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The Lasting Disappointment of the Clinton Presidency

How the Bill Clinton Library sheds light on an age of thwarted opportunity


I was unprepared for the wave of emotion that washed over me as I entered the Bill Clinton Presidential Museum and Library in Little Rock for the first time. A TV set running brief clips from the 1992 campaign immediately had me mesmerized. As a reporter on the Clinton plane for Time, I had witnessed so many of these emblematic moments:

Clinton—dogged by furors over his sex life and his Vietnam draft status—promising New Hampshire primary voters that if they gave him a second chance, “I’ll be there for you until the last dog dies.” 

The acceptance speech at the convention in New York with its signature closing line about his hometown, “I still believe in a place called Hope.” 

And the rhapsodic Election Night footage of Bill and Hillary looking impossibly young as they basked in the floodlights of triumph. 

That opening 1992 montage proved to be the lone highlight of the Clinton Library. Much of it was as themeless and ploddingly dutiful as the 2016 Hillary campaign. The organizing principle of the exhibits seems to be as much about the 42nd president’s daily calendars as any more lasting legacy. Taking it all in with a quarter-century’s hindsight, I mostly felt a burst of melancholy over the 1990s as the decade of squandered opportunities. 

Joe Biden’s entry into the presidential scrum has prompted a momentary 1990s retrospective with his manipulatively timed phone call of apology to Anita Hill and a critical re-examination of the former law-and-order Delaware senator’s record on crime and drugs. But the Clinton era is worth far more than a drive-by since its legacy still partly shapes the Democratic Party and the 2020 race. 

It’s not just Biden. The 1990s vaulted Bernie Sanders and long-shot Washington Governor Jay Inslee into Congress, while transforming Elizabeth Warren from an apolitical law professor into a consumer-rights crusader. Both Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar got their start as prosecutors during the tough-on-crime Clinton years. And every serious Democratic contender—with the exception of 37-year-old Pete Buttigieg—was an adult during what promised to be a Democratic comeback decade, but instead produced the basic playbook for a generation’s worth of right-wing rebellion. 

What is lacking throughout the Clinton Library is context. No one should be surprised that the impeachment saga is as airbrushed as an old-time Hugh Hefner-approved Playboy centerfold. Monica Lewinsky is mentioned in a single sentence—and Clinton is portrayed as morally, as well as legally, blameless. As the signage puts it, “After the Republicans won Congress in 1994, the fight for power culminated in two government shutdowns and an impeachment battle, bringing partisan opposition to a new high and attempting to deny the very legitimacy of the President’s election.” 

To give Clinton a break, honesty about sex has never been his strong suit. But the true missing figure in Little Rock, whose shadow dominated the Clinton years, is Ronald Reagan. 

For anyone used to the vibrant, if often thwarted, Democratic Party of the twenty-first century (a party that has won at least 48 percent of the vote and 232 electoral votes in the last six presidential elections), the 1980s may seem as incomprehensible as the Etruscan language. 

During the three presidential elections of the 1980s, the Democrats only ever carried 12 states and the District of Columbia. Or to put it the other way, 38 states voted Republican all three times. It was a radically different map than we are used to with states like California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Biden’s Delaware going for Reagan twice and then for George H. W. Bush in 1988. During a long decade’s worth of setbacks that saw no Democratic presidential candidate cracking 46 percent of the popular vote, it was easy to give way to despair. 

Clinton’s campaigns and most of his eight years in power were designed as the belated Democratic response to Reaganism. This explains lines that two decades later make liberals cringe, like Clinton’s declaration in his 1996 State of the Union Address, “The era of big government is over.” 

The French have a phrase (esprit de l’escalier, loosely translated as “wit of the staircase”) for the clever dinner-party comeback that leaps to mind after the guests are long gone and the host is headed to bed. Clinton was the Democrats’ espirit de l’escalier.

Clinton had limited goals as president—adoration, reelection, and thwarting Reaganism. His strategy was to take off the table every issue that Reagan and then Bush with his vicious, Lee Atwater–designed 1988 campaign had used to bludgeon the Democrats. As a result, Clinton centered his domestic agenda as president on traditional GOP issues like crime, welfare and budget deficits.

In fairness, Clinton deserves credit for the laudable 1993 expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (which aids the working poor and near-poor) and the 1997 passage of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIPs), which was a last-ditch effort to achieve something tangible after Hillary Clinton’s 1994 health-care debacle. 

The rightly derided 1994 crime bill was a reflection of Clinton practicing the politics of the defensive crouch. As the Clinton Library signage gamely explains, “Though violent crime tripled in the 30 years before President Clinton was elected, the number of police increased by only 10 percent. The President was determined to correct this imbalance [and] the administration provided the funds to put more than 100,000 new police on the streets.” 

Missing, of course, from this narrative were Clinton’s political calculations. The 1992 campaign can be oversimplified as merely a reflection of the sign that James Carville posted in the Little Rock headquarters: “The economy, stupid. Don’t forget health care.”

But Clinton’s promise of 100,000 new cops twirling their nightsticks as they flatfooted a beat also changed the 1992 dynamic. Republicans had been running racially tinged law-and-order campaigns against the Democrats since Richard Nixon—a strategy that reached its Trumpian nadir with the infamous Willie Horton ads that Atwater and his GOP allies cynically produced in 1988 demonizing Mike Dukakis as a criminal-coddling liberal. 

As part of his New Democrat rebranding, Clinton successfully upended his party’s image. Five different national polls in October 1992 (all accessed through the Roper Center’s data base) showed Clinton either ahead of Bush as the candidate who “would do the best job of reducing crime” or running even with the incumbent president. And fear of being mugged—or worse—was a worrisome issue. A late October Washington Post poll found that 70 percent of Americans worried “a great deal” that crime would increase. 

None of these political considerations excuse the hard-line excesses of the 1994 crime bill such as a federal “three strikes and you’re out” provision that increased sentence lengths. An exhibit at the Clinton Library brags, “With the passage of the 1994 crime bill, for the first time in history the federal government helped states build the prison space they needed.” That’s one version of the story. A more accurate account might suggest that $12.5 billion in federal funding for new state prisons—money that required inmates to serve at least 85 percent of the sentences—proved to be a major factor powering the sharp increase in incarceration rates during the Clinton 1990s.

As a president who shamelessly reveled in politics (unlike the cerebral Barack Obama, who feigned being above the gritty business of winning votes), Clinton might have been expected to erect a shrine to his 1996 reelection triumph in his presidential museum. In reality, the 1996 campaign is almost as invisible as Gennifer Flowers. Presumably, our 42nd president wanted to portray himself as a global leader for the ages rather than as the most adroit Democratic politician in more than a half century. But it’s also hard to avoid the sneaking suspicion that Clinton, in retrospect, was a trifle embarrassed by the banality of his final campaign.

Clinton’s Chicago speech accepting the Democratic nomination for the second time was a convention hall version of one of his marathon don’t-stop-talking-until-tomorrow State of the Union addresses. It combined bragging (“We are moving people from welfare to work”), triangulation (“We must give parents, all parents, the right to choose which public school their children will attend”) and impossible-to-enforce promises (“All children should be able to read on their own by the third grade”). The overarching theme—whose only rhetorical virtue was that it tested well with focus groups—was Clinton’s vacuous promise to “build that bridge to the 21st century.”

Judged solely by results, the 1996 campaign against Bob Dole was a glorious 379-electoral-vote romp. Admittedly, Clinton had a built-in edge as the youngest president to seek reelection since Teddy Roosevelt in 1904 running against the oldest first-time presidential nominee in history. For all of Clinton’s ideological bobbing and weaving, the ’96 proved to be a triumph for the president rather than his party: The Republicans retained control of Congress. Clinton’s obsession with micro-initiatives (TV ads crowed about enacting the “death penalty for drug kingpins” and promoting school uniforms) meant that he had won a mandate to, well, just be Bill Clinton.  

The saddest aspect of the Clinton Library for me is not about the policy failures of the 1990s like America’s inaction in the face of genocide in Rwanda. Nor is it a reprise of the Clinton scandals or a reference to Al Gore consigning the president to the sidelines during the 2000 hanging-chad race against George W. Bush.

No, that laurel has to go to a display heralding the political wonders of 1997, the first year of Clinton’s second term. “America entered 1997 more peaceful and more prosperous than it had been in a generation,” the signage proudly proclaims. “The contentious debates between those who saw government as the problem and those who believed that government should be part of the solution had given way to a more bipartisan cooperation culminating in an agreement to balance the federal budget, for the first time in a generation.” 

This indeed should have been a peak moment for Clinton, the Democrats and America. In 1997, Communism was defeated, a friendly Boris Yeltsin was president of Russia, terrorism (aside from the home-brewed Oklahoma City version) was a problem for other countries, and the unsettling effects of global warming were mostly visible in scientific models. The unemployment rate, fueled by the first tech boom, had slipped below 5 percent and the budget was on a glide path toward solvency. Yes, Newt Gingrich was still House speaker, but he had been largely boxed out by the government shutdowns. And Gingrich privately was a somewhat cooperative figure, at least in contrast to the uncompromising zealot that he delighted playing in the media. 

These were, in many respects, the best years of our lives—and Clinton, still locked in a fetal crouch as he faced the outsize legacies of Reaganism, lacked a vision to take advantage of them. 

The wall display at the Clinton Library highlights three events that the curators consider to be the lasting achievements of 1997. It is a thin porridge, heavily seasoned with foreign policy: On April 24, the Senate ratified the Chemical Weapons Treaty supported by both Clinton and Yeltsin. NATO expanded into the former Soviet bloc in July as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were welcomed into the alliance. (Liberal foreign policy experts such as Michael Mandelbaum have long argued that this move guaranteed the future enmity of Russia.) And in late November 1997, the Clinton economic team took the lead in successfully containing the damage from the Asian economic meltdown. 

While there would be future victories like a balanced budget and clever gambits to delay the Republican drive for inequitable tax cuts (“Save Social Security first” was the mantra of the 1998 State of the Union), the era of possibility abruptly ended for Clinton on January 17, 1998. That was the day when the Drudge Report ran the banner headline: “NEWSWEEK KILLS STORY ON WHITE HOUSE INTERN.”

More than two decades later—as the Democrats are confronted with a president whose crudity and policy sophistication are distinctly redolent of Bedtime for Bonzoit’s time to finally abandon fears of Reaganism. The Clinton administration embodied the belief that Democrats always had to dodge and weave rather than dream. The inadvertent lesson of the Clinton Library is one that 2020 Democratic hopefuls should be taking firmly to heart: For all of Bill Clinton’s undeniable political skills, and for all his many gifts of persuasion and empathy, he will be remembered as the president of diminished expectations.