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Saturday, October 25, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 1/20/2001

Presidency was all about Bill

Such big feet. Such tiny footprints. Few presidents have dominated the political scene as thoroughly as Bill Clinton has for the last eight years. Fewer still can point to so little in the way of substantive accomplishment at the end of two full terms in office.

The Clinton presidency was more about Bill than about his policy ideas, which tended to shift with the political winds. He spent more time politicking and pursuing his personal appetites than he did on the tedious business of governing.

Some important things happened on Mr. Clinton's watch. Barriers to global trade were lowered through the signing of NAFTA and GATT. The federal budget, long in deficit, went into surplus. Welfare was reformed. But these were all Republican initiatives for which Mr. Clinton adroitly took credit, but did little to champion.

For those who think the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade are good ideas - a group in which I am not numbered - President Clinton does deserve some credit.

NAFTA was Ronald Reagan's idea, and NAFTA and GATT were pushed hard by the first President Bush, and enacted into law chiefly by Republican votes. But Mr. Clinton defied powerful interests in his party to support these treaties. Whether he did so out of principle, or in the hopes of obtaining campaign contributions from big business, or both, only Mr. Clinton can say. But NAFTA and GATT would have failed if he had opposed them.

That many give him credit for welfare reform and for balancing the federal budget are testament to Mr. Clinton's public relations skills, not his policy skills. Both were elements of the House Republican “Contract with America” that Mr. Clinton was first among Democrats to decry. Mr. Clinton vetoed two welfare reform bills until Dick Morris told him his polls indicated Mr. Clinton could be defeated for re-election if he didn't sign the third. And Mr. Clinton repeatedly rejected GOP plans for balanced budgets until an influx of new revenue from a booming economy made the point moot.

Perhaps Bill Clinton's greatest accomplishment was something he didn't do. Mr. Clinton took office about six months into what has proved to be the greatest economic expansion in American history. It appears to be petering out as his administration comes to an end. Mr. Clinton did not start the boom, and cannot be held responsible for its end. But at least he did nothing to screw it up. That may be all we reasonably can expect from a political leader. Certainly, it's more than what we got from the last Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, who came into office when times were bad, and made them worse.

By far the greater portion of the expansion took place after Republicans won control of both houses of Congress in November, 1994. On Jan. 20, 1993, when Mr. Clinton first took the oath of office, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 3241.95. By Nov. 1, 1994, it has risen only to 3863.37. It soared above 11,000 last summer before falling back to 10,525.38 at this writing.

This probably is due less to the superior wisdom of the GOP leaders than to the fact of gridlock. Markets tend to value stability above even fairness. With a Democrat in the White House and Republicans in Congress canceling out each other's more extreme tendencies, businessmen and women could make plans for the future with the reasonable expectation that the boundaries of the playing field wouldn't change. But little progress was made toward balancing the budget until Republicans put a brake on spending growth.

Democrats haven't fared that well under Mr. Clinton's leadership. In 1993, there were seven more Democrats in the U.S. Senate and 47 more Democrats in the House of Representatives than there are now. There were 10 more Democratic governors then, and Democrats controlled nine more state legislative chambers than they do now.

But Mr. Clinton leaves office the most popular Democratic president among Democrats in many a year. Jimmy Carter and LBJ had no shortage of intraparty critics, but Democrats have forgiven Mr. Clinton personal sins that would have done in almost every one of his predecessors.

Democrats love Mr. Clinton because of the consternation he has caused Republicans, and for two things that didn't happen on his watch: Race and gender quotas are still in place, and no substantive change has been made in abortion law. Democrats are more pleased by what they think Mr. Clinton kept from happening than by anything he actually did.

It doesn't say much for the party's future that Democrats are more interested in thwarting change than in making progress.

Jack Kelly is a member of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail him at jkelly@post-gazette.com.



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