Well, well, well
Chief, I don't think that there is a dearth of counsellors in the Orange county area, where you claim to live.
by NeuvoLiberal 2005-12-10 11:43AM | 0 recs
Re: Well, well, well
Feel free to shove your knuckle dragging bawl baby whining up a warm, moist sphincter of your choice.
by Gary Boatwright 2005-12-10 12:08PM | 0 recs
Clinton Goverance Fine, But...
I understand that any President who tries to rule through a narrow ideology will be a failure.   A President must govern, not rule, so that means being flexible and working with Congress to push initiatives through.   Therefore, my major disappointment with Clinton was not his governance - it was his personal conduct.  

I'm sure that a majority of President's had affairs or some other personal indiscretion. However, the mess with Lewinsky took place in the Oval Office.   We can talk about Presidents' personal lives being their own business, but this was not like Kennedy or other Presidents having an affair, it was sexual relations with an intern in the place of employment.  In my estimation, his "bimbo eruptions", distracted from the real work of the Presidency.    If he knew he had these problems, he should have just settled with Paula Jones to get that whole situation off the desk.

From a political standpoint, that personal failure is exactly the type of thing that made it hard for those populist Democrats running in culturally conservative districts to compete.   You may be able to make a case for socially liberal policies (abortion, gay rights) by saying the business of government is not in people's bedrooms, but when the nominal head of your party is conducting himself unethically in the workplace with a traditional moral indiscretion, then that adds baggage to rank and file Democrats working on the state and local level.

Don't get me wrong, I like Bill Clinton.  Given that the liberal/progressive coalition is broad itself, I think that it is true that Bill Clinton worked to bring economic progress and extend social liberties within the parameters he had to operate in.  Also, as important as policies, Clinton had a way of communicating with people in a way that made them understand that he understood there struggles - something Democrats could learn from. I just wished the Lewinsky debacle had never happened.  Although a successful President, I think that debacle may keep him from being considered a near-great President.

by robstephens 2005-12-11 05:56AM | 0 recs


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