With the publication of Bill Clinton’s memoirs, a chorus of conservatives is reprising the right’s familiar charge that his presidency was an eight-year exercise in trivial pursuits.
“Clinton ... knew -- and accomplished -- small things,” writes Charles Krauthammer, the neoconservative columnist. Fellow neocon Max Boot says Clinton was “a status quo president” who “presided over a bunch of micro-reforms engineered by” pollster Dick Morris.
Especially around the end of his first term, Clinton certainly pursued his share of small-bore initiatives, like promoting school uniforms. But to portray these as the core of his presidency is to willfully miss the forest for the shrubs.
Clinton modernized the Democratic Party’s agenda and restored its attenuated ability to compete for the presidency. His domestic program helped to produce the most widely shared economic boom since the 1960s.
And though Clinton’s scorecard on foreign affairs is more mixed, he moved the Democrats away from their post- Vietnam aversion to force, and sharpened the government’s focus on terrorism -- even if history will likely conclude that he, like Congress, the media and President George W. Bush before Sept. 11, 2001, didn’t meet the full measure of the threat.
To conservative critics, the Clinton era was “a time of domesticity, triviality and self-absorption,” as Krauthammer wrote last week. Maybe it looked that way from the penthouse. But the Clinton years produced extraordinary gains in the communities that needed help most.
The benefits of the Clinton boom were dispersed far more broadly than the gains under Ronald Reagan, in part because Clinton systematically implemented policies that encouraged and rewarded work for those on the economy’s bottom rungs.
Consider the scorecard. During Clinton’s two terms, the median income for American families increased by a solid 15% after inflation, according to Census Bureau figures. But it rose even faster for African Americans (33%) and Hispanics (24%) than it did for whites (14%).
The growth was so widely shared that from 1993 through 1999, families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution saw their incomes increase faster than those in the top 5%. By comparison, under President Reagan in the 1980s, those in the top 5% increased their income more than five times faster than the bottom 20%.
Likewise, the poverty rate under Clinton fell 25%, the biggest eight-year decline since the 1960s. It fell even faster for particularly vulnerable groups like blacks, Hispanics and children. Again the contrast with Reagan is striking. During Reagan’s two terms, the number of Americans in poverty fell by just 77,000. During Clinton’s two terms, the number of Americans in poverty plummeted by 8.1 million. The number of children in poverty fell by 50,000 under Reagan. Under Clinton the number was 4.1 million. That’s a ratio of 80 to 1.
Leave aside the question of how much Clinton’s drive to eliminate the federal deficit contributed to the economic boom that powered most of these gains. He also developed a comprehensive set of initiatives to spread the benefits of prosperity to more families by demanding and honoring work.
Welfare reform pushed more low-income families into the job market, where they could benefit from the rising tide. Then Clinton made work more rewarding with increases in the minimum wage and the earned-income tax credit, the creation of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (to cover the children of working-poor families), and expanded funding for day care. He eliminated the deficit while cutting taxes for average families.
And while delivering all these benefits for traditionally Democratic constituencies, Clinton extended the party’s appeal up the income ladder. By marrying government activism to fiscal discipline and demanding personal responsibility in social policy, he triggered a realignment of socially moderate Northern suburbs toward the Democrats, a change that remains central to his party’s hopes in 2004.
Clinton is more vulnerable to second-guessing on foreign policy. Reports by the staff of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks suggest the panel is likely to conclude that Clinton (as well as Bush in early 2001) didn’t do enough to meet the emerging threat of Al Qaeda.
In particular, the reports show that Clinton blinked at some of the riskiest military options during the late 1990s, such as arming the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.
But the commission reports and the memoir of Richard A. Clarke, former White House counterterrorism chief for Clinton and Bush, also make it clear that on almost every front, from diplomacy to homeland security, Washington was doing much more to combat terrorism when Clinton left than it was when he arrived. And at the same time, Clinton was exhaustively pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that might have reshaped America’s image in the Arab world.
Those, like Krauthammer, who insist Clinton “ignored” the terrorism threat must themselves ignore all this evidence -- and Clinton’s report, in his memoir, that he warned Bush after the 2000 election that Al Qaeda would be his top national security challenge.
Clinton’s weaknesses often trumped his strengths. His lack of political discipline produced a leftward drift during his first two years that helped the GOP seize Congress in 1994. His lack of personal discipline in the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal contributed to Al Gore’s defeat in 2000. But he restored the Democrats’ ability to compete for the presidency, advanced domestic policies that tangibly improved life for millions of Americans, and, after initial uncertainty, pursued a foreign policy that affirmed the value of American leadership and international cooperation.
It’s reasonable to debate whether elements of this approach were wrongheaded or ineffective or insufficient. But to dismiss it as trivial says more about the critics than about Clinton.
Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns at latimes.com/brownstein.