Bill Clinton’s Legacy Is Good but He Had Help

When former president Bill Clinton spoke at the Democratic National Convention Wednesday night, he was treated as a conquering hero.

The former president now has a 69% approval rating from the American public, by far the highest of any former president.

His Clinton Global Initiative has done a world of good in some of the poorest countries in the world. Books and speaking fees have made him a wealthy man, while age and serious illness have calmed the fires that almost consumed him.

On Wednesday, President Clinton gave an enthusiastic endorsement of President Obama, the man who defeated his wife Hillary in a bitter fight for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. He also systematically dissected the claims and policies of the Republican ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. Here’s one of many zingers he threw their way:

In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president’s re- election was actually pretty simple, pretty snappy. It went something like this: “We left him a total mess. He hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in.”

Now President Obama needs his support on the issue where he’s strongest: the economy.

Former President Bill Clinton addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

During President Clinton’s presidency, an astonishing 21 million private sector jobs were created, more by far than under any president since 1939.

Manufacturing jobs increased for much of the decade, and incomes rose—the last time the middle class actually did well in this country. And of course, the federal budget had a surplus for four consecutive years before George W. Bush blew it all on wars and tax cuts.

But Clinton wasn’t entirely responsible for the economic miracle of the 1990s, his administration had mixed success in foreign policy, and of course he was tainted by various sleazy scandals, especially that of Monica Lewinsky.

In addition to his great political talent, President Clinton also had another gift: luck.

He came into office after Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush won the Cold War, allowing him to cut defense spending dramatically. He also was president during the rise of the Internet, which fueled an economic boom.

And he had help—or opposition that wanted to destroy him but ironically propped him up. After shutting the government down, the Tea Party Republicans of their time, led by Newt Gingrich, came together with the president on bipartisan deals that moved things forward.

He passed—with no Republican votes—the tax increase of 1993 that raised top marginal rates to 39.6%. That and the balanced budget act of 1997 (and cuts in capital gains tax rates) let enough revenue flow to the government to create surpluses for years.

He also helped stop aggression in Bosnia and Kosovo, though he moved very late and used few US ground forces. Diplomacy and multilateral NATO action carried the day—not a bad model, come to think of it.

Though he may have given false testimony about his affair with Monica Lewinsky—one of many—in retrospect the impeachment trial that gripped the nation now seems nothing more than a partisan Republican attempt to derail his presidency.

Still, he brought disgrace to the office  and who knows what it did to his family?

Another  black mark against him: His administration paved the way for the financial crisis with the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the deregulation of derivatives trading. That of course blew up on us big time during the financial crisis.

But after the last decade, his presidency looks like an Eisenhower Era of peace and prosperity. Surpluses and 21 million private sector jobs seem like monumental achievements, even though they weren’t all his doing.

 

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