Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

14 December 2007

Clintonian Heresy

Readers of this Blog know I promise heresy. Polite heresy, but heresy nevertheless. Here’s some Democratic heresy.

Like many Democrats, I love Bill Clinton. I love to hear his Southern drawl taking doctrinaire ideological visions apart. I love to hear him skewer Dubya’s propensity for deciding things before ever hearing the evidence. I love to watch him satirize Dubya’s ignorance of foreign affairs, science, and just about everything else that educated people are supposed to know.

Bill’s a brilliant speaker. He’s funny, light and tragic by turns. He can make you laugh and cry inside of two minutes, just by describing real events in our nation’s political life. From a presidential Rhodes Scholar, you would expect no less.

But as much as I love Bill and his outsized intellect, I don’t want him in the White House again, with or without Hillary. Here’s why.

We all have a tendency to glorify the past. We do so in our personal lives. We remember our first kiss, but we forget our grand crush who turned us down for the senior prom.

So it is with politics. It happens in both parties. Republicans love Reagan for spending recklessly on defense, driving the Soviet Union into bankruptcy as it strove vainly to keep up with our military-industrial complex. They remember him telling Gorbachev to “tear down that wall!” Then they recall how dramatically that wish came true. They forget that Reagan used thinly veiled race baiting to get elected, fell asleep at Cabinet meetings and presided over the Iran-Contra scandal—a sordid mess that would have done a third world despot proud. They forget our economic conditions during most of Reagan’s presidency because those conditions were nothing worth remembering.

So it is also with Clinton and us Democrats. We all remember his grand first term, when he stole the Republicans’ thunder. He got welfare reform passed, balanced the budget, reduced crime by putting more cops on the streets, talked up racial harmony, presided over a robust economy, and made us all feel pretty good about ourselves. We remember those days fondly.

We particularly remember how Clinton tweaked emerging Republican leadership. Remember Newt Gingrich, Phil Gramm, Dick Armey, and Tom DeLay? All but Armey are gone from public office now, thank God.

I used to call them the “piglets.” That’s what they reminded me of, with their fat faces and beady eyes. They always seemed to be talking about money and not much else. Whenever one of them finished a speech without a concluding “oink,” I felt cheated, as if he had somehow managed to hide his true character once again. I loved Bill Clinton for keeping them all in what seemed like a perpetual state of helpless agitation.

But then came their 1994 victory and Bill’s second term. I’ll never understand what made Bill pick a White House intern for his fling, or lie so convincingly about it both in public and in court. A political genius who could read public sentiment like a book, he must have known what was coming. And sure enough, it did.

Most of Bill’s second term was about Monica Lewinsky and saving Bill from removal from office. The genocide in Rwanda slid by without a blink. Bill did intervene in Bosnia, but too late to stop the massacre in Sarajevo. Al Qaeda’s bombing of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania got only a desultory cruise-missile strike in retaliation, part of which hit an innocent pharmaceutical plant. And before his term in office ended, Bill had missed a chance to kill bin Laden because someone feared collateral damage. (Missing another chance for the same reason happened on Dubya’s watch.)

If you’re not blinded by love of Bill and his entrancing Southern drawl, you have to admit that his second term was no success, notwithstanding his near miss at getting Begin and Arafat together, at the very end of his presidency. His brains and Southern charm kept the love of us Democrats. More objective folk, like independents, began to turn away.

I know, I know. The piglets had it in for him. Ken Starr spent more on impeaching him and trying to remove him from office than many small countries’ budgets. Cultural war and political Armageddon were in their air, where they persist to this day.

And yet the fact remains that Bill Clinton’s second term fell short. It makes you wonder whether someone less successful at taunting and tweaking the opposition might have gotten more done.

Anyway, foreign policy was never Bill’s forte. He started a good process in Northern Ireland, and he got Israel and Palestine to sit down without result. Yet his response to unanticipated events abroad was adequate at best. There is no evidence that, had the Constitution and electorate allowed him a third term, he would have done any better at thwarting 9/11 than Dubya and his sorry team did.

Bill was a good-to-great president during his first term because it was all about balancing the budget and domestic politics. He was only a fair-to-poor president during his second term because he lost focus and because the nation’s needs had shifted to foreign affairs, in which he had less interest.

So I can’t see how having Bill back in the White House would be much use today. More than half of our problems involve foreign affairs: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, North Korea, Pakistan, Syria, and the perpetual muddle of Israel and Palestine. Other major problems involve global warming, which Bill left to Al, and energy independence, which Bill probably realized was a problem at the time but declined to spend any political capital to solve. And then there are Bill’s heart problems, which might impair his mental functioning or cause a national medical crisis at any time.

If you look at Bill the leader, unblinded by love for Bill the brilliant speaker and motivator, neither the track record nor the future outlook is impressive. Except for balancing the budget—which we need now, more than ever—his record and his skills are not well suited for our needs today.

More important, as Bill’s and Dubya’s records both show, the presidency is the world’s most exhausting and frustrating job. Bill would be universally admired, and rightly so, if he’d had only one term. Even Dubya might have avoided his eventual lot as the nation’s worst-ever president. After one term, Dubya would have left office with Saddam captured and his armies defeated, before the insurgency got serious. If Dubya’s successor had had the good sense to get rid of That Idiot Rumsfeld immediately, as John McCain recommended, we might have been where we are today by mid-2005. Then Dubya’s legacy would be different.

Until we have a way (like England’s “no confidence” vote) to dismiss a nonperforming president in mid-term, without all the trappings of a criminal trial, it might make sense to reduce the run to one four-year term only. But that’s another heresy. Whatever the merits of that idea, it makes no sense whatsoever to give a leader who is exhausted physically, politically, and ideologically—let alone one with heart trouble—a third bite at the apple.

Now if, deep down, we balk at having Bill back, what about Hillary? Except vicariously, she’s got no executive experience, not even as governor of Arkansas. (Obama at least ran an organizing operation in Chicago for a few years.) She’s a walking symbol of the Boomer generation and the Bill-piglet fights, liable to rekindle all the old animosities. And as her debating style shows, she can dodge and simulate a commanding mien, but she can’t unify or heal. I’m a lifelong Democrat, and she often reminds even me of Bill telling us what the meaning of “is” is.

This election presents a simple proposition. Unified and sensitively led, there is nothing the American people cannot do. Divided and obsessed by ideological purity, there seems to be little that we can do. Dubya has shown us how awful divisive government can be. With her mandates and her false sense of command, Hillary would do the same, even if she could win the general election, which I doubt. Do we really want to walk that same downward path again, at this critical time in our own and world history?

The only one who ever had a third term was FDR, and the fourth killed him. What we need now is not dynasties, but new leaders with fresh ideas, fresh talent and fresh energy. We can still admire Bill for his first term, and Hillary for courageously saving the family. But not in the White House, please.

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  • At Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 8:28:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Agreed that Bill Clinton's lack of judgement in a small private matter greatly weakend his second term. Remember the first one didn't start auspiciously as he made some politically unwise appointments and wasn't able to stand up to the health care industry.
    But you weaken your case by trying to bring in some health scare argument about how Bill might not be as smart as he used to be. I know how smart you used to be (this is Lindy speaking) and even if you are only half as smart I'll vote for you. Anyway, see http://ats.ctsnetjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/85/1/60 - this is just medical research, not proven fact.
    I don't think Hillary is a copy of Bill. In matters of judgment, husbands and wives are very different even if they take the same political stands on most things. Besides, she has had her Senate terms where I don't see that she has asked his council on votes or other efforts.

    Happy New Year!

  • At Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 9:03:00 PM EST, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Lindy,

    Thanks for the comment.

    That husbands and wives differ in judgment is precisely my point. Hillary's judgment has been terrible in everything that matters: health care, Iraq and Iran. Why nominate someone with proven bad judgment?

    If Hillary had not been married to Bill, she would be down in Bill Richardson or Tom Tancredo territory and not a serious contender.

    The only rational reasons for voting for her in the primaries are: (1) you believe it's time for a female president and are willing to overlook her faults; (2) you think she served as a presidential "apprentice" during Bill's two terms (that's the only basis on which any credible argument for her "experience" can be made---at least more experience than any other second-term senator); or (3) you don't think the country is ready for a president with African blood and think Edwards equally inexperienced.

    Hillary's poor judgment on crucial issues refutes the first two points. As for the third, we'll know the answer in a few weeks. I personally think it would be a tragedy if an irrelevancy like race caused us to miss the chance to have our next Lincoln lead us. I really think Obama's that good.

    As for Bill's health, my comments are based partly on my own observations of him. He didn't seem himself after his surgery, although he's improved since. The important point is that it could happen again. Given the stresses of the job and the problems we face, I'm inclined to vote for someone over 55 only if there are no other candidates of comparable quality.


    P.S. Please keep this blog anonymous.


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