My Life or My Fable?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
With the passage of time, the Bush administration's foreign policy and domestic bumbles, and the lackluster performance by the crew of Democratic presidential candidates during the primaries, former President Bill Clinton not only has been personally and politically rehabilitated, but hailed as a political genius. The overwhelming temptation is to inflate his life story and political deeds to Olympian heights.
As the Democrat that took back the White House in 1992 after 12 years of Republican rule, the story line is that he snatched a big page from Ronald Reagan's ideological playbook, and out-republicaned the Republicans. He pledged to ramp up America's military prowess, aggressively fight terrorism, crack down on crime, and reign in domestic spending. He resuscitated a moribund Democratic Party and made it a competitive political force nationally. He did all this and still came off as a champion of racial justice and social reform.
The truth is quite different. In 1992, Clinton did not handily defeat Bush Sr. Clinton won with a minority of the popular vote, one of only a handful of presidents in the 20th Century to do that. Bush Sr. got fewer white male votes than Reagan and Richard Nixon in their smashing presidential wins, and those votes are always the ones that make or break a presidential candidate. But Clinton didn't get those votes. Reform Party presidential candidate Ross Perot with his anti-government assault grabbed them. That did more to sink the Bush presidency than Clinton's vaunted charm, charisma and tilt-to-the right "New Democrat" forgotten-man pitch.
In 1996, Clinton's political good fortune held up. Clinton's opponent, the venerable Republican Party warhorse Robert Dole, inspired little voter enthusiasm. And Republicans reeled from the tarnish of their rancorous, but failed fight over Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, and the Pat Buchanan insurgency that siphoned conservative votes from the Republicans. This insured Clinton's walk-over victory.
Clinton did not heal the divisions and rivalries in the Democratic Party, or define a political identity that separated the Democrats from tail-ending the Republicans on policy issues. During Clinton's terms, the Democrats lost more ground in state and national elections that they had in decades. In his first year in office, the Democrats had the presidency (him), the House, Senate, and a majority of governorships. By the time he left office eight years later, Republicans increased their number of governorships and their control of Congress. Despite being a child of the South, Clinton did not loosen the Republican's iron grip on the South and mid-America. Clinton also served as the perfect whipping boy and straw man for the Republicans to solidify their conservative ideology within their party and much of the media.
Clinton gave bible thumping speeches at black churches, surrounded by a gaggle of black Democrats, and made a few well-publicized appointments of blacks to cabinet posts. This did much to sell his image as a dedicated fighter for racial justice and a social reformer. Blacks eagerly gave him more than eighty percent of their vote and dubbed him an honorary "soul brother."
But Clinton was no liberal reformer. He radically downsized welfare, toughened federal anti-crime and drug laws, and pared away affirmative action programs. These were all Reagan, Bush Sr. and Nixon proposals that the Congressional Black Caucus and liberal Democrats vehemently opposed, and had languished in Congress. The ranks of the black poor quickly soared, the numbers jailed for mostly non-violent, non-serious crimes jumped, and funds for skill and education programs to permanently break the welfare cycle for the poor evaporated.
Bush's black and Latino cabinet appointments of Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez were far more significant in terms of making key policy decisions than any of Clinton's black and Latino appointments.
Clinton's party dominance badly hurt the Democrats in 2000. Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore was mute on issues such as urban investment, health care for the uninsured, failing inner-city public schools, and criminal justice reform. This brand of political plantationism alienated and angered many blacks and Latinos. They stayed away from the polls in droves and turned what should have been an easy Gore victory into a numbing defeat.
Clinton's negative stamp was firmly imprinted on the Democrats during the primaries when the white Democratic presidential contenders tried to out Bush on national security, the war on terrorism, and greater defense spending and preparedness. Their talk on domestic issues consisted mostly of hammering Bush on tax cuts, and his grossly under funded No Child Left behind education initiative. This ignited no spark among minority voters. Even now, presumptive Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's spike up in the polls is due mostly to public anguish over Bush's Iraq quagmire.
Clinton's "My Life" is not the milestone in presidential story telling that his PR flacks boast. But it will do much to further establish the myth that Clinton was a political genius. But then a storybook written by a president wouldn't be complete without myths.