Clinton’s Reaganite Legacy

Bruce J. Schulman, an associate professor of history and director of American studies at Boston University, is author of "Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism."

What will the Clinton presidency’s enduring legacy be? As the nation digests independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s massive report and impeachment proceedings loom, will President Bill Clinton be forever tainted by a sordid sex scandal? Like Richard M. Nixon and Watergate, Warren G. Harding and Teapot Dome, will Americans eternally yoke Clinton to Monica S. Lewinsky and Starr?

Whatever his fate on Capitol Hill, Clinton’s principal historical role has been to consolidate the Reagan revolution of the 1980s, to smooth the rough edges of the right-wing GOP agenda and make conservatism palatable to the great American middle. His major achievements--reforming welfare, balancing the budget, shrinking the federal government--completed the work that President Ronald Reagan began and that hard-line conservatives like House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) could never have achieved on their own.

Few Americans expected this when Clinton reached the White House. In 1992, the man from Hope offered himself as an alternative to Reagan-Bush conservatism. He campaigned as the antidote to 12 years of Republican rule, promising to end a decade-long party for the rich, reward neglected working Americans and rebuild the nation’s decaying infrastructure. While he acknowledged the past failures of liberal programs, Clinton was not content to assign the people’s business to the “thousand points of light”; he pledged to revive the maligned public sector by “reinventing government.”

But after suffering setbacks on Capitol Hill and at the polls, Clinton quickly abandoned that program and appropriated the GOP agenda. He endorsed Republican demands for a balanced budget, bickering just long enough with congressional conservatives over the details (Would it take five years or seven? Would it include reductions in the capital-gains tax or “targeted” tax cuts?) to establish himself as a moderating influence on Gingrich and his fire-eating Republican freshmen before capitulating to their demands.

He transformed the reinventing-government initiative from a defense of liberal activism--a program that would showcase the renewed potential of governmental action by making the federal bureaucracy more efficient, service-oriented and user-friendly--into just another assault on federal spending and bureaucratic red tape. When Vice President Al Gore reported the plan’s achievements, he said nothing about how improved operations could restore America’s faith in government. Instead, with a smiling Clinton at his side, Gore parroted the Republican line, highlighting reductions in federal spending and the government work force.


Clinton also had promised welfare reform. He pledged to remove the impoverished from the rolls, offering a kind of “tough love” administered by the federal government. He would cut benefits after two or three years but ensure that welfare recipients received national health insurance and adequate child care. That proposal never left the drawing board. Instead, Clinton embraced the far more draconian GOP plan, eliminating the federal government’s half-century commitment to the hard-core poor.

More than his assignation with Lewinsky, Clinton’s decision to sign the Republican welfare bill placed the stamp on his presidency. With that one stroke, Clinton erased his last substantive dissent from his GOP opponents and ensured his own reelection. Reagan had only dreamed of slashing domestic spending, eliminating the federal government’s responsibility for welfare and turning power over to the states. Clinton did it. Promising to fix the bill’s defects in the future and to safeguard the deserving poor, Clinton legitimized a conservative plan long rejected as too harsh and extreme.

Most important, Clinton presided over the unalloyed triumph of conservative free-market principles. Resting his popularity on an economic boom and a raging bull market, Clinton has shown no concern for how the boom has distributed its benefits between rich and poor, labor and capital, mom-and-pop stores and multinational conglomerates. Criticism of Wall Street and big business, a staple of U.S. politics since the late 19th century, has all but dropped out of contemporary political debate. During the go-go 1980s, Democrats like then-Gov. Clinton criticized the Reagan boom, blaming the harshness of the unregulated market for rampant inequality in American society. Today, with a Democrat in the White House, only ultra-rightist Patrick J. Buchanan worries about the losers in a red-hot economy.

Still, the Lewinsky imbroglio will exert some impact on Clinton’s ultimate legacy. This year’s scandals ensure that Clinton will leave no mark of his own; he will remain the president who domesticated, and enacted, Gingrich-style Republicanism. Even if Clinton survives the fallout from Starr’s report, the weakened president cannot hope to achieve even the modest objectives he announced for his second term. His attempt to revive national health insurance through piecemeal reforms appears destined to wither on Capitol Hill; his yearlong national conversation on race is unlikely to yield even a single concrete proposal.

Clinton’s predecessor, George Bush, had promised Americans a kinder, gentler conservatism--Reaganism without the rough edges, the mean-spiritedness, the confrontational rhetoric. But it was Clinton who delivered that more palatable form of conservative Republican politics.

It took Dwight D. Eisenhower, the avuncular conservative, to legitimate and preserve the New Deal. It took Nixon, the hard-line anticommunist, to open relations with China and forge detente with the Soviet Union. Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and their conservative allies could attack government endlessly but could never have shed their image as partisans and extremists. It took Clinton, the compassionate Democrat famous for his empathy, to end welfare as we knew it and declare an end to the era of big government.

Long after Americans have forgotten Linda R. Tripp and the stained cocktail dress, history will remember Clinton as a consolidator, the president who completed the right turn first signaled by Reagan and Bush. The sputtering end of AFDC, not the embarrassing splatter of DNA, will leave the lasting mark on his presidency.