The sign in the war room at the 1992 Clinton campaign headquarters read: “The Economy, Stupid.” Yet the drama during Bill Clinton’s presidency was fueled more by cultural and ideological warfare than by disputes over economic policy. Republicans battled the president over abortion, homosexuals in the military and, finally, over his own sexual conduct. But Clinton and the GOP ended up agreeing on tax cuts, two landmark free-trade agreements and a historic bill that ended the federal welfare entitlement.
In the first days of his administration, Clinton squared off with conservatives in Congress over his proposal to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military.
Looking back on that battle, Clinton said in an interview last December that he had been outwitted by the Republican congressional leadership. The Republicans “didn’t want me to have a honeymoon” in his first days in office, Clinton told Rolling Stone magazine. They confronted him on his promise to allow gays to serve openly, knowing they had enough votes, including those of conservative Democrats, to defeat the policy.
That battle, in retrospect, seems tame when compared to Clinton’s struggle to save his presidency after the country was plunged into political turmoil over his 18-month affair with a young White House employee named Monica Lewinsky.
Clinton tried to conceal the liaison from lawyers for Paula Jones, a woman who was suing him for allegedly sexual harassing her when Clinton was governor of Arkansas.
With Clinton’s tacit consent, Lewinsky filed a false affidavit in the Jones lawsuit concealing her liaison with Clinton. Two days later, with help from a Clinton pal, Washington superlawyer Vernon Jordan, she got a job offer from Revlon.
‘Blinded by hate’
As the House prepared to impeach Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., told his anti-Clinton colleagues they had been “blinded by hate” and noted, “you may have the votes today to impeach him. But you don’t have the American people.”
And neither did Clinton’s adversaries have the votes in the Senate, where the Constitution required a two-thirds vote to remove him from office.
Two months after the Senate trial, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Webber Wright held Clinton in contempt of court for giving “false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process” in the Jones lawsuit.
In an interview last fall with Esquire magazine, Clinton still sounded resentful about the attempt to oust him, saying of the congressional Republicans, “Unlike them, I have apologized to the American people for what I did wrong, and most Americans think I paid a pretty high price. They never apologized to the country for impeachment, they never apologized for all the things they’ve done.”
Clinton’s impeachment and trial were costly for him, derailing some of his legislative initiatives, notably a proposed federal settlement with the tobacco industry and a plan to launch a federal child-care entitlement program.
Accord on tax cuts
Yet despite their bitter combat, the GOP leaders and the president did agree on tax cuts — totaling $180 billion over 10 years — and increases in federal spending, which jumped from $1.4 trillion in 1993 to $1.8 trillion in 2000.
While Clinton’s attempt to overhaul the nation’s health insurance system foundered in Congress in 1994, he did have success by focusing on small but expandable initiatives such as the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act and a program to help local governments hire additional police officers.
Clinton had judicial triumphs too: By the end of his second term, nearly half of all the judges in the federal judiciary were his appointees, a legacy that will last several decades.
Clinton’s 1993 budget deal, which his advisers saw as essential to convincing the bond markets that the federal deficit would be reduced, was hotly debated by economists and pundits.
The federal deficit was reduced; in fact, by 1998 there was a surplus. But had the deficit disappeared because of Clinton’s 1993 tax increases or due to a more productive economy?
Even if there is no consensus on that question, what was irrefutable is that the American economy has undergone a profound transformation during Clinton’s presidency.
As Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan explained, “Technological innovation, and in particular the spread of information technology, has revolutionized the conduct of business over the past decade and resulted in rising rates of productivity growth.”
Increased worker productivity led to lush profits, which in turn sparked an exhilarating rise in stock prices that stretched from 1993 until the final weeks of 2000.
Free trade agreements
Amid this prosperity, Clinton tried to reorient his party away from organized labor and toward entrepreneurial-friendly policies, but he had to overcome opposition in his own party to free-trade accords that he argued would open the world to U.S. exports. In 1993, it took Republican votes in the House and Senate to enact the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.
Seven years later, again it was Republicans who provided Clinton with the winning margin for his accord on permanent U.S. trading privileges for China. Nearly twice as many House Democrats voted against Clinton’s China trade accord as voted for it.
Clinton pollster Dick Morris had urged the president to adopt a strategy of “triangulation,” positioning himself between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats in Congress.
Clinton triangulated adroitly, not only on trade policy, but on partly symbolic measures such as the Defense of Marriage Act, which declared that states could refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
To the chagrin of gay rights groups, Clinton not only signed the bill but had his campaign broadcast radio ads touting that fact during the 1996 presidential campaign.
Another election issue where Clinton applied triangulation was welfare reform. He vetoed two early versions of the welfare reform bill before finally signing a measure in August 1996 — despite his misgivings about provisions cutting benefits for long-term legal immigrants.
“The era of big government is over,” Clinton proclaimed in his 1996 State of the Union address. “But we can’t go back to the era of fending for yourself.”
True to his word, Clinton fought hard for more federal money for public schools, overpowering skeptics who said more dollars had not resulted in higher student scores on standardized tests. Federal education spending increased by nearly $8 billion, or 122 percent, during Clinton’s eight years in office.
Clinton at his best
Clinton proved to be at his most masterful after the Republicans gained control of Congress in the 1994 elections.
He was fortunate in the chief adversary he ended up facing: House Speaker Newt Gingrich. For the first few months after Gingrich took command, Gingrich overshadowed Clinton, who was forced at one point to insist to reporters that he was still “relevant” to governing the country.
But during a standoff in late 1995 in which the federal government was shut down, Clinton blocked a Gingrich plan to cut the rate of increase in Medicare spending, declaring “I will not let you destroy Medicare.”
Republican operative John Buckley, who served as spokesman for 1996 GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole, said later that Clinton had “used the government shutdown as a conjurer’s wand to change an image of fecklessness into one of resolution.”
Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos said the GOP’s Medicare plan “was their huge mistake.” Just how huge a mistake it was became clear in 1996, when Clinton used the Medicare issue in devastating TV ads to rout Dole.
While Clinton’s triumph was marred by the controversy over hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions made to the Democrats by Thai, Chinese and Indonesian donors, he did become the first Democratic president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936 to win re-election to a second term.
Revels in the presidency
Clinton also became the first president since Woodrow Wilson in 1916 to win two terms without winning a majority of the popular vote.
Majority or not, Clinton made the most of the office of the presidency.
No president since Lyndon Johnson has so reveled in the nitty-gritty policy-making, as well as in the ceremonial duties of the office, displaying a virtuoso style at cutting legislative deals and at ministering to the victims of plane crashes, hurricanes and such catastrophes as the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
So empathetic was Clinton at comforting the victims of disaster that evangelist Billy Graham suggested in 1996 that Clinton become a full-time minister after his presidential term ended.
It was no surprise that when Clinton was asked during the dark days of impeachment whether he had ever considered resigning the presidency, he answered “Never.”
Nor was it a surprise that Clinton said he would have run for a third term if the Constitution did not forbid it.
Clinton himself said it best when he told a crowd at a farewell dinner in Chicago on Tuesday, “America may find people who do this job better than I have, but you will never find anybody who loved doing it any more.