October 8, 2000
The media pundits seem determined to deny the 42nd president of the United States his legacy. When history will have dispassionately reviewed the achievements of the Clinton administration, it will be compelled to endorse a previously-maligned statement made by its Vice President, who following the December 1998 impeachment vote in the House of Representatives, referred to Clinton as “one of the best Presidents in the history of the United States”. The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal believes that the economic successes of the nineties are largely an extension of the supply side policies introduced in the eighties. On January 8, 1998 they even published my letter, wherein I had suggested that their analysis could have proven true but for the lack of fiscal discipline in the eighties. Rush Limbaugh and several other conservative commentators further believe that the election in 1994 of a Republican Congress has helped set or define the agenda for most of the Clinton administration’s tenure. Again, this conservative line of thinking is belied by two notable factors : the first being the historic tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Al Gore in 1993 in favor of Clinton’s first budget, which put the U.S. economy on the path to fiscal discipline before the Republican Congress arrived, and the second being the pervasive power of the presidential veto, which can limit the viability of any Congressional majority. In fact, President Bush wielded this veto power quite significantly (at least thirty times) over the Democratic Congress’ initiatives in his 1989-1992 term. It is thus fair to suggest that the President, as chief executive officer of the country, is finally responsible for its economic and political health — as President Truman rightly stated, “the buck stops here”!
In this silly season of presidential politics, it might appear a bit redundant to quote all the record-breaking statistics, which soundly make the case for an economic legacy for President Clinton. It therefore seems more appropriate to look at factors, some of which appear to have thus far not registered in a historical light in the larger public’s imagination. Not being a presidential historian, I will try to resist justifying the
“raison d’être” for a Clinton legacy, but simply suggest a ‘Top Ten’ list of accomplishments for rational readers to consider :
The Internet and the dot.com era. The commercial Internet exploded with a bang in the mid-nineties, and the World Wide Web was born. While Vice President Gore has been widely ridiculed for claiming to be one of its inventors, there is no dispute that the Clinton Administration has moved aggressively to wire America’s schools for access to the Internet. Also, the dot.com phenomenon has been a key factor fueling the growth of the New Economy in the late nineties. Since President Clinton is not assigned much credit for the dot.com boom, he is not being blamed for the 2000 “dot.bomb” gloom either. However, the fact remains that the Clinton Administration will be remembered for the birth of e-commerce and the
“click and mortar” economy, which propelled the Dow Jones Industrial Average passed 10,000 and the Nasdaq passed 5000 in the last year of the 20th century!
- Free Trade. In the first year of his term, President Clinton waged a successful battle, for the passage of the “North American Free Trade Agreement”, against the wishes of several prominent members of his own party. His primary attack dog was Vice President Gore, who demolished the then popular nationalist, Ross Perot, in a debate on free trade. NAFTA has been an integral part of the engine that been driving the economy over the past seven years. In the eight-year of his presidency, by signing the “Permanent Normal Trading Relations” agreement with China, President Clinton will further open up a huge market for American goods. However, whether PNTR will open up the hearts of the old “butchers of Beijing” remains to be seen.
- RU 486. Are you
ready for this? After a 12-year study the FDA approved the pill RU 486, which pro-lifers refer to as an instrument for “abortion on demand”. The practical experience in Western Europe, where the pill has been available for several years, indicates that abortions have not so increased. President Clinton, who has appointed two pro-choice judges to the Supreme Court, has been a firm supporter of a woman’s right to choose. It is quite symbolic that this pill will become available to American women, just as the President is finishing up his term in office. The bequest of RU 486 in America will have begun under President Clinton’s watch.
The ‘cabinet 4 women’. Everyone wonders about the women’s vote being solidly behind President Clinton, both, in 1992 and 1996. One has to only look at his cabinet and understand why? Unlike the token woman in, both, President Reagan and President Bush’s cabinets, President Clinton not only appointed four women, but also gave two of them very highly visible and important positions. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Attorney General Janet Reno have played critical roles in the Clinton Administration. Additionally, Health & Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and Labor Secretary Alexis Herman have made important contributions to the Clinton cabinet. With these appointments, President Clinton has raised the bar for future Presidents regarding the role of women in government. It is a legacy, which will in the not too distant future propel a woman into the Oval Office.
- Impeachment. The only elected President in the history of the United States to have been impeached by the House of Representatives, and acquitted by the Senate. While a majority of the people believed that President Clinton had lied under oath, they did not want him removed from office. There were repeated
attempts by conservatives across the board to inflame public opinion by suggesting that the President lacked “integrity and honesty”. However, concurrent exposures of moral turpitude seemed to sink more Republicans and leave the President relatively unscathed. One might wonder why I have listed impeachment as a presidential accomplishment—quite simply because President Clinton defied most odds on survival, vowed to fight until “the last hour of the last day”, and just could not get voted “off the island” by his opponents!
- Independent Counsel law. It will be hard for even President Clinton’s detractors to argue that his Administration has not been the most investigated—with over $100 million spent by five different Independent Counsels in seven years—in the history of the Republic! Only one of these counsels succeeded in winning a conviction against its principal target—Housing Secretary Henry Cisnero. Following an impeachment and failed conviction of the President, the Independent Counsel law was allowed to lapse in 1999. Thus an important post-Watergate era statute has expired because of misuse by partisans on both sides of the political spectrum. This could be a Clinton legacy, which might come back to haunt the Congress of the United States.
- Government shut down. If there is a single instrument that a popular president has proven that he can use, as a successful weapon in his dealings with an opposition-ruled Congress, it would have to be the threat of closing down the government! Speaker Gingrich and Majority Leader Dole learned the hard way that President Clinton was more than willing to call their bluff on this issue. It almost seems that the President, with his threat of a government shut down, has bestowed on his successors a kamikaze-like substitute to the Presidential line-item veto. If there is any doubt about the efficacy of the shutdown threat, one has to only look at the feverish way Congress has been working in this silly season to prevent another showdown with President Clinton.
- Foreign Policy. The recent defeat of Slobodan Milosevic in the Yugoslav elections is almost a ringing endorsement of the Clinton foreign policy in the Balkans over the past several years. Much to the chagrin of the nay-sayers, Clinton’s air war in Kosovo, followed by US-supported peace-keeping, and UN-mandated sanctions, seems to have worked against Milosevic. An almost identical initiative begun by President Bush in Iraq has not had anywhere close to similar results, and despite almost ten years of sanctions maintained throughout the Clinton presidency, Saddam Hussein continues in power. As far as the post-cold war foreign policy goes, President Clinton has managed to keep a nervous Russian republic engaged and on a slow, if uncertain, path to a free market democracy. While Clinton might not have pushed China any closer
to democracy, he has rightfully engaged India in a closer relationship with the United States. Again, despite valiant efforts throughout his two terms, to bring about a lasting peace to the Middle East, President Clinton will probably leave office without a Carter-type “Camp David”
accord. But then, he did broker a peace agreement in Northern Ireland. Overall, a rather satisfying foreign policy record that President Clinton can be proud of.
- Recession-free. Almost fittingly, President Clinton will end his record-breaking tenure in office as the only complete two-term president since the end of WWII to have not witnessed an economic recession on his watch. This is a legacy, which any future president would love to inherit but find hard to emulate! My personal belief is that presidential performance has as much to do with one’s fate, as it has to do with one’s competence. As the old adage goes, some people are born great, some people achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them! Nancy Reagan’s astrologer would be the first one to tell you that maybe Clinton just got lucky—coupling achievements due to competence with just being at the right place at the right time!
- Approval ratings. Having talked about Clinton’s karma, is it any wonder that this President has enjoyed a majority job approval rating throughout his entire term in office? This legacy is all the more shocking because this is a President, who simultaneously suffers an equal and opposite rating when it comes to issues of personal character and trust. It boggles the mind that the larger public is equally adept at "compartmentalizing" its feelings towards this President, as the President himself has so successfully done in his conduct of affairs of the state!