The lead review in tomorrow’s New York Times Book Review is Alan Ehrenhalt’s review of the new Clinton book by Washington Post reporter John Harris: “Measuring his success.” Here’s how the review begins:
Millions of Americans despise Bill Clinton. They have done so since he became a presence in national politics in the early 1990’s, and they continue to do so today, more than four years after his retirement from public office.
The passion of the Clinton haters is a phenomenon without equal in recent American politics. It is not based on any specific policies that Clinton promoted or implemented during his years in office. It is almost entirely personal. In its persistence and intensity, it goes far beyond anything that comparable numbers of people have felt about Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan or either of the presidents Bush. It surpasses even the liberals’ longstanding detestation of Richard Nixon. The only political obsession comparable to it in the past century is the hatred that a significant minority of Americans felt for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Ehrenhalt’s assertion that Clinton-hatred is without equal in recent American politis is of interest. Is it true? My sense is that the hatred of liberals for Nixon and Reagan exceeded the right-wing detestation of Clinton. And my sense is that the current mainstream Democratic detestation of President Bush exceeds the Republican detestation of Clinton. How would one go about measuring the breadth and intensity of the antipathies? Has any serious scholar done so? I don’t know, but does Ehrenhalt? If he has any evidence to support his thesis, it would be nice of him to let us know.
Ehrenhalt follows his ipse dixit regarding Clinton-hatred with another regarding its source: “It is not based on any specific policies that Clinton promoted or implemented during his years in office.” Ehrenhalt does not even mention Clinton’s proposed federal takeover of the health care system or any of the other controversial proposals that fixed Clinton’s political persona in our minds during his first two years as president. It was these proposals that caused observers like me to conclude that Clinton was a phony — that he donned the camouflage of a moderate to conceal his left-liberalism. Clinton’s 1992 campaign themes of “ending welfare as we know it” and making abortion “rare,” for example, sounded good, but once in office Clinton seemed to have no more intention of acting to end the entitlement system than he did of affecting abortion.
Ehrenhalt credits Clinton with the economic policies that produced the prosperity of the 1990’s. Put to one side his celebration of Clinton’s “spending cuts and tax increases” and focus on Ehrenhalt’s treatment of the 1996 welfare reform. The 1996 welfare reform of course derived from the Republican congressional majority produced by the 1994 election and the conservative intellectual critique of AFDC. Ehrenhalt writes:
[O]ver the course of 500 pages, Harris…documents the history of a president who, however frustrating he may have been in style and method, usually made the right choices in the end — even when he felt that he was hurting himself politically. The 1993 spending cuts and tax increases, over which he agonized for months, ultimately reduced the federal deficit, reassured financial markets and set in motion the prosperity that marked the second half of the decade. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which Clinton signed against the advice of his closest Democratic allies, turned out to be the most successful domestic policy initiative of the 1990’s.
Clinton’s contribution to welfare reform consisted principally of his role in creating the 1994 Republican congressional majority. In 1995 and 1996 Clinton had vetoed two earlier versions of the welfare reform law that he ultimately signed. In other words, the most successful domestic policy initiative of the 1990’s was one that Clinton opposed until he signed it.
Ehrenhalt provides the example of Clinton’s signing the 1996 welfare reform as action taken because it was the right thing despite its political cost. Dick Morris devotes most of chapter 16 of Behind the Oval Office, his book on the 1996 campaign, to Clinton’s deliberations over the welfare reform act. Ehrenhalt to the contrary notwithstanding, Morris powerfully demonstrates that political imperatives led to Clinton’s signature on the bill. Morris’s portrayal of Clinton’s deliberations includes policy concerns, but the politics are clearly dominant. Morris advised Clinton that his veto of the bill would “cost him the election”:
Mark Penn had designed a polling model that indicated that a welfare veto by itself would transform a fifteen-pont win into a three-point loss. Of all the developments that could realistically happen to affect the race, a welfare veto and Powell as Dole’s VP ranked the worst in their impact on the president’s fortunes.
Ehrenhalt apparently doesn’t find the history relevant to his point, perhaps because it belies it.