This month marks the 25th anniversary of Bill Clinton’s winning the White House in 1992. People often forget where the Democrats stood before Clinton. Democrats had been out of power for 20 of the last 24 years and the sole Democrat to hold the White House lost reelection in a landslide after presiding over high unemployment, record inflation and foreign policy failures in Iran and Afghanistan. Even worse, on the eve of the 1992 Democratic convention, their nominee was in third place behind President Bush and Ross Perot.
Eight years later, after presiding over the largest economic expansion in American history, President Clinton left office with a 66 percent approval rating. The Clinton presidency restored the public’s trust in Democrats to manage the economy and protect our national security. It is no coincidence that Democrats have won the popular vote in four of the five presidential elections after him.
A Record of Achievement
A 2010 Siena College survey of presidential historians ranked Clinton as the third best president in handling the economy and 13th overall for good reason. President Clinton came into office facing the largest budget deficit in history and left office with its largest surplus. He did so while adhering to his campaign slogan, “Putting People First.” He implemented the largest expansion of college opportunity since the GI Bill, expanded Head Start by 60 percent, signed the Family and Medical Leave Act and raised the minimum wage. While he lost the fight on health care reform, then first lady Clinton convinced Congress to enact the Children’s Health Insurance Program which was the largest expansion of health coverage for children since Medicaid.
President Clinton also worked to make us safer both at home and in the world. He added more than 100,000 police officers to the street, signed the Brady Bill and an assault weapons ban and saw crime fall to its lowest level since 1973. He worked with the former Soviet Union to deactivate more than 1,700 nuclear warheads, while securing peace in Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia.
In addition, he fought to protect the environment by strengthening the Safe Drinking Water Act, imposing tough Clean Air standards, accelerating the cleanup of toxic dumps, signing the Kyoto Protocols (the precursor to the Paris Accords) and protecting more land on the continental U.S. than any prior President.
Despite this, the Clinton legacy recently has come under fierce attack from pro-Sanders Democrats that often points to one or two issues and ignores the bigger picture. A common criticism is that there is little difference between “Clintonism” and Republicans (or that Clinton was merely “GOP-Lite”). This reflects bumper sticker mentalities and the intellectual laziness that goes with it. Can anyone seriously believe there is little difference between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel Alito? Please remind me of the last time a Republican was willing to endure a government shutdown to protect Medicaid or tax credits for working families or ever did anything for civil rights, the environment or gun control.
One such critic is Robert Reich, a one-time friend of the Clintons and Clinton’s first Labor Secretary, who has criticized Clinton and the Democrats for contributing to income inequality. Reich comes up short on the facts in this argument, since blaming Clinton not only ignores the fact that his middle class focused policies saw real wage growth for the middle class and brought about the largest six-year drop in poverty since the Great Society but also overlooks the role of declining unionization in driving income inequality.
Author Thomas Franks calls the Clinton Presidency “odious” because of policies such as NAFTA and his 1994 Crime Bill that increased sentences for drug offenses. Franks and Sanders conflate NAFTA with globalization itself, as economists uniformly conclude that NAFTA had minimal effect on overall U.S. employment. More importantly, NAFTA likely saved the U.S. auto industry and hundreds of thousands of jobs.
As far as the crime bill, there are three important facts to remember. The first is that it is easy to forget that the bill was in response to a 40 percent increase in violent crime in the eight years prior to Clinton coming into office due to the spike in cocaine trafficking. The second, is that the reason you may forget this violence is that violent crime fell 39 percent over the next decade. The final point is that Bernie Sanders himself supported the bill.
I bring these criticisms up, not to show that the Clinton administration is beyond reproach, because there is no doubt that both mistakes were made and that certain policy judgments made in good faith in the 1990s (including the Crime Bill) need to be reevaluated today.
Rather, I raise this to demonstrate an effort to distort and delegitimize the success and legacy of President Clinton (and even President Obama) as not being truly “Democratic." This criticism is being raised by the ivory tower wing of the party that has not won a national election in modern times. While they may anoint themselves as the sole true “Democrats” or “progressives” (despite what a majority of Democratic voters may think) and are now pushing for “purity” litmus tests for 2020 candidates, the simple fact is that there is nothing progressive about pursuing an agenda that ultimately elects Republicans.
Little Rock Here We Come
While these are dark days for Democrats, this weekend I will travel to Little Rock to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Clinton’s historic victory. I will do this not simply out of nostalgia or pride in having played a small part in Clinton’s election, but because I believe the Clinton legacy of civic engagement, shared responsibility and “Putting People First” is how the party and the nation can come together again and move forward.
For more information on the Clinton-Gore record: (i) President William J. Clinton: Eight Years of Peace, Progress and Prosperity; and (ii) The Power of Progressive Economics: The Clinton Years.