Clinton was an internationalist and believed in an activist American presence abroad, but he was unable to create a comprehensive doctrine to guide the United States into the 21st century.
“The era of big government is over,” President Bill Clinton declared during the 1996 State of the Union. Clinton’s pronouncement has been oft repeated, but the second half of his statement is often forgotten. Clinton continued that although the era was over, “we cannot go back to a time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves. Instead we must go forward as one America, one nation working together to meet the challenges we face together. Self‐reliance and teamwork are not opposing virtues; we must have both.” 1 What Clinton imagined was a leaner, more efficient government that would help provide opportunity to its citizens, while not promising equal outcomes. 2
“Everything Wrong with the Presidents” series focuses on, as the title suggests, everything each president did wrong while in office. While many presidents enacted worthwhile, and even occasionally beneficial, policies, that’s not what these essays are about. Thus, silence regarding the good actions should not be taken as denial of their existence.
Clinton succeeded in being a new kind of Democrat as he and the moderate (sometimes labeled conservative) Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) promised he would be during the 1992 presidential campaign. 3 When evaluating the Clinton presidency, it must be said that his administration’s economic achievements were impressive. By working with Speaker of the House (after 1994) Newt Gingrich, and the Republican Congress, Clinton was able to achieve much of the DLC’s agenda. These achievements included a balanced budget, impressive economic growth, welfare reform, and significant deregulation.
On social issues, however, Clinton’s shift to the center resulted in a crime bill that, perhaps unintentionally, disproportionately targeted minorities and contributed (although to what extent is unclear) to our current culture of mass incarceration. 4 Likewise, Clinton’s attempts to appeal to voters’ more traditional values led him to sign legislation such as the Defense of Marriage Act and to encourage measures to limit individuals’ personal liberty.
Perhaps Clinton’s greatest failure, however, was his inability to redefine America’s foreign policy in the wake of the Cold War. Clinton was an internationalist and believed in an activist American presence abroad, but he was unable to create a comprehensive doctrine to guide the United States into the 21st century. Indeed, when Clinton did act, his policies served as a foundation for the more interventionist (and disastrous) policies of the George W. Bush administration. 5
When Clinton took office in January of 1992, he promised to govern as a New Democrat. This meant that he would, as he had declared when he announced his candidacy in October the year before, “provide leadership that will restore the American Dream—that will fight for the forgotten middle class—that will provide more opportunity, insist on more responsibility, and create a greater sense of community.” 6 Initially, Clinton promised the American people a middle class tax cut. Even before taking office, however, he spoke with the Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan, who insisted that if significant deficit reduction could be achieved, the bond market would respond by lowering long term interest rates. The reduction in rates, in turn, would benefit the middle class and lead to economic growth. 7 As such, deficit reduction became the means for the Clinton administration to bring about economic growth and opportunity – much to the chagrin of the more Keynesian members of the administration.
Although budget reductions had not been a major part of Clinton’s campaign, behind closed doors he lambasted both President Reagan and President Bush for their fiscal irresponsibility. 8 Now in office, he had a chance to address annual deficits and the debt. Although Clinton’s first budget included a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans that generated a projected $240.6 billion (and thus gained him the image of a tax and spend liberal), it also reduced government spending by a projected $192.3 billion and along with the budget caps (put in place during President George H.W. Bush’s tenure) helped set the country on the path to fiscal responsibility. 9 While Clinton’s first budget made some inroads, it was ultimately impressive economic growth (especially from 1996 to 2000) – along with the bipartisan Balanced Budget Act and Tax Relief Act of 1997 – that led to the federal government having a budget surplus for four straight years. To put the balanced budgets into perspective, it was the first time the U.S. government had balanced the budget for four consecutive years since the 1920s. 10
In addition to getting deficits under control, Clinton also pledged during the 1992 campaign to “end welfare as we know it.” Clinton made welfare reform one of his three major policy initiatives during his first two years in office. The other two were his crime and healthcare reforms. Unfortunately, for both welfare reform and Clinton’s presidency, he decided to push healthcare reform before pursuing welfare reform. If he had reversed the two, he might have built a moderate coalition around reforming welfare, passed the bill, and then used the relationships – and his bona fides as a New Democrat – to pursue healthcare reform. 11
Instead, the administration sent a healthcare bill to the Congress that fundamentally transformed the American health system and was so complex that its authors even had a hard time explaining it. Healthcare reform, led by the First Lady – Hillary Clinton – failed. 12
Perhaps more damaging than its failure, however, was the blow that the debate over healthcare had on Clinton’s image. Republicans easily framed Clinton as a tax and spend, big government liberal, and his claims of being a New Democrat fell on deaf ears. In 1994 the electorate punished Clinton for not governing as a new kind of Democrat, giving the Republicans a historic victory that handed the Speaker’s gavel to Congressman Newt Gingrich. 13
Ironically, the Republican takeover of Congress helped Clinton. Sure, he was upset about the defeat, but in time he came to realize that he had been freed – at least in part – of the Old Democrats in Congress who had consistently pushed him to the left during his first two years. 14 As a result, Clinton pursued a strategy of “triangulation.” Clinton’s political consultant Dick Morris insisted that Clinton: “Triangulate, create a third position, not just in between the old positions of the two parties but above them as well. Identify a new course that accommodates the needs the Republicans address but does it in a way that is uniquely yours.” 15
At first, triangulation was a reelection strategy, but it became both a political and policy strategy and Clinton found that many of his New Democrat ideas were perfectly designed to appeal to voters and break out of the left vs. right paradigm. This strategy led Clinton to promise, and eventually sign, legislation to balance the budget.
It also led Clinton to sign welfare reform legislation before the 1996 presidential election. Clinton had always believed that “welfare was a second chance, not a way of life” and he had promised the American people in 1992 that he would “change welfare as we knew it.” 16 Signing welfare reform signaled to the electorate that Clinton was indeed a New Democrat. According to a postelection survey by the DLC, “the president’s most important accomplishment in the eyes of voters was moving 1 million people from welfare into jobs, and 71 percent approved of his position on crime.” Clinton’s plan to run as a New Democrat, who argued that federal government’s goal should be to “give people the tools and try to establish the conditions in which they can make the most of their lives,” resonated. 17 Welfare reform, the balanced budget, and impressive economic growth defined Clinton’s presidency.
Clinton also had other fiscally conservative victories. For instance, he provided presidential leadership on the issue of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and was able to see the trade deal approved over opposition from the House Democratic leadership. In the same vein, he was able to normalize trade relations with China. Clinton also pursued deregulation of the banking industry with the Riegle‐Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act of 1994 and the Gramm‐Leach‐Bliley Act of 1999. This legislation legalized branch banking and put an end to the Glass‐Steagall separations between commercial and investment banking. By signing the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Clinton also deregulated the telecommunications industry. Finally, Clinton pursued a Reinventing Government Initiative (RGI) to decrease the number of federal bureaucrats and make the government more efficient and more responsive to citizens. 18 Although the RGI did not redefine the way the federal government worked, all of these initiatives must be described as fiscally conservative and each brought varied degrees of success.
As such, when Clinton’s economic record is attacked, it is usually assaulted from the left. Ten years after welfare reform, “welfare rolls shrunk from 12.2 million to 4.5 million, caseloads down by 54 percent, 60 percent of mothers who left welfare now gainfully employed.” Critics, however, argued that “the federal government had broken its commitment to protect the most vulnerable of American citizens.” These critics claimed to be vindicated after the 2008 downturn when they claimed that welfare reform “has failed to cushion the neediest through recessions.” 19
Clinton’s policies have also been attacked for not addressing income inequality. In fact, Clinton has even been condemned for failing “to exhibit the moral outrage that could have put inequality at the top of the nation’s agenda.” 20 In addition to his failure to address income inequality, Clinton’s emphasis on deregulation has been cited as one of the reasons for the 2008 financial crisis. 21
Clinton’s greatest failure, however, was his inability to stay focused on governing. His administration was riddled with financial and sex scandals. In October of 1997, Clinton and Gingrich met in the Treaty Room of the White House to discuss the possibility to reform Social Security. Both men realized that if they wanted to put the United States on a path to long‐term fiscal solvency, they would need to address entitlements. After discussing how they could carve out the political support for such reforms, “both men left [the meeting] feeling confident about the possibilities of success.” 22 Any coalition they put together, however, would be fragile and they wanted to make sure that hot button issues would not emerge to destroy the opportunity. Unfortunately for Clinton, Gingrich, and the country, on January 21, 1998 – just six days before Clinton was set to announce his plans to reform entitlements in the State of the Union – the press reported the Clinton‐Lewinsky Affair. 23 Any hopes of reforming Social Security and Medicare vanished as the partisanship made any bipartisan coalition impossible. Clinton’s sexually exploitive behavior not only hurt his family and Monica Lewinsky, but also the future solvency of the country.
While triangulation worked well on economic issues, it also led Clinton to embrace socially conservative positions that infringed on Americans’ civil liberties. When Clinton took office, one of the first issues he addressed was the status of homosexuals in the military. Clinton was delivering on a campaign promise and a deeply held belief that “the equal treatment of gay Americans was a matter essential to national unity.” During his acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, Clinton exclaimed that Americans needed to stop distrusting and fearing one another because of their differences. 24
This inclusiveness was an essential part of Clinton’s message; however, the struggle was determining how to be inclusive without alienating the independent voters that Clinton would need to win reelection. In 1992, Clinton failed to fully repeal the U.S. military’s ban on gay men and women openly serving. The public battle with the military hurt him politically, as did the compromise that emerged. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” asserted that military personnel could not be asked about their sexuality, however, they could also not openly discuss their sexual preference.
Throughout his administration, Clinton would lend his voice to the cause of gay rights, but he was unable to significantly improve the cultural climate for gay Americans. 25 Indeed, Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage (DOMA) Act right before the election in 1996, which established the federal definition of marriage as between one man and one woman and allowed states to not recognize the marriage certificates of other states. According to historian Kevan Yenerall, Clinton’s decision to sign DOMA “stands as a significant inconsistency in an otherwise eloquent Clintonian narrative regarding equality under the law for all citizens, regardless of sexual orientation.” 26 Perhaps Clinton’s acquiescence was designed to head off the even worse possibility of a Constitutional Amendment banning gay marriage. Or perhaps he simply did not have the political capital in an election year to stand up against a culture of homophobia. Regardless, DOMA was a significant blow to gay Americans.
Another aspect of Clinton’s social agenda was getting tough on crime. To do so, Clinton pushed a crime bill that would put 100,000 new police officers into American communities. An advocate of community policing, Clinton believed such a measure would reduce crime and enable police officers to make a positive difference where they lived. The bill established Clinton as a different type of Democrat by expanding the number of offenses that were eligible for a death penalty sentence. Likewise, the bill included a “three strikes” and you’re out policy (meaning a life sentence) for repeat offenders. Critics of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act insist that “the bill decimated communities of color and accelerated mass incarceration,” while proponents insist the bill reduced crime rates. 27 Regardless, at the heart of the bill was the belief that more severe punishment was the answer to addressing crime rather than rehabilitation.
While Clinton endorsed harsher punishments, he also tried to reduce Americans’ access to certain types of firearms. The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act limited the production and purchase of some semi‐automatic weapons and also banned “large capacity” clips. Clinton also signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which instituted a five day wait period for the purchase of handguns. 28 Many Second Amendment advocates viewed these measures as an assault on their Constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms.
Triangulation also led Clinton to embrace some culturally conservative positions. Looking back, Dick Morris argued that Clinton’s political resurrection was in large part due to his “unveiling of a ‘values’ agenda” in 1996. 29 This agenda included a proposed ban on advertising tobacco products to teenagers and the implementation of a new rating system for music and other forms of media. Clinton also used the presidential bully pulpit to curb the amount of violence on TV, to inform parents, teachers, and administrators how religion could be present in public schools, and to encourage the production new technologies – like the V‐chip – to give parents more control over what their children viewed on television. 30
Clinton also supported and signed the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which sought to ban pornography from the internet. The Supreme Court ultimately upheld a federal court decision that the ban violated the first amendment rights of American adults. All in all, Clinton’s embrace of triangulation meant attempts to infringe on civil liberties.
In the wake of the Cold War, Clinton had a real opportunity to redefine America’s foreign policy. In foreign affairs, Clinton attempted to change the public’s image of the Democratic Party being weak on national defense. Clinton was a committed internationalist who believed that the United States needed to play an active role in promoting democracy and market liberalism abroad, but he was also wary of putting American boots on the ground. 31
To an extent, Clinton did achieve his goal of establishing the United States as a good faith partner of the UN in encouraging democracy and liberalism across the world. 32 In the process, however, Clinton set dangerous precedents that his successors would build on. Under Clinton’s leadership, NATO participated in combat for the first time – an action that worried Russia. George Kennan described Clinton’s use of NATO as “a tragic mistake” and added that it marked “the beginning of a new cold war.” 33
During the conflict in Kosovo, the House rejected giving Clinton permission to intervene. Under the War Powers Act, Clinton was required to go to Congress within sixty days of authorizing military action. Clinton never came to Congress and became the first president to disregard the War Powers Act. Although the act had been weakened before Clinton, his actions “helped legitimize the autonomous war‐making power of the presidency.” 34
Clinton also set some dangerous precedents when it came to U.S. involvement in the Middle East. In Iraq, Clinton contemplated how to deal with Saddam Hussein blocking some potential production sites from inspections. In 1997, Clinton warned about the possibility of rogue actors using biological weapons against the United States. He warned about the potential damage that could be done by weapons of mass destruction and exclaimed that was “fundamentally what is at stake in the stand off we’re having in Iraq today.” 35
In 1998, Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which asserted that it was “the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.” The legislation empowered Clinton to provide Saddam’s opponents with almost $100 million of assistance. In short, Clinton began to make the argument that President George W. Bush would build upon: that the removal of Saddam Hussein was in the national interest of the United States. 36
Clinton also dramatically expanded the practice of extraordinary rendition. Extraordinary rendition, which the George W. Bush administration would use extensively to much criticism, “allowed US officials to bypass extraditions procedures by apprehending suspected terrorists on foreign soil and either bringing them to the United States for trial or sending them to other countries for interrogation and incarceration.” The practice is considered a violation of international law, something that the Clinton administration acknowledged. National Coordinator for Security, Richard Clarke, told Al Gore when the vice president asked about the legality: “Of course it’s a violation of international law, that’s why it’s a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass.” Once apprehended by the Clinton administration, many of the detainees were tortured. Under Clinton, the procedure (which had only been used three times by previous administrations) became “routine.” 37
Finally, there are those who would criticize Clinton for not doing more to pursue Osama Bin Laden after the first attack on the World Trade Center and following the bombing of the USS Cole. Clinton came close on several occasions to approving a strike on Bin Laden. Each time, however, the potential cost of civilian lives stayed his hand. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, members of the CIA pointed the finger at Clinton. Some asserted that Clinton, and other members of his foreign policy team, had not “taken bin Laden seriously enough.” A CIA operative told the 9/11 commission that Bin Laden “should have been a dead man.” Ultimately, this criticism benefits from hindsight. It is not clear that the CIA ever had a clear opportunity to eliminate Bin Laden. 38
So, what was wrong with the Clinton administration? It must be said that Clinton had significant economic achievements and that criticisms of his economic record amount to little more than ankle biting. On social issues, however, Clinton was much more conservative than many might believe, and he passed significant amounts of legislation that curtailed Americans’ civil liberties. Likewise, Clinton laid the groundwork for the War on Terror by expanding the presidency’s war making powers and by setting some dangerous precedents in regard to extraordinary rendition. Clinton should not be blamed for the actions of President George W. Bush, but he cannot be given a free pass for establishing the tools that Bush would later abuse.
2. Bill Clinton, “Forward” in Al From, The New Democrats and the Return to Power (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013).
3. For a history on the DLC consult Kenneth S. Baer, Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan and Clinton (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000) and Al From, The New Democrats.
7. Bob Woodward, The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 67–71. For a detailed account of how deficit reduction became a priority in the Clinton White House see pages 67–145. For Greenspan’s account of the Clinton Presidency see Alan Greenspan, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World (New York: Penguin Books, 2007), 142–225.
8. “Clinton’s Economic Plan Has a Roosevelt Tone,” New York Times, July 9, 1992, A19.
9. Iwan Morgan, “A New Democrat’s New Economics” in The Presidency of Bill Clinton: The Legacy of a New Domestic and Foreign Policy. Ed. Mark White (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2012), 69.
10. Iwan Morgan, “A New Democrat’s New Economics” in The Presidency of Bill Clinton: The Legacy of a New Domestic and Foreign Policy. Ed. Mark White (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2012), 75.
11. This is a contentious point among Clinton scholars and was the source of much disagreement within the administration.
12. Alex Waddan argues that the goal of Clinton’s health care reform was to find a market based alternative to achieve comprehensive coverage. He details why the administration ultimately failed in passing its legislation. Alex Waddan, “Found and Lost: A Third Way on Health Care” in The Presidency of Bill Clinton: The Legacy of a New Domestic and Foreign Policy. Ed. Mark White (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2012), 92–119. Patrick Maney, Bill Clinton, 110
13. Al From, The New Democrats, 214–217. For an early analysis of the 1994 election see Harold W. Stanley, “The Parties, the President, and the 1994 Midterm Elections” in The Clinton Presidency: First Appraisals eds. Colin Campbell and Bert A. Rockman (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, 1996), 188–211.
17. Kenneth S. Baer, Reinventing Democrats, 248–249.
18. In his 1996 State of the Union, Clinton explained that he wanted to get “rid of yesterday’s bureaucratic government while advocating a creative, future‐oriented, ‘empowering government.’” This vision was best captured, according to Clinton in the administration’s “economic and social policies and Al Gore’s [Reinventing Government] Initiative. Bill Clinton, My Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 694.
20. Raymond Tatalovich and John Frendreis, “Clinton, Class, and Economic Policy” in The Postmodern Presidency: Bill Clinton’s Legacy in U.S. Politics. Ed. Steven E. Schier (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000), 55–56.
24. Kevan M. Yenerall, “The Clarion Call, the Muted Trumpet, the Lasting Impact: Gay Rights” in The Presidency of Bill Clinton: The Legacy of a New Domestic and Foreign Policy. Ed. Mark White (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2012), 127.
25. Kevan M. Yenerall, “The Clarion Call, the Muted Trumpet, the Lasting Impact: Gay Rights” in The Presidency of Bill Clinton: The Legacy of a New Domestic and Foreign Policy. Ed. Mark White (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2012), 120–157.
26. Kevan M. Yenerall, “The Clarion Call, the Muted Trumpet, the Lasting Impact: Gay Rights” in The Presidency of Bill Clinton: The Legacy of a New Domestic and Foreign Policy. Ed. Mark White (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2012), 144.
31. Al From, The New Democrats, 177, 238. This hesitancy resulted in the Clinton administration watching from afar as over 250,000 people, mostly Bosnian Muslims, were ethnically cleansed. Another two million people were displaced from their homes. Patrick J. Maney, Bill Clinton, 135. Clinton’s decisions to intervene during his administration are also called into question by his decision to not intervene in the Rwanda genocide.
32. For an analysis of Clinton’s foreign policy see John Dumbrell, “Diplomacy in Northern Ireland: Successful Pragmatic International Engagement” and Elpida Katsavara, “The Aerial War in Kosovo” in The Presidency of Bill Clinton: The Legacy of a New Domestic and Foreign Policy. Ed. Mark White (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2012). For a comprehensive insider appraisal consult Sidney Blumenthal’s The Clinton Wars (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003).