Bill Clinton didn’t set out to swipe the Republicans’ traditional agenda and send the GOP down the road to radicalization. Nor did the 42nd president set out to polarize the country. But these were the unintended effects of his political strategies — as brilliant as they were in getting him elected.
Clinton’s preferred course would have been to govern as a warm-hearted Democratic populist like his hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, uniting the country behind an agenda of “bold, persistent experimentation” (an FDR phrase Clinton used in his first inaugural speech), long-time Clinton acquaintances have said. Soon after taking office Clinton laid a wreath at Hyde Park, placed an iconic bust of FDR in the Oval Office and, in policy terms, one White House official later recalled, “talked far more about Roosevelt than JFK” (the president with whom, during the 1992 campaign, he’d hoped voters would identify him).
But Clinton was also the savviest politician of his generation, and by the early ‘90s he saw it was no longer feasible to run or govern as a traditional New Deal Democrat. Ronald Reagan had changed the terms of the debate. Clinton championed the Democratic Leadership Council, which was the party’s concession to the emerging zeitgeist: “market-based solutions” and deference to smaller government. Nor was it Clinton’s fault that, by the time he ran for president, the “Reagan Revolution” had only gone half way. It deregulated and freed up the economy to market forces, but Reagan’s faltering attachment to the theory of supply-side economics — his reluctance to cut government spending at the same time as he cut taxes, on the idea that lower taxes would unleash more prosperity — had left behind a fiscal disaster: A government that was just as big, but badly underfunded. His economic advisors counseled that he had to tackle the deficit first, traditionally a Republican concern.
And so the stage was set for a political hijacking: bit by bit, piece by piece, “triangulating” his way toward the center once occupied by mainstream Republicans, Clinton remade the Democratic Party in the image of the old GOP. In an interview a few years ago, his long-time friend and first chief of staff, Thomas “Mack” McLarty, recalled the decisive moment two weeks before the inauguration at a big economic gathering Clinton held in Little Rock to fulfill his campaign promise of “putting people first.” “Bob Rubin [who would go on to become director of Clinton’s National Economic Council and then Treasury secretary] called me from Washington that morning,” McLarty recalled. “It reminded me of the Houston- NASA thing. He said, ‘Mac, we’ve got a problem.’ And I said, ‘What’s the problem?’ He said, ‘The deficit is considerably larger than we thought it was going to be.’ And what that really meant was the beginning of the hard choices. The middle class tax cut he had promised, and some of the programs that our more traditional Democrats had felt were essential.”
Clinton ultimately tackled the deficit, the bond market rewarded him and the economy began to boom. And like Walter White getting lured deeper and deeper into the meth trade in “Breaking Bad,” Clinton found himself enticed into other parts of the GOP agenda like “workfare” reform and championing NAFTA. He hired David Gergen, who had been an advisor to three Republican presidents. He began using the Reaganesque phrase, “The era of big government is over.” Clinton himself became uncomfortably aware of his transformation, telling his aides sarcastically (according to Bob Woodward in The Agenda): “We’re Eisenhower Republicans here, and we’re fighting the Reagan Republicans. We stand for lower taxes and free trade and the bond market. Isn’t that great?”
At the same time as he drove them rightward , Clinton alienated Republicans with his polarizing tactics. His 1993 budget passed both the House and the Senate without a single Republican vote. The same deep partisan split occurred over his plans to raise top marginal tax rates in order to cut the deficit. That lead to the “Contract with America” Gingrich revolution and the takeover of the House in 1994, the precursor to the shock that another polarizing centrist Democrat, Barack Obama, would face in 2010. Under Rubin’s guidance, Clinton’s increasing coziness with Wall Street also bequeathed a growing populist anger that led to a splitting off of the libertarian right from the GOP and of the progressive left from the Democratic Party, further breaking down the consensus in Washington. This became especially acute after many of the deregulatory financial policies that began during the Clinton years, such as the repeal of the Glass-Steagall law separating federally sponsored commercial banking from riskier investment banking, led directly to the financial crash of 2008 and giant Wall Street bailouts.
The political dynamics that underlay the government shutdown fight of 1994-95 gave the best evidence of the ever-rightward shift of the politics of Washington. Gingrich, the grandiose new Speaker who saw himself as an historic transformational figure, viewed the GOP takeover of the House as a mandate for drastic cuts in spending and a balanced budget. Clinton, still triangulating, initially showed flexibility in budget negotiations. That only made Gingrich more self-confident that he could get his way. As the budget fight continued, Gingrich insisted on his entire program, including tax cuts for the wealthy and cuts in Medicare. After he hinted on “This Week with David Brinkley” that as speaker he might refuse to raise the debt limit in April 1995, the political struggle erupted into open war. Gingrich publicly threatened that the U.S. might have to default on its debt for the first time in its history. Eventually the government shut down, leading to bitterness and finger-pointing on both sides.
And so, by the time Clinton cheated on First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky and then lied about it, it was no surprise that his gleeful GOP foes responded with impeachment, further polarizing the country. No less a GOP stalwart than Alan Greenspan would later write in his memoir: “I think Bill Clinton was the best Republican president we’ve had in a while.” But rather than ushering in a new era of bipartisanship, Clinton’s move to the middle drove the GOP farther to the right and permanently broke the delicate political mechanism of compromise.
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