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Bill Clinton Reconsidered
A reflection on the forty-second president thirty years on
Today marks the 30th anniversary of William Jefferson "Bill" Clinton's inauguration as the forty-second president of the United States. We should take this opportunity to revisit his strengths as a politician. Much has been written – given what we have witnessed since, likely too much – about his shortcomings and character flaws. But for all Clinton’s weaknesses, he was a masterful and multi-faceted political leader. He brought a unique blend of talents to the White House, one that none of his successors have quite managed to replicate.
I am not a natural singer of Bill Clinton’s praises. I voted against him and for his Republican opponents in both 1992 and 1996. In 1995 and 1996, I worked as a congressional fellow in a House GOP leadership office while Clinton faced off against Newt Gingrich and his newly established and emboldened majority. I thus absorbed via osmosis and, at the time, largely agreed with the sharp Republican criticism of Clinton’s leadership. I looked down from the House gallery as Clinton delivered the 1996 State of the Union address and declared that, “the era of big government is over.” I saw this as a profound admission of defeat by a sitting president.
Little did I know! I was not the first, nor would I be the last, to underestimate the political resilience and adroitness of Bill Clinton. Looking back thirty years on, three aspects of Clinton’s political leadership warrant reconsideration - especially as we enter another election season and ask ourselves, “What should we be looking for in a politician?”
Remaking the Democratic Party
First and foremost, Bill Clinton transformed his party in constructive ways that enabled it to prosper - and him as well. When Clinton came onto the national stage in the 1980s, the Democratic Party, beholden to its liberal wing and evading political reality, was practically locked out of the White House. Clinton and his party allies had to tackle two intertwined challenges of party leadership to realize his presidential ambitions. They had to change the orientation of the Democratic Party so that a centrist politician could win the party’s nomination and this reoriented party could win a presidential election.
He got to work, initially as an innovative governor in Arkansas advancing education and welfare policies that went against prevailing party orthodoxies. He also came to play an important role in the Democratic Leadership Council and its efforts to pull the party back to the center. In its first meeting after Clinton assumed chairmanship of the group in 1990, the DLC issued its New Orleans Declaration articulating a compelling policy agenda focused on opportunity, responsibility, and community. Clinton would later reflect at the end of his presidency that the New Orleans Declaration outlined the policy agenda he had pursued throughout it.
Bill Clinton didn’t just seek to reach across political divides with his rhetoric and leave it at that, as several of his successors have. Clinton advanced policies and coalitional strategies in the run up to the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections that spanned these divisions. In the process, he reoriented the Democrats to face political reality and rallied coalitions encompassing not only liberal but also moderate and even some conservative voters. Beyond the usual liberal bastions, Clinton won twice in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana, states where Republicans had prevailed since 1980. His two victorious presidential campaigns thus represent a creative and resounding act of party leadership.
A Small “d” Democrat
Second, Bill Clinton was an unapologetic, small “d” democrat. He had a soft spot in his heart for the American people, especially those from less favored places and less privileged and educated walks of life. He was preternaturally drawn to and energized by talking with voters and listening to their stories and circumstances. He wanted to win everyone over when he went down a rope line or walked into a room. He believed, rightly, that he could in most instances. All he needed was the opportunity to look people in the eye, listen and nod along as they spoke, and respond in that warm Arkansas lilt of his.
The old guard saw Clinton’s unrestrained predilection for retail politicking as unseemly. It persistently blew up his schedule and famously led him to suggest that he actually felt voters' pain. But he had an instinct and capacity for connecting with people that neither he nor his opponents could deny.
Clinton’s critics failed to grasp the direct link between his wherewithal as a retail politician and his wholesale mastery as “the Secretary of Explaining Stuff.” When President Barack Obama gave him that apt title after Clinton’s tour de force speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, there was a note of jealousy in his voice. Bill Clinton was just as much of a policy wonk as Obama. But Clinton had a knack for talking about even complex points of policy and weaving them together with down-home political asides in ways that left normal Americans nodding along in agreement with him. Partly this ability was the result of Clinton’s experienced, knowledgeable, and supple mind. Ultimately, though, it rested on the conviction that he was speaking to his fellow citizens, and that he needed to talk with rather than down to, about, or at them.
A Calling for Politics
For Bill Clinton, politics truly was a vocation. It is a good thing it was, for he endured a series of defeats and setbacks during his political career, any one of which might have poleaxed a normal politician.
Consider this litany: Losing his inaugural campaign, for an Arkansas congressional seat, in 1974. Being defeated in his quest to be re-elected governor of Arkansas in 1980 after stepping into multiple pitfalls in his initial term. Botching his debut on the national stage with a rambling address that drew boos at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. The multiple controversies arising from his personal life that erupted in the 1992 campaign and hounded him throughout his presidency. The self-sabotage and struggles of his first two years in office – a ruined honeymoon if there ever was one. Then came Newt Gingrich, the Contract with America, and the GOP takeover of Congress for the first time in four decades. In his second term, the Javert-like Ken Starr exposed Clinton’s sordid affair with an intern, and he became the first president to be impeached since Andrew Johnson.
Notwithstanding these sustained headwinds, Bill Clinton repeatedly demonstrated his staying power. Twice he came back from electoral defeats in Arkansas to win statewide office. He learned on the job in the governor’s office, in the 1992 presidential campaign, and in the White House. He responded to the electoral pummeling in the 1994 midterms by deftly thwarting the most assertive GOP policy gambits in the fiscal showdowns of 1995 and 1996. He then proceeded to reach substantive compromises with GOP majorities on reforming welfare in 1996 and balancing the budget in 1997, winning re-election in between.
Throughout his political career, and especially as president, Bill Clinton had a notorious temper and no shortage of enemies. However, he was always ready, willing, and able to work with even his most vociferous critics if it moved the country in the right direction from his point of view. In this fundamental respect, he didn’t take politics personally.
Max Weber, at the end of his 1919 lecture “Politics as a Vocation” instructed his students that “only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say 'In spite of all!' has the calling for politics.”
Bill Clinton repeatedly pressed ahead “in spite of all.” His irrepressibility paid off - for him and the country alike. Having presided over eight years of sustained economic growth and leaving the federal government running an annual surplus, he left office in 2001 with an approval rating of 66%. This remains the highest rating for any departing president since Gallup began tracking 70 years ago.
Such are the returns for those who have a true calling for politics.