THE CLINTON PRESIDENCY THAT WASN’T

Had the chance while I was back East for Rosh HaShanah to read George Stephanopoulos’ memoir, which I guess is a lot like you’d imagine it to be. Not to give away the ending, but Stephanopoulos closes with the image of Bill Clinton delivering his State of the Union in the thick of impeachment, and his final sentence is:

Wondering what might have been – if only this good president had been a better man.

This perspective on Clinton – that the great potential of his presidency was spoiled by his sex scandal – is pretty popular, but I don’t see a lot to support it. What were the big domestic or foreign policy initiatives that Clinton would have been able to push through in the last two-and-a-half years of his presidency if not for Monica Lewinsky? What’s the political strategy that would have overcome the hostility of Bob Dole’s Senate and Newt Gingrich’s House to get them through?

Sure, the Lewinsky scandal drew a lot of public, media, and congressional attention. But it’s wishful thinking to imagine that otherwise that airtime would have gone to important public policy. Bill Clinton spent much of the time he was being impeached at higher popularity than any of his peers at the same point in office. Like his wife, he did a deft job of parlaying Republican attacks into anti-anti-Clinton feeling. And if not for the impeachment overreach, it seems unlikely that the Democrats would have bucked history in 1998 by taking back House seats.

The story of a progressive savior that could have been if not for his adulterous appetites has a fun Greek tragic flair to it, but there’s not a lot to back it up. And it has the unfortunate effect of perpetuating the idea that a brilliant politician could have triangulated his way to big progressive reforms if only he’d passed up that blue dress.

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