Bill Clinton: Driving the GOP to Extremes

Former US President Bill Clinton speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) on September 24, 2013 in New York.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Sept. 30, 2013, 9:12 p.m.

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.

Who do you think broke Wash­ing­ton? Tell us here.

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