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Mon Mar 20, 2017, 02:18 PM


A Positive Review of the Bill Clinton Presidency


At this moment in early 2017, Bill and Hillary are taking a no doubt much-needed hiatus from the political limelight. But as the 2016 campaign showed, Bill Clinton’s legacy as president still shapes our politics. Along with Barack Obama’s presidency—which was, in domestic policy, essentially an extension of Clinton’s—it will be a reference point in the Democrats’ debates about how to regroup and go forward. Michael Tomasky’s Bill Clinton, the latest volume in the American Presidents Series of Times Books biographies, deserves to be widely read, for its insights about the recent past—and the near future.

Tomasky’s is the best short biography of the forty-second president we have. Clinton’s rich life and momentous presidency would seem to defy encapsulation in 150 pages—the typical length of books in this series—but with his economy of prose, Tomasky manages to hit most of the big moments and air most of the key debates. He moves chronologically through Clinton’s life (the pre-presidential years deftly shoehorned into one chapter, the 1992 campaign into another), covering foreign policy and domestic policy, scandal and pseudo scandal. He does so with a literary style that is fluid, engaging, judicious, often witty, sometimes barbed, and above all deeply informed.


In the end, Clinton did much more than survive. He made the Democratic Party viable again in presidential elections. He reoriented liberalism, retaining its core commitments to a mixed economy, a welfare state, civil rights, civil liberties, and an internationalist foreign policy—while also acknowledging where its past policies on welfare, crime, and other issues had lost the confidence of the American people. He recognized the coming of globalization and sought new policies to deal with its challenges. His programs contributed—how much, exactly, is impossible to say—to peace and shared prosperity, declines in violent crime and out-of-wedlock births, and a liberalizing national temper on culture war issues. Race relations improved steadily, according to both whites and blacks.

To achieve all this, Clinton had to make concessions to conservatives. Sometimes this meant shameful opportunism (calling for public school kids to wear uniforms) or dubious compromises (giving the GOP a capital gains tax cut) or the articulation of traditional moral positions that rankled liberals (support for the death penalty). Yet without these gestures, Clinton would never have gained support from Republicans in government. As important, he wouldn’t have gained the immense support from the people, including many conservatives, that he enjoyed.

The whole piece is worth a read. I do think Bill gets bashed more than he should around here and by a lot of Dems. I know I've complained about his policies too. But we have to put him in perspective.

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