The Clinton Legacy Part One: Bill

Democrats are eager for Hillary Clinton to announce her candidacy. There are already Super PACS, such as “Ready for Hillary”, gathering money for Clinton’s campaign. Republicans fear her as much as Democrats are excited for her—for proof of that, you need only to look to FOX News continuing to beat the Benghazi disaster to death, trying to make Clinton into a key part of their invented conspiracy. Clinton has said she’ll make her decision on whether or not she will run at the start of the New Year, but most are treating her candidacy, and her victory, as a foregone conclusion.

If Hillary Clinton is elected, both Republicans and Democrats expect one outcome: a return to the 1990s that Bill Clinton gave us. The Republicans shake in terror at the idea of a progressive president and the Democrats can’t wait to have a hard-playing Clinton back in the White House, feeling that Obama was too eager to roll over for Boehner’s Republican House. Both sides should relax. If Hillary Clinton decides to follow in the political steps of her husband (and we’ll address just how much/how little she has so far in Part Two), then the country would not get a progressive leader, but instead a moderately conservative president.

Before we start to talk about how Hillary Clinton could reshape the Clinton legacy, we need to take a look at where the Clinton legacy currently stands. In 2012, Bill Clinton gave a strong speech at the Democratic National Convention. Some even claimed that Clinton’s speech was a key factor in Obama’s reelection. The Democrats’ infatuation with Clinton can be seen in all its glory here. The Democrats would not give so much time to any other speaker, and no other person who would receive such a warm greeting, not even President Obama.

The enthusiasm for Clinton is no surprise. Clinton left office with impressive approval numbers: about 65% according to Gallup. George W. Bush left office with about half of that number, and it’s difficult to imagine Obama leaving office with anything close to 65%. Just before Clinton’s appearance at the 2012 convention, his approval rating was a strong 69%, a remarkable accomplishment.

Clinton’s approval ratings during his actual tenure as president also stayed comparatively high, even during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I can’t imagine Bush’s or Obama’s being as high if they had a similar development.

So where does all this goodwill come from? Did Clinton truly change the nation for the better, in a way that even made moderate conservatives say, “Hey, maybe he’s not Satan after all?” No.

The presidency of Bill Clinton was not a disaster on the scale of George. W. Bush or Ronald Reagan, but it was far from a productive one. Clinton’s first hundred days in office were wasted by his arguments over homosexuals in the military, not because it was an unworthy fight, but because the eventual solution, “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell,” was such an obvious punt.  At the same time, Clinton’s proposal for a new health care system crashed and burned. Clinton, along with Hillary Clinton, attempted to push for a radical reform that would mandate employers cover their employees’ health insurance. The movement failed thanks to Republicans—and some moderate Democrats—throwing a temper tantrum (sound familiar?), and by 1994 the issue was dead in the water. Other than the passing of HIPAA in 1996 and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Clinton White House was unable to execute their initial health care plans. While these were both positive moves, they were barely blips on the radar in comparison to the previous plan. 

Bill Clinton signs the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.

Bill Clinton signs the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.

Further black marks on the Clinton presidency are the Defense of Marriage Act and the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was signed into law just before Clinton’s re-election, September 1996. Clinton claims to have feared a battle over the bill if he vetoed it, creating an opportunity for a loss in the November elections. This is a rather striking admission. He is outright admitting he signed a hateful law in order to win a political contest. On the one hand, this is almost sociopathic. He put the wellbeing of the entire homosexual community to the wayside simply to win an election. On the other hand, it’s a rare politician that admits he signed a bill that denied right to Americans solely for political reasons. Clinton has said that his signature was a mistake and he is now for gay marriage (as is Hillary Clinton).

The United States is lucky to now see the DOMA on the decline as more and more states allow gay marriages to take place. The US is not so lucky when it comes to the repeal of Glass-Steagal.

Just how Glass-Steagal was repealed and just how much of an impact it had on the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008 is still debated. Clinton defenders claim he was forced into signing the bill by a very conservative Congress and that he didn’t really support it. Sadly, that’s not true. It has become apparent that Clinton had no problem with the legislation, and he has gone so far as to claim that the repeal actually helped stop the GFC from becoming worse. In 2008, Clinton said: “I don’t see that signing that bill had anything to do with the current crisis. Indeed, one of the things that has helped stabilize the current situation as much as it has is the purchase of Merrill Lynch (MER) by Bank of America (BAC), which was much smoother than it would have been if I hadn’t signed that bill.”

He also states that he doesn’t believe the bill was about deregulation, and that plenty of regulations still existed. This is a tone deaf argument, to put it lightly. With Too Big to Fail and Citizen’s United, it is clearer than ever that corporate America, and especially the banks, control much of the government. No Wall Street executives have faced charges for their endless crimes before and during the GFC. Regulation in the United States is a joke and for Clinton to say otherwise means he’s either lying or has his head deep in the sand.

There have been some recent revelations about what the Clinton White House was discussing during the formation of the repeal. An article in The Guardian reveals almost all of Clinton’s advisors agreed repeal was the best move and the idea of regulation was becoming a thing of the past.

In the wake of the GFC, it is somewhat odd that Clinton is still held in such high regard by liberals. The positivity towards Clinton by both liberals and independents seems to come from the fact that Clinton managed to balance the budget and had a surplus in his last few years in office. Americans’ fixation with the national budget has always been an odd one. Recently, the Republican Party has used the debt as a rallying cry, saying that anything should be cut in order to lower it, be it welfare, unemployment, and government jobs. This argument was mimicked by the Koch Brothers-backed Tea Party around 2010. These austerity measures were used in Europe and failed, with countries such as England sliding back into a recession.

Yet, at the idea of a budget deficit, Americans shit their pants, accepting pretty much whatever a politician says if it’s an idea on how to reduce the debt. In one of his many idiotic statements, Mitt Romney said he would help balance the budget by cutting funds to PBS. The funds that go to PBS make up virtually nothing of the government’s total spending, but Romney’s logic was not questioned by the Right. The national debt is a problem, but it’s not one that should be solved at the cost of burning the rest of the country to the ground and leaving Americans out in the cold, suffering.

Because Clinton managed to create a budget surplus, he is viewed as some sort of economic genius. The ways in which he cut the budget, by throwing people off welfare, for instance, would not make liberals happy, but the specifics of Clinton’s neoliberal economic plans are rarely discussed in detail. His economic platform might’ve been somewhat less extreme than Reagan’s or both of the Bushes, but not by a whole lot.

Does this mean Clinton was a conservative in sheep’s clothing? To an extent, yes, but he did have some liberal successes. While his passing of health care laws was moderate, the ones he did pass provided assistance to those who previously suffered, especially children. He provided some relief to low income families with the Earned Income Tax Credit. These were not huge accomplishments (nothing on the level of Obama’s success with health care) but they did help people, specifically low income families. One could argue that tossing so many folks off welfare erases the credit Clinton should get for these programs, but that’s not entirely fair as the new programs reached many, many people.

Like his domestic policy, Clinton’s foreign policy was a rollercoaster, as well. He gets credit for recognizing Al Qaeda was a threat to America early on—he kept tabs on bin Laden, after all—but some of his decisions as Commander-in-Chief were morally repugnant. In 1991, the Bush administration executed a plan to corrupt Iraq’s water supply and blame the results on Saddam Hussein. This led to the deaths of many Iraqi civilians, including an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children. The Clinton administrationcontinued this policy and worked to deny any responsibility for its results and to once again put the blame squarely on Saddam Hussein. To this day administration officials, like Madeline Albright, and Clinton himself believe these actions were justified. This is a hard argument to buy when you consider just how decimated Iraq’s infrastructure was when America invaded (it is even worse now). Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was not weakened by the sanctions; the civilians of Iraq were. To an extent, almost all United States presidents could be considered war criminals in this way, but that doesn’t excuse the Clinton administration’s actions. They were fully aware of the effects of their sanctions.

While existing outside the realm of policy, the Lewinsky scandal is also problematic. The charges brought by the Republicans about Clinton lying are ridiculous and the impeachment hearings even more so, but that doesn’t excuse what the Clinton administration did to Monica Lewinsky in efforts to make her out to look like an attention-hungry woman. Clinton’s partisan supporters in the press did a fair bit of damage, too. One need only look at the writings of Maureen Dowd in The New York Timesto see some very ugly statements about Lewinsky. 

Bill, in 1998, makes his infamous declaration, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” as Hillary looks on.   

Bill, in 1998, makes his infamous declaration, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” as Hillary looks on. 

 

Lewinsky’s name was dragged through the dirt during the 90’s and Clinton did nothing to stop this. As her boss, and someone involved in a questionable affair in terms of power dynamics, to say the least, Clinton had a moral obligation to at least attempt to silence the people who demonized Lewinsky. Instead, White House lawyers berated her as much as possible.

Lest I sound like a complete hater of Clinton’s, it is worth noting that he did manage to keep relative peace during his presidency.  His relations with allied countries were cordial, something that cannot be said much for his predecessor and certainly couldn’t be said for his successor. Yet most of the good work Clinton did came after his presidency, when he became active with the Clinton Global Initiative, reaching out towards countries like Haiti and assisting AIDs victims in various poverty-stricken countries.

There is also the fact that no president can remained uncompromised in an imperialist country no matter how much she or he may wish to. The position America has placed itself in in the post-WWII world has been questionable, at best, and there is no easy way to manage these problems when stepping into the office of the president. However, we cannot let this excuse a president’s actions, either. Crafting a heroic liberal narrative of Clinton’s presidency does a disservice to both history and the liberal movement because it allows politicians to believe Clinton’s tenure is what liberals should aim for. Liberals deserve better.


In Part Two, I will explore Hillary Clinton’s political history, what the Clintons have in store for the future, and how this might influence America’s liberal movement.