How successful was the Clinton Presidency (1993-2001)?

William Jefferson Clinton was elected President of the United States in a three-way electoral contest which delivered him a plurality rather than a majority of the vote in 1992. He subsequently won 49% of a 49% turnout in 1996. His administration was specifically rejected and almost side-lined in the 1994 congressional elections, and the Democratic party was narrowly beaten in the 1998 mid-terms. Clinton’s vice-president, Al Gore, also failed to be elected president in 2000 despite winning huge numbers of votes after distancing himself from Clinton, who had survived impeachment because of a sordid scandal involving an intern in her early twenties in 1998-9.

It is important to bear the above in mind as more than narrative. Although Clinton was a master of ‘spin’, and managed despite press hostility to be personally popular at various critical times in his presidency, he was never able to deliver majorities either for himself or his party whilst being himself a candidate for office. Consequently, Clinton’s ability to deliver on his promises of healthcare reform, economic growth, and social progress, especially in his prized ‘third way’ politics and his ‘national conversation on race’ ought to have been extremely limited. Despite this, Clinton managed to push through the North American Free Trade Agreement, to contain and then lower the deficit, and eventually to begin repaying the national debt alongside a budget surplus, and to reform the welfare programme. He successfully resisted the wishes of a huge Republican majority in the Congress elected in 1994 to reform the Social Security Programme, passed the Brady Handgun Act, and pushed through the Family and Medical Leave Act.

In foreign affairs, Clinton managed the enlargement of NATO without antagonising the Russian Federation, brokered peace in Northern Ireland, removed Russia from Estonia and Latvia, and saved the Mexican economy from collapse in 1995. He also presided over the successful rescue of the Asian economies during the economic crisis of 1997, partly by putting policies that expanded free trade such as the WTO agreement in place in such a way that Asian states could earn money and balance their national payments by selling exports to the USA which used financial mechanisms to recycle dollars into credit via new technology, derivatives and shadow banking in such a way as to pay for them. Clinton effectively stopped ‘ethnic cleansing’ and promoted the International Tribunals for former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda, all of which laid the groundwork for the International Criminal Court.

Clinton also survived the ferocious assaults of a new nexus of partisan money and electronic media which merged with the post-Watergate culture of investigation and conspiracism. This in itself was an achievement, since every president since Nixon had been plagued by investigations and threats of impeachment. In addition, otherwise strong Democrat candidates such as Gary Hart in 1987, and Joe Biden and Michael Dukakis in 1988 had been broken on the back of their inability to cope with the ‘new politics’ of personal destruction. Clinton and his wife pioneered a form of pre-emptive Democratic ‘fightback’ and media management which was ignored by Al Gore and John Kerry at their peril and eventually adopted by Barack Obama as well as various successful gubernatorial, federal and state candidates.

Through all of this, Clinton also managed to allow his wife to develop an independent political profile in such a way that she was, after his administration left office, alternately a Democratic US Senator, presidential candidate, and Secretary of State.

Clinton did suffer severe setbacks as a president, however. These were often associated with national security, such as the early humiliation suffered during his indecisive attempt to carry out the mission his predecessor launched in Somalia which resulted in the deaths of US personnel and equipment failures. Clinton was openly mocked by serving members of the armed forces as a draft dodger, and further antagonised the military and his own gay supporters by initially supporting the service of homosexuals in the US military and then backing down into an unsustainable ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy. Clinton was forced to rely on former presidents to help pass NAFTA, just as he had to rely on former president Carter to remove Raoul Cedras by negotiation in Haiti. He bombed the Middle East and East Africa several times without effect, failed to eliminate Osama Bin Laden and his organisation after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and presided over a national security state that could not prevent the 1995 Oklahoma bombing. Clinton also supported a policy of UN economic sanctions in Iraq that not only failed to remove the Dictator, Saddam Hussein, but allowed him avenues of enrichment at the same time as they killed over 100000 people. Clinton either stood by or aided and abetted what amounted to an economic rape of Russia by Western financial interests which ended in a Russian default and the elevation of Vladimir Putin, though not before Boris Yeltsin launched wars in Chechnya and engaged in a highly dubious reelection campaign with Clinton’s blessing. Some have also suggested that the US operation in Yugoslavia, which eventually resulted in the destruction of that country and the division of Serbia, began as ‘bombing by poll’ at the behest of Clinton’s amoral adviser, Dick Morris, and ended by creating a magnet for post-Afghan war mujahedin and Islamic radicals.

It is however as difficult to blame Clinton for all of the failures listed above as it is hard to credit the man from Arkansas and his team for the successes associated with his administration. Welfare reform and the reduction of the national debt, for instance, were bought by painful compromises on both sides, starting with Clinton’s abandonment of a signature ‘middle class tax cut’ and continuing with Senator Bob Dole’s co-option of the remaining moderate and reforming energies of the congressional republicans. Clinton did manage to draw in the ambitious and radical Speaker of the House, and architect of GOP revolution, Newt Gingrich, to his orbit and thus avoided irrelevance in 1995, after the healthcare debacle, before rising back to prominence via his defence of Social Security and his performance as National Leader in the aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing. Clinton was also aided by unusual economic headwinds which in retrospect were fanned by irresponsibly low interest rates on the part of Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve, as well as a lack of understanding of the explosive potential of the internet and globalisation not just to create a boom but to pile up trouble before the bust of 2001. The seeds of later financial problems were sown with the enthusiastic abandonment of the Glass-Steagall restrictions that had prevented banks from speculating on mortgage provision that they themselves had made, and which had been in place since the FDR administration.

However, it is again important to remember that such repeal, though embraced by Clinton, was pushed through the Senate by the Republican Phil Gramm of Texas and through the House by Republican representatives Leach and Billey. Clinton’s administration survived in the memories of many because of defiance of the emerging network of right-wing and libertarian information, politics and money, but it was often enough the case that in reality it survived by working with individuals from what Hillary Clinton called ‘the vast right wing conspiracy’. In fact, as with European socialist movements, Clinton led a post-1968 coalition of economic neoliberals, convinced of the power of electronic markets added to the ‘smart state, feminists, and the New Left. His greatest achievement was, because of his own history and manner of delivery, to sell this coalition to working-class whites, African-Americans and social justice Christians as in some way a revival of the Old Left. When Clinton attempted typically ‘left’ policies without right-wing support, however, such as the complex healthcare reform proposed by his wife in 1993-4, he failed. When he turned social conservatism on its head with issues such as education reform, anti-porn ‘clipper chips’, internet regulation, and pharmaceutical benefits for elderly voters, he succeeded, and when he actually worked with the right, as on welfare or deficit reform, he won great victories.

Clinton was unfairly judged by his contemporaries. One of his first acts was to visit the graves of John and Robert Kennedy and, in a sense, thereby to promise the remains of the pre-1968 Democrat party that he would deliver the sort of soaring presidency that John and Robert Kennedy had promised. This was impossible in the USA of the 1990s, and better confined to the numerous fantasies which appeared in the media and on film playing on such presidential roles such as ‘JFK’, ‘The American President’ or ‘The West Wing’. In turn, Clinton and his wife were demonised by partisans of the right, who by overreach frequently undermined their own cause.

The ambiguities of this inevitable conclusion are best seen in the matter of Clinton’s impeachment for perjury and various other crimes in the late months of 1998 and the early ones of 1999. Clinton, because of his own psychological frailties and the pressures and opportunities of the 1995 government shutdown that delivered Monica Lewinsky to his office whilst he was in a fevered state of confrontation with Newt Gingrich, should never have behaved in the way that compromised his position later on. Nor should he have wasted a year on a lie about his relationship with Ms Lewinsky, first to special prosecutors and then to the American people. However, the appointment of a Special Prosecutor had been the result of an earlier set of frothing suspicions, egged on by a conspiracy-minded media circus, which had focussed on minor-level financial dealings on the part of his wife, then on personnel decisions in the White House travel office, and thence to thirty-two other investigations which tore up Clinton’s messy, conflicted Arkansas history and made media stars of various strange characters such as Webb Hubbell, Paula Jones, Linda Tripp and Vince Foster.

None of these investigations ever came to anything once the impeachment procedure, which was by any objective standard an abuse of process, had run its course. Clinton’s chief remembered failure was therefore as much that of his semi-lawless pursuers, and it wasted a year from 1998-9. This ‘failure’ in a second term pales beside Iran-Contra, or the Vietnam war, or the inability to deal with the Rwandan massacre, or the failure to prevent the September 11 attacks which Clinton and other presidents could be legitimately accused of. Overall, Clinton left the USA in better economic health, and stronger, than he found it. Of those things that were wrong, Clinton can only be called a participant or bystander rather than an instigator. He was the first surviving Democrat to be able to make such a boast since the Civil War, given that FDR died in office and Truman left under a cloud. As such, he deserves an overall assessment that his presidency, in the important matters, was successful.