Few presidents have fretted more about their legacy while in office than did Bill Clinton. Now, he seems determined to define that legacy by helping his wife win election to the White House. If she wins, he rationalizes, it’ll cement his role in U.S. history.
Yet, had this Democrat not focused as much on politics as he has, he may well have earned one of the best domestic policies legacies of any president in the twentieth century, a man who succeeded in reforming many of the programs his partisan predecessors had enacted.
Not just that. In his first, he signed two pieces of trade legislation the North American Free Trade (NAFTA) and the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which helped ensure the economic boom of the 1990s. Spurred on by a Republican Congress, he effected landmark welfare reform and helped balance the budget.
He might have secured his legacy as a reformer had he signed onto the recommendations of the Breaux Commission (National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare) to reform Medicare. Instead, for political purposes, he rejected the recommendations of this bipartisan commission, thus allowing the costs of that Great Society program to continue to spiral out of control, leaving it to future presidents to fix. Even as these proposals were consistent with positions he espoused through the Democratic Leadership Council and in his 1992 and 1996 campaigns.
Some say he backed away from these reforms (which his Administration had initially supported) because he feared angering liberals or because he wanted to to pay them back for standing by him during impeachment. Others say he turned away from this reform consistent because it would have deprived Al Gore of a campaign issue in 2000. And some might view a Gore victory in 2000 a vote for a third Clinton term.
Whatever the case, it’s clear that Clinton did not pursue reform as aggressively in the last two years of his tenure as he did in the middle four years for political reasons. Had he thought less of his legacy and focused more on the ideas of his successful national campaigns, he might have accomplished more and thus had a better legacy.
And now, he, more than any of his predecessors has plunged into electoral politics (on behalf of another candidate*) with a passion — and anger — unmatched by only the most zealous partisans. Should he continue, it will make that one part of his record, evident since his earliest forays into Arkansas politics, the defining aspect of his legacy, that of political attack dog, out to win at all costs.
He has attacked and misrepresented the record of Senator Barack Obama, his wife’s chief opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination. Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said Clinton’s attacks are not “presidential . . . not in keeping with the image of a former president.”
Columnist Eugene Robinson who thinks Clinton “was a good president, at times very good” finds that Democrat has become a “coldblooded political hit man:”
No, scratch the “coldblooded” part. At times, in his attempt to cut Barack Obama down to size, Bill Clinton has been red-faced with anger; his rhetoric about voter suppression and a great big “fairy tale” has been way over the top. This doesn’t look and sound like mere politics. It seems awfully personal.
That’s hardly statesmanlike.
So focused on electing his wife running on a platform far to the left of the centrist agenda which helped him win two elections, he seems to define his legacy by political success, not effective reform.
Thus, instead of building on the legacy of the compromises he helped effect together with the Republican Congress during the middle years of his tenure in the White House, Clinton seems determined to secure his legacy not only as a divisive figure in American politics, but also as a divider in his own party.
*Former president Grover Cleveland, after losing in 1888, returned to active politics in campaigning for his own reelection (successfully) in 1892 while Teddy Roosevelt, in similar circumstances twenty years later, was not so successful.
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