The Clinton Legacy vs. the Reagan Era

Having failed to repeal Reaganism in policy terms, Bill Clinton now seeks to repeal its growing historical standing.

Former President Bill Clinton delivered a lengthy speech (even by his standards) at Georgetown University the other day, and some commentators detected a certain defensiveness in his tone. He was talking about his legacy, which now resides in the realm of history, and he evinced what seemed like concern that he’s not getting the credit he deserves for the robust economic growth during his presidency and his positive impact on the circumstances of the country’s poor.

His biggest complaint seemed aimed at today’s party liberals who want rhetoric and policies designed to go after the rich. As the New York Times put it, Clinton governed as a “new model of a pro-business, pragmatic Democrat who championed public-private partnerships and open markets.” That thinking is considered pretty retro by many of today’s Democrats more inclined toward the fiery approach of Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, whose populist pugilism is directed at big financial institutions, big business in general and the wealthy.

But as Bloomberg’s Albert R. Hunt said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” the day after Clinton’s speech, Clinton was operating in an entirely different era from today. Hunt makes a good point. It was not an era of populism back then; it was an era still influenced by the legacy of Ronald Reagan. In today’s political climate, characterized by powerful populist currents emanating from both left and right, the old Clinton approach lacks resonance.

There’s no reason for Clinton to get defensive about this. The first challenge of any president is to understand his times and then govern accordingly. Clinton did that, and the results were salutary, as he is wont to point out. The fact that we have passed into a new era doesn’t detract from his accomplishments during the old one.

But a couple points are worth noting. First, Clinton initially muffed the challenge of understanding his times. During his first two years in office, he sought to operate as if the big imperative was, as he put it, to “repeal Reaganism.” It didn’t work, and he had his head handed to him at the next election—the midterm canvas of 1994—when the country gave both houses of Congress to the Republicans for the first time since the early 1950s. It was only after that humiliation that the president crafted his finely honed leadership as a “New Democrat.” That proved much more successful—and is a credit to Clinton’s ability to assess popular sentiment and leverage it for political success.

Second, there’s validity in Clinton’s critique of those who seek to deprive him of credit for his leadership successes by suggesting he was merely lucky in becoming president at a propitious time. As he put it, “You can say, ‘Oh, Clinton was lucky, he caught the tech boom.’ ‘Clinton was lucky he came out of a recession.’” But, he continued, he was responsible for real accomplishments—for example, lifting some 7.7 million people out of poverty.

Fair enough. The American people understand, even if Clinton’s liberal critics don’t, that a president’s job is to exploit any good fortune he may encounter and rectify any problems. He gets the credit for good times, however they may have materialized, and gets the blame for bad times, again irrespective of how they emerged. Hence, even if it’s true that Clinton merely “caught the tech boom” rather than unleashing it, he gets credit for nurturing it along and ensuring that it continued to buoy the economy. It’s unlikely he could have accomplished that with an Elizabeth Warren approach.

But here’s where Clinton ventures into questionable territory. Having failed to repeal Reaganism in policy terms, he now seeks to repeal its growing historical standing. Clinton drew a sharp comparison between his policies, which he said were designed to benefit all societal strata, and Reagan’s, which he described as merely coddling the rich.

In truth, Reagan was elected because the Democratic Party had messed up the economy so thoroughly that many Americans considered the situation nearly hopeless. Some telling numbers: GDP decline of 1.5 percent in the 1980 campaign year; prime interest rate at a commerce-crunching 21 percent; unemployment at 7.4 percent; inflation, the value thief, at 13 percent. As economist Walter Heller, no Reagan admirer, put it at the time, “What the Great Depression was to the 1930s, the Great Inflation is to the 1980s.”