The Presidency About Nothing
The publication of Mrs. Clinton's memoirs gives us an opportunity to try to size up the Clinton presidency from a position, two and a half years down the line, from which some perspective is possible. It is not an opportunity for much else. The excerpts I have seen so far from the book are dully predictable. Mrs. Clinton is, as William Safire pointed out long ago, a congenital and very skilfull liar. There is no reason to believe anything she says, in her book or elsewhere, and a great many excellent reasons to disbelieve it. People who actually know the Clintons personally — see Dick Morris in last week's NRO, for example — are reading the book with tears of laughter streaming down their cheeks.
But in making such remarks I am merely offering myself as a brand for the burning. One of the certain things about the next few weeks is that conservatives will review Mrs. Clinton's book with scorn, giving liberals the opportunity to crow that we are still pathologically "fixated" or "obsessed" with the Clintons, that we lack that most essential component (according to them) of the mature human personality, the ability to move on. Well, phooey. I have moved on. I never think about the Clintons from one week's end to the other, in spite of the fact that one of them represents me in the Senate. Eight years in the life of a great nation may still have something to teach us, though, and it is no particular mark of obsession to want to take a backward glance at those eight years, and at the man who held the highest rank in our government for all eight of them.
The principal political fact about the Clinton presidency is that during it, politics in the U.S.A. came to an end. That's a bit of an exaggeration; but from the long view, 20th-century American politics was a struggle between those who wished to expand the scope of government — most especially the federal government — and those who wished to resist that expansion. The resistance was a long rearguard action, as the government and its expenditures grew from the 1930s to the 1990s — even, as David Frum documented in Dead Right, through the Reagan years. Margaret Thatcher called it "the ratchet effect": when the Left was in power, government grew fast, when the Right was in power, it grew more slowly — in a very good year, not at all.
That struggle ended in the spring of 1996, with the Clinton-Gingrich-Dole compromise on the federal budget. That marked the defeat of the main conservative enterprise, the end of any real hope of reducing the size of our federal government. This defeat seemed at the time to be merely tactical — an exceptionally masterful, fluent and unscrupulous President had outwitted the slow-footed Republican leaders of Congress, cumbered as they were, in the role of Senate Majority Leader, with one of the most spineless politicians the U.S.A. has ever produced. Clinton's brilliant State of the Union speech, and Bob "Whatever" Dole's pathetic response to it, encapsulated the situation. Hopes of shrinking the government were dead. In 1996 the tax bite — federal, state and local — on an average two-earner family hit 41.5 percent, the biggest in history, bigger even that in WW2.
Less obvious at the time, liberalism was also dead. It had died in November 1994, when the Republicans took Congress. This was a clear popular defeat for big government liberalism. The people had spoken: they did not want any extravagant new government programs. It was not that the era of big government was over; only the era of expanding government was over. The 1996 debacle demonstrated that the people did not want a smaller government, either. All polls showed that Americans at large were unhappy about the government shutdowns of 1995, and blamed congressional Republicans for them. The lesson our political classes read from the events of 1994-6 was: the people don't want any more government, but they don't want any less, either.
Well, perhaps a wee bit less. That 41.5 percent has declined slightly since 1996 and a conservative president was elected in 2000 by a constitutional fluke. On the whole, though, we are in a period of ideological stasis, and that period really commenced in the last few months of the first Clinton presidency. This situation is frustrating for both liberals and conservatives. The liberals have lost their momentum. They want to add big new government programs — that's what liberalism is all about. To do that, they must either increase taxes, or kill current programs. The voters won't let them do the first, and the lobbyists won't let them do the second. (No government program can ever be ended. That is one of the iron laws of modern American politics. Remember the mohair subsidy? It's b-a-a-c-k.) Conservatives are just as frustrated, since by the same token they have no real hope of reducing the size of the government. Ideologically, we are deadlocked, and have been since the mid-1990s.
The second Clinton term was therefore a presidency about nothing. As Will Rogers said of Calvin Coolidge: "He did nothing, but that's what people wanted him to do." Having no hope of making any large changes to the national life, the President filled his time with chasing interns around the office, paying off old pals with pardons and public funds, and getting his wife a Senate seat as a reward for her Oscar-winning performance as the shocked wife.
It is common cant nowadays to say that this frivolous period came to an end with the terrorist attacks of September 2001, but I am not sure that this is true. As horrifying as those attacks were, the Iraq war has showed that our enemies are, in fact, militarily puny. In the aftermath of such a dazzling display of national power as we have just seen, even the great foreign policy issues no longer seem so pressing. Can we steer Iraq towards constitutional government? Perhaps not; but if the effort fails, if they end up with another gangster-regime, and if that regime threatens us — well, we can smash them to pieces with a single blow of our fist, as we did this spring. It would be tiresome to have to keep doing that, but we can do it if we need to, and watch it all on TV, without any great disruption to our domestic life. So let's talk about affirmative action, standardized school testing, and faith-based initiatives …
It is not quite the case that 9/11 and 4/9 (that is, April 9 this year, when the statue of Saddam Hussein came down in Baghdad) are a wash, but at least we have our confidence back. We have shown that we can dish it out as well as take it. Domestically, and allowing for some war-fighting adjustments around the edges, and some teeny-tiny tax cuts, there is no sign of any revival of the fight between more-goverment liberals and less-government conservatives. That fight is over. Our federal government won't get any bigger, but it won't get any smaller. (State governments are another matter. In my own state, the size of the government is still growing at a fair clip. Even here, though, direct taxation has reached its limits, and the financing for the growth must come from gimmicks — casino gambling, the tobacco settlement, leasing of state assets. There are only so many such gimmicks; and if the state government does not soon run out of gimmicks, they will, given the flight of over-taxed residents and businesses to more salubrious climes, run out of taxpayers.)
Given that the Clinton presidency did nothing and could do nothing, the only real matter for discussion is its style. In that regard, there are things that should not and cannot be forgotten. Chasing interns around the office is one thing; but this was the Oval Office, the people's office in the people's house, a shrine of our constitutional tradition. The Clintons, in their fathomless New Class arrogance, were blind to all that. It would never have occurred to them to think it, and if anyone had said it out loud in their presence, they would have turned away in scorn.
They were actually more than blind: they hated that stuff — the stuff about tradition, respect, formality, institutional dignity, values. Institutions, for them, existed only to be smashed up and remade in the image of New Class ideals. As did the nation — they hated that, too. Not just the U.S.A.: they hated the very idea of nation. The world, in their view, should be run by international bureaucracies, staffed by confident New Class-niks like themselves on limitless expense accounts. What, after all (they said amongst themselves) had the idea of nationhood ever brought the world, but war, imperialism, and racial arrogance? Away with it!
The Clinton presidency gave ordinary inattentive Americans their first look at the New Class in power. The hedonism and narcissism of the early boomer generation was revealed in all its arrogance and moral emptiness. The startling thing was how many people did not mind. The trashing of tradition, the sneering at the armed services, the kowtowing to foreign despots like Castro and Assad, the moral relativism, the shady dealings and corrupt campaigns, the cavalier squandering, by people who never had a real job in their lives, of money wrenched from the pockets of hard-working citizens, the perjury and malfeasance, the cynical use of the military for "wag the dog" distractions — to tens of millions of Americans, these did not matter. Or they mattered less than fear of the bogeymen whose images the Clintons and their numberless legions of media shills worked so hard to keep alive — church-burning racists, the kinder-kircher-küche "patriarchy," Big Drugs and Big Oil, thin-lipped joy-denying fundamentalist Christians, anal-retentive military types obsessed with discipline, and the rest.
Most government clients — the urban welfare classes, the public-sector and health-care unions, the "bought" portion of the private sector (trial lawyers, for example) — were among those who did not see much wrong with the Clintons. Not all gulls were government clients, though. The New Class itself, in the media and the universities, was on board. So were a lot of ordinary voters. To those other tens of millions who were not on board, the spectacle of their fellow citizens excusing and apologizing for the most outrageous behavior was as shocking — as "divisive," to use a favorite liberal scare word — as anything the Clintons actually did.
What the Clintons left behind them is nothing to do with policy, foreign or domestic. It is the "red-blue" split, the gulf between citizens who, having been very thoroughly exposed to New Class values, detest them, and those who don't. The Clintons did not add anything to the country; nor, in spite of their best efforts, did they subtract much from it. What they mainly did was polarize it. If you compare the nation at the end of the Clinton years with what it was at the beginning, there are two things that stand out: we were richer, and we were more bitterly divided. The first was nothing the Clintons did, only a consequence of the defeat of big-government liberalism in 1994 followed by an explosion of private-sector activity as the internet revolution arrived. The second was theirs, their true and lasting legacy.