Dear EJ Dionne
30th June 2000
Did Clinton fail? It depends how you define success. We need to consider him as a president, as a party man, as a world leader, and as a figure whom we hoped would rebuild confidence in the enterprise of democratic government.
The US economy certainly boomed during his presidency. For this, Clinton shares credit with Alan Greenspan, and with fortunate timing. Thanks to information technology and the disinflation of the 1990s, these were likely to be good years. Clinton had the wit to strike a deal with Greenspan and the markets: a lower federal budget deficit in exchange for eased interest rates. Early in his presidency, when the Democrats controlled Congress, Clinton even achieved his deficit reduction by raising taxes on the rich rather than by slashing public services.
But also, during his first two years, Clinton made big mistakes as a partisan-two, in particular. First, he contrived a national health insurance scheme in a manner befitting a British prime minister. His experts produced a Royal Commission-type blueprint, conferred with the President and the First Lady, and told Congress how the plan would work. But Washington is not Westminster. You don’t dictate to Congress.
Worse: Clinton bungled the interest group and popular politics of health reform. The “managed competition” scheme was Byzantine. It did not fire the public imagination. Clinton hoped to make a deal with the big employers and insurance companies. In the end both turned on him-and he didn’t have public opinion on his side as a counterweight.
To make matters worse still, Clinton spent what remained of his political capital in 1993-94, to ram the Nafta deal through Congress. The plan was a leftover from the Bush administration. It badly split his own party, and it was not even wise geopolitics. In the end, Clinton got Nafta enacted with heavy Republican support, dispiriting his own party. Republicans took control of Congress in the 1994 mid-term elections. Clinton deserves a good deal of the blame for this.
What followed was a turn to the right. Clinton then did play a weak hand well, as Newt Gingrich’s Congress overreached itself. But during the mid-1990s, Clinton tacked further to the right than the situation required. He embraced a Republican view of welfare reform. He went along with a brutal immigration bill and assaults on civil liberty in the name of crime control.…