Late Edition: Clinton’s Legacy

The irrepressible humorist, Dave Barry, said it best. In his review of the annus horribilis that was 1998, he noted that Bill Clinton “really, really, really wanted to take his place in history alongside the likes of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and instead he winds up looking more like Pee-wee Herman, but with less dignity.”

Let Blumenthal, Carville, and Co. try to spin that one. The White House trash machine may, for all I know, succeed in leveling everyone and everything in sight in an effort to show that Mr. Clinton is no worse than anybody else. But whether their boss leaves town now or at the end of his term, the last thing he’ll hear as he packs his bags will be hoots of laughter. How, precisely, does a man defend himself when his place in history is prepared by comedians who show the same reverence for him that he showed for the office he occupied?

While enduring derision is almost certainly going to be his personal fate, is it too early to assess the full damage wrought by Mr. Clinton upon the permanent interests of the nation, the Constitution, and the dignity of the presidency itself? Perhaps, but can any of these be considered healthier for his having been here? In terms of immediate policy consequences, the one certifiable good to come from this horrid mess will be radical revision or elimination of that vengeful statutory child of the Watergate era, the Independent Counsel Act. All of us ought to raise a glass to Justice Antonin Scalia, the sole member of Supreme Court who declared the act unconstitutional and who foretold with eerie prescience the likely consequences of its operations.

Beyond that unintended happy consequence, virtually every other vestige of Clinton’s tenure seems to me either indifferent or baleful. The bulk of his domestic policy success (the robust economy, the nominal budgetary surplus, welfare reform) is largely the product of Alan Greenspan, the Republican Congress, and the Reagan legacy generally. These inconvenient facts, of course, have not prevented Clinton from taking personal credit where little or none is due. The major initiative of his first term, the ill-fated socialized medicine scheme concocted by his wife, was not only defeated; more than any other single factor, its defeat gave us the first Republican Congress in nearly fifty years. At the state and local level, Clinton’s tenure has been an unmitigated disaster for Democratic Party fortunes.

The rest of the administration’s domestic policy, such as it is, seems to be premised on the assumption that the president is some sort of therapeutic Santa Claus, the dispenser-in-chief of nostrums and benefits to assuage the vicissitudes of life. This makes him the darling of individuals and groups whose raison d’etre was formed by the political culture of the ’60s or who otherwise depend on federal beneficence. But since when is giving away government goodies either hard work or the stuff of statesmanship?

Clinton’s foreign policy, like his character, is weak and vacillating, a work in progress toward no ascertainable goal other than buying time until the next crisis forces action upon him. Whatever one may think of the president’s conveniently timed December bombing of Iraq, there is no question that Saddam Hussein is far stronger diplomatically than he was when Clinton assumed office. And what is true of Saddam is more or less true of every other power whose interests are actually or potentially adverse to ours: they have little to fear from a president whose military resolve is on a par with his capacity to govern his own appetites.

Regarding matters constitutional, Mr. Clinton will leave office having debased the presidency in ways that no amount of legal or academic legerdemain can hope to repair. He has abused its privileges and powers, weakened its legal defenses, and reduced its dignity to that of a corrupt local sheriff caught running bootleg whiskey out of the county jail. The crown jewel of the Framers’ creative genius, the presidency was designed to institutionalize the essence of republican virtue, epitomized by the character and statesmanship of George Washington. We have no right to expect political reincarnations of our first president; we do have a right to expect that those who succeed him will be appropriately instructed by the institution’s gravity and by the example of his better predecessors.

Mr. Clinton, however, seems to have arrived in Washington with the understanding that the office, like his disposition toward the truth, was something to be refashioned according to his whimsy and convenience. His high popularity ratings with a distracted and apparently self-absorbed public have certainly done nothing to dissuade him from this conviction. But thanks to Henry Hyde and other congressional defenders of the rule of law, perhaps the Constitution may yet teach the lesson that Mr. Clinton never learned or too soon forgot.

Michael M. Uhlmann


Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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