Ezra Klein takes the opportunity of Bill Clinton’s recent poor performance in support of his wife’s faltering campaign to review one of my shibboleths, the unimpressive record he racked up as president (“The Myth of Bill Clinton’s Strategic Genius,” The American Prospect, 17 December 2007):
… it’s worth taking a moment to examine the myth of Clinton’s extraordinary political skills. The 1992 election occurred in context of a deep recession, the post-Soviet Union turn towards domestic policy, and a vicious third party challenge to the sitting Republican. Clinton won, but did not capture a majority.
This was a huge deal for the Democrats, and rightfully so, as they’d been locked out of the White House for 12 years. But it wasn’t the world’s most impressive political feat. By 1994, Clinton had suffered a tremendous defeat on health care reform, passed a deficit reduction act that he was unable to secure a single Republican vote for, attracted Republican support to pass NAFTA, and presided over the loss of 52 Democratic seats in Congress. The next two years were a period of significant retrenchment with some successes, notably the crime bill and, again, the non-traditional priority of “welfare reform.” Clinton did, to be sure, beat Bob Dole, but he failed to capture a majority of the vote. Between 1996 and 2000, the economy roared forward, Clinton managed it ably, pushed through some decent-if-incremental legislation, almost got impeached, and turned his attention to foreign policy work. He exited office a popular president, but not a historic one. His successor — for a variety of reasons — failed to take office, and congressional majorities were reduced from their 1992 peak.
… the remarkable thing about Gingrich wasn’t his eventual fall, but the damage he caused Clinton during his rise. Clinton “won” the personal confrontation, but Gingrich won the ideological showdown, essentially ending a Democratic president’s ability to pursue recognizable progressive priorities for six of his eight years in office.
The purpose of Mr. Klein’s account is to suggest that Bill Clinton is no electoral silver bullet:
Bill Clinton was, to be sure, a very good politician, but that aptitude mainly manifested in getting himself elected. There’s no real evidence that he’s got the same talent for getting other people elected. His tenure did not end with increased Democratic majorities, a Democratic successor, or a vastly expanded social welfare state. The 90s were, to be sure, better for Democrats than the Bush years, but they shouldn’t be blown out of proportion.
I think the sooner the Democratic party gets over its Bill Clinton mythos — and every aspect of it: the deft economic management, the heroic foreign policy, the cleaver triangulation of his opponents, the knack for the pulse of America — the better off it will be.