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One of the chief factors responsible for the gridlock and bitter partisanship in Washington over the past eight years is the fact that the Republican Party views Bill Clinton's presidency as wholly illegitimate and the Democrats view Republican control of Congress in the same way. After all, in the late 1980's a consensus emerged amongst the political pundit class that Americans wanted Democrats on the local level (to shovel out goodies to constituents and fund social programs) but a Republican on the national level (just in case we got ourselves into a war and actually needed some strong leadership). Now the two party's positions have been reversed and they seem unable to cope with the fact.
One consequence of this has been that each has steadfastly refused to reckon with the reasons for the other's success. Republicans become so apoplectic at the mere thought of Bill Clinton occupying the Oval Office (it turned out they were right to be concerned, but for unexpected reasons), they have proven incapable of rational discussion of what got him there. No matter that he is a scoundrel and that he benefited from Ross Perot's third party efforts and all the rest, the GOP has to, at some point, come to terms with Clinton and his success. This book, published in conjunction with the 1996 Presidential campaign, purports to be not a political document but a statement of Bill Clinton's philosophy of government and his vision for the 21st century. Were this the case, it would afford an excellent opportunity to assess Clintonism (if such a thing exists) and begin to understand what his legacy might be. Sadly however, it is merely a partisan document listing what he perceived as the accomplishments of his first term and what he hoped to do in a second term. It is disappointing, though unsurprising, that he failed to produce a statement of the philosophy that guides him. Even his supporters would have to acknowledge the difficulty of discerning any core principles in the man; those of us who loathe him question whether he has a core. But we'll just forget about philosophy and look at the book on its own terms.
Before we begin, I just want you to do me a favor. Grab a piece of paper and a pencil and, on one side of the paper, write down a few of the accomplishments of Bill Clinton's presidential administration. Now, on the other side, write down a few of the most significant challenges that you perceive for the nation in the 21st century. Here are my lists:
1) First and foremost, failure of the Health Care plan and rapid demilitarization--leading to budget surpluses
2) Successful conclusion of NAFTA and GATT treaties begun by Ronald Reagan
3) Acceptance of GOP Welfare Reform measure
4) Survival of myriad scandals
1) Reducing the historically high tax burden that the American people are currently burdened by
2) Maintaining some capacity to defend the Nation, despite the return to skeletal Armed Forces
3) Further dismantling the Social Welfare state--specifically privatizing Social Security and Medical programs
4) Addressing the social ills associated with divorce, abortion, etc.--specifically the rapidly declining rate of population growth which has dire consequences for the economy
I'm certain that your list has different items than mine does, though there's probably some overlap. And I'll bet the ones we have that match are phrased a little differently in your list. We'll not worry about such differences of interpretation. But I would be willing to bet that your list, like mine, bears virtually no relation to the President's. Did you have the creation of Americorps at the top of your list? Did you have it anywhere on your list? No, of course not. It's just another government boondoggle, sucking in tax dollars and spitting out bureaucrats. Bill Clinton however, opens and closes his book by discussing this program.
He also, with more justification, fastens on cutting the deficit as a key accomplishment. But he completely fails to understand how this was achieved. He apparently honestly believes that spending caps and tax increases did the trick. In fact, the only numbers that have changed at all in the budget over the past ten years are epic cuts in defense spending and then the benefits which have flowed from these cuts. After a brief but somewhat painful adjustment during the Bush years, America has jettisoned the wartime industrial economy of the Cold War and transformed itself into a service and information based economy. Spending half of what we used to on defense (we now spend less as a percentage of GDP than we did before Pearl Harbor) has lopped about $300 billion off of the budget, not coincidentally this is the entirety of what were projected to be eternal deficits. The retooled economy and balanced budget government have spawned lower interest rates and higher tax revenues--providing virtually the entire surplus which is projected now. To his credit, Clinton surrendered after the defeat of his Health Care program and has not seriously proposed any subsequent big ticket social programs. But neither he nor the Republican Congress deserve much credit for the improved state of our fiscal affairs. Both are merely reaping the Peace Dividend.
Likewise, Clinton takes, and to a degree deserves, credit for the new regime of global free trade. But NAFTA and GATT negotiations were begun by Ronald Reagan, they just took awhile to come to fruition. And the boom in world trade has obviously received a big boost from the end of the Cold War, an event for which even Bill Clinton lacks the audacity to take credit. He's the president and he didn't bail on this issue which is awfully unpopular in his own party, so he does deserve some credit, but pretty little.
The final accomplishment he cites, with little basis in reality, is the creation of new educational opportunities. He reels off a variety of little tinkerings with federal programs and claims that they are transforming education. He also announces his aspiration that two years of college become nearly as universal and even compulsory as high school. This affords one of the few moments of genuine honesty in the book. He notes that Congress defeated his plan to "consolidate some seventy overlapping, antiquated federally sponsored training programs" and use the money for a educational training credit. Having lauded his own reinventing government initiative, one is surprised to hear him speak of this enormous batch of wasteful programs. Moreover, one can't help but wonder why he didn't ask Congress to at least dispose of the seventy programs, even if they wouldn't pass his little credit program.
At any rate, there is remarkably little evidence that I'm aware of that demonstrates that we need even more people to attend college. Indeed, most of us understand intuitively, and cultures like the Japanese make no bones about the fact, that college is not really intended to prepare us for the workforce; instead, it is a brief transitional interlude to provide young adults with a venue to get a significant amount of immaturity out of their systems before they get a job where they will receive the training that they actually need. The economy and the underemployed would be better served by joining high tech companies which could receive tax incentives to train them for the information age workplace, than by having government pay their way to two more years of the same drivel they were learning in high school.
Meager and misguided as they are, these are the things that Clinton chooses to highlight as the legacy of his first term. For the most part his "vision" for the future consists of more of the same--more Americorps, more deficit and debt reduction, more free trade and more federal education assistance. We're currently three years into that second term and there is no debt (we'll give him that one), I guarantee you haven't heard the word Americorps in that time, Clinton now opposes Free Trade and our public school's are widely acknowledged to be a disaster area. At best, he gets a decidedly mixed report card.
One other point before we dismiss this book. Clinton organizes it into three sections--Opportunity, Responsibility and Community. Though the text is devoid of any serious presentation of political philosophy, he says that these are his three organizing political principles. In this sense they do offer some limited perspective on his philosophical underpinnings. When he speaks of opportunity he means something very different from what conservatives mean when they speak of an "Opportunity Society". They mean that government should provide a level playing field and then get out of people's way. Clinton means that government should intervene in countless ways to boost people along the way. This is a legitimate difference of opinion and philosophy, but one would have liked to hear the President explain why he thinks that his approach is superior and justify the cost.
His discussion of responsibility is much better, in fact it differs little from the conservative approach. This marks the one area--law and order, welfare reform, etc.--where he has really had a salutary effect on his party--however temporary it may prove.
His treatment of Community however is profoundly hypocritical. He speaks of the need to de-emphasize our differences and work together, but throughout the book he is extremely partisan. This tone of naked political partisanship, entirely appropriate to what is essentially a campaign document, makes for a real dissonance when he then turns around and tries to bury the hatchet. He's already planted it in Newt Gingrich's fat head.
This is simply a very disappointing book. At a time when the Democrat party seems to have ceased to stand for any genuine ideas or principles, it's most successful recent member fails to provide a coherent statement of his own political philosophy, never mind his party's. I recently reread Barry Goldwater's great treatise The Conscience of a Conservative (see Orrin's review) and that remarkable book is as timely today as it was forty years ago. A Republican candidate could easily run today on the ideas it contains, even on the issue positions it takes. Bill Clinton's magnum opus, by contrast, is little more than fancy fish wrap.
-ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: "william jefferson clinton"
-William J. Clinton Forty-Second President 1993- (Whithouse.org)
-AMERICAN PRESIDENTS LIFE PORTRAITS (CSPAN)
-BOOKNOTES: Bill Clinton. Title: Between Hope and History: Meeting America's Challenges for the 21st Century (CSPAN)
-ARCHIVES : Clinton Files (Reason Magazine)
-SPECIAL REPORT: Clinton Accused (Washington Post)
-Starr's Dirty Dossier (The Smoking Gun)
-ARTICLE: Clinton Favors Active Government (John F. Harris, Washington Post Staff Writer)
-REVIEW: BETWEEN HOPE AND HISTORY Meeting America's Challenges for the 21st Century By President Bill Clinton (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times)
-REVIEW: The Adventures of "But-Man" Between Hope and History: Meeting America's Challenges for the 21st Century , by Bill Clinton (John J. Pitney Jr., Reason)
-REVIEW: (Susan B. Garland, Business Week)
-REVIEW: (Marsha Vande Berg, Book Page)
-RESPONSES: BETWEEN HYPE AND HYPOCRISY (Feed)
-REVIEW: of A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President By JEFFREY TOOBIN (THOMAS POWERS, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President By JEFFREY TOOBIN (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
-ESSAY: Bill Clinton and the American Character (Richard John Neuhaus, First Things)
-ESSAY: The World According to Clinton (Andrew J. Bacevich, First Things)
-ESSAY: Punishment Yes, Impeachment No (James Nuechterlein, First Things)
-ESSAY: Who Elected Clinton: A Collision of Values (John Green, Lyman Kellsedt, James Guth, & Corwin Smidt, First Things)
-ESSAY: It's the Reagan Economy, Stupid (Lawrence Kudlow, Chief Economist, CNBC.com and Stephen Moore, Economist, Cato Institute, Jan 31 2000, CNBC)
-ESSAY: The Clinton Principle (GARRY WILLS, NY Times)
-ESSAY: Facets of Clinton: His Character (NY Times Magazine)
-ESSAY: The Hard Questions: Gatsby Returns (Jean Bethke Elshtain, New Republic)
-ESSAY: Clinton the Concilitator Finds His Line in the Sand (ALISON MITCHELL AND TODD S. PURDUM, NY Times)
-ESSAY: Is Clinton a Conservative?: The Secret of Bill's Success (Stephen Moore, Intellectual Capital)
-ESSAY: on Clinton Fatigue: TRB FROM WASHINGTON Give It a Rest (SEAN WILENTZ, New Republic)
-ESSAY: Is 'Clinton Fatigue' a Myth? (Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe)
-ESSAY: Yes, There Is a Third Way : Gore and Lieberman continue to lead the Democratic party to the right. (Tod Lindberg, Weekly Standard)
-ESSAY : The Real Clinton Economic Record Hint: It's not what he claims. (Michael Catanzaro, National Review)
-REVIEW : of The Truth of Power : Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White House by Benjamin R. Barber ( ALEXANDER STAR, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of 'The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years' by Haynes Johnson (Christopher Caldwell, Washington Post)