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The Many Presidencies of Bill Clinton

My comments on the need for a President Kerry to find a way early on to find compromise with centrist Republicans, and in effect split the opposition party, stirred up some responses, so much so that it even split Michael Froomkin and Brad DeLong, who, if I recall correctly, are childhood friends. I hate to be responsible for such a breach, so I'll say a little more.

Both see my comments in the context of the omnipresent Clinton administration. DeLong says my advice is similar to the advice that Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen (and others) gave Clinton in 1993: to reach the centrist coalition around Senators like Breaux, Chaffee and Durenberger. (Good advice, although a question remains, which I'll pick up later.) Froomkin thinks the problem with Clinton was that he negotiated too much: "He triangulated. He fogged about. He appointed Republicans as judges." And, he argues, if Kerry wins by a landslide, he will have a mandate to govern and won't have to compromise with anyone, and we should conduct ourselves now as if that were possible.

This quarrel reminds me of what I think is the key thing to realize about the Clinton era: It was not a single administration. The way to understand Clinton is as something like a prime ministers in a European parliamentary system, a Gladstone or a Poincaré, who dominate their era not in a single government, but by moving in and out of power, forming several different governments with different coalitions over the years. Brad DeLong's key political lessons, like mine, come from the first Clinton government. Froomkin is basically complaining about the second Clinton government, which he formed after the brief Gingrich premiereship.

The first Clinton government did not triangulate. It came in with a little much triumphalism, and thought the only task was to organize the Democrats, which turned out to be more difficult than they realized. It had one huge, enormous accomplishment: the budget bill of 1993, which not only brought in the revenues that would eventually get the budget back on track, but also transformed numerous aspects of government: the entire student loan system, for example. That was passed by using the one process by which a single party can move an agenda entirely on its own, if it controls both Houses of Congress and the Presidency: the process of budget reconciliation. (I wrote about reconciliation, which has been the key to Bush's domination of the agenda, in my long essay on the Senate a few weeks ago.) Even then, he had to surrender key parts of the agenda, such as the BTU Tax (a comprehensive tax on energy, which later became Congressional shorthand for forcing House members to vote for something unpopular and then surrendering on it in the Senate: "We got BTU'd"), and it squeaked by on a single vote. But everything else Clinton tried to do -- his economic stimulus package, his crime bill, his health plan, basically foundered on the shoals of his failure to understand the limits of his power and mandate.

The question that remains unanswered is a historical counterfactual: We know that Clinton did not do much to reach Republicans in the first year, but we also know that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, in an unprecedented move, essentially sent the word to his troops that they were not to treat Clinton the way Democrats had treated the first Bush or Reagan -- that they should not give him nothing. Do not allow him to govern. So, if Clinton had tried harder, would he have been able to break Dole's party discipline? I don't know. However, I suspect that the discipline in opposition to Kerry will not be nearly as tight. Back then, even moderate Republicans, especially in the House, were sick of being pushed around by the Democratic majority and could find common cause. Now they're sick of being pushed around by their own conservative colleagues. The split is there.

It was the second Clinton government, the one that he formed sometime in late 1995, that triangulated its way back to reelection. By that point, Clinton was negotiating with Republicans, but he was doing so from weakness, just as I worry about Kerry having to do. He was negotiating with Trent Lott and Orrin Hatch, not choosing who to negotiate with and when to negotiate. This is what I want Kerry to avoid.

I agree that I don't want to concede all of this in July of the election year. That's why making McCain the VP probably wouldn't have made sense. A candidate cannot put forth a persuasive agenda for renewal and simultaneously acknowledge how much of it he will have to compromise on. But, by the same token, I want to avoid the cycle of disappointment when Kerry faces the recognition that his power to implement an agenda depends on his finding a working relationship with Congress.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on June 22, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

Suppose the Democrats get the best of all reasonably possible worlds -- "Reagan in reverse" as you've said before. Wouldn't that essentially signal an end to Bushism and prompt much of the current leadership to resign, leaving the McCain/Warner/Lugar axis in a much better position to take roles in the party leadership so that they have a prayer of winning future elections? I only say this because Gingrich resigned in 1998, after it was clear his face was killing the party, and Gephardt resigned as minority leader after getting trounced in the 2002 elections.

Unfortunately I can't find a moderate House Republican that I recognize who can replace DeLay, Hastert, or Blunt. Shays? Nussle? Oxley? Maybe the house will remain the land of intolerance and flat taxes, while the senate becomes the moderate face for northeastern and west coast republicans.

Posted by: niq | Jun 22, 2004 6:37:52 PM

Clinton governed from strength in his first term? What about the climbdown on gay rights in his first 10 days? And the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (aka Welfare Reform) -- maybe good policy, but certainly triangulation. That was first term.

Look, don't get me wrong. It's great to find wedge issues that might split the congressional delegation from the other party. It's great to make common cause when you can.

But it's an open question to me whether, say, the lobby firms that gave in and fired democrats because the House Republicans said they had to ought not to be punished a bit for giving in, so they'll think better next time. And some turnabout may be in order to redress the balance.

Similarly, many democratic congressional districts have been shafted in various aid formulas. They need catchup funding to redress the balance. (I'm not sure I'd be punitive, though, because that would hurt the innocent.)

The judiciary has been heavily tilted to well right of the legal mainstream. This is not an area where compromise is going to be valuable.

The key paragraph in your essay is the last: don't conceed (too) much in June. As for the danger of raising expectations, there is simply no choice. You don't get elected dogcatcher by beeing gloomy and without offering a vision that makes people hopeful.

Posted by: MIchael Froomkin | Jun 22, 2004 8:13:59 PM

The problem with being conciliatory, whether its in January or June, is that you're letting them set the agenda. Come in with guns blazing and make them come to you. Thats what worked for Reagan and Bush (II), neither of whom had congressional majorities to work with.

I think the key to getting the moderates out from under the thumb of the neo-con wingnuts is to go after the criminals in the current administration with a sledge hammer right from the start. Set up a special prosecutor, hold public hearings, court martial 4 star generals, make noises about the internation court of justice for anyone pardoned by a lame duck shrub. Take control of the agenda, and don't give them a chance to focus the news cycle on the progress you're making in actual substance. The joint chiefs aren't going to squeek about gays in the military, or any of a host of other executive orders that a Kerry administration would enact if they're busy worried about their own butts being put in a sling.

Posted by: Lee | Jun 22, 2004 8:32:03 PM

I think the key to getting the moderates out from under the thumb of the neo-con wingnuts is to go after the criminals in the current administration with a sledge hammer right from the start.

Is this possible? Is it possible to wack the wackos and sustain the moderates?

Posted by: Matt Stoller | Jun 22, 2004 8:42:56 PM

Is this possible? Is it possible to wack the wackos and sustain the moderates?

This is a really good question. The current barracks-bully discipline of the New Republican Tribe was developed and hardened while they were in opposition. It's really easy to be a bomb-thrower and an obstructionist (if you have the political will) while you don't have the actual burden of governing. As we're seeing it's a lot harder when you do.

So, though a Democratic landslide (which would be a small-d democratic victory as well, IMO) would be brilliant, it might be harder to split off the bomb-throwers and neocons in that situation. The Republican party does not seem to have a self-reflective mindset at the moment, and I think that their response might just be "we weren't hard enough".

That might be fine as well, since they'll continue to alienate people in the middle. That might be the price to be paid for dragging the compromise point further and further to the right -- the fault line that divides voters in the winner-take-all system starts to slip past enough pragmatic moderates that they can't get on board with your ideology. For example, I don't think most people in the US could get on board with a party which seriously and publicly advocated the platform of the Texan Republican Party.

Posted by: paperwight | Jun 22, 2004 9:59:36 PM

I should have been clearer about what I meant by Clinton's "first government." I don't mean the first term. Rather, I mean it in a metaphorical sense: the first 21 months, January 1993 until the Gingrich takeover of both Houses of Congress in 1994. At that point, having essentially lost a vote of no-confidence, Clinton began to learn to triangulate, ultimately leading to a period in which he regained his "relevance" (his word) by compromise on measures such as welfare reform.

In the first year+, there are two incidents that are usually cited as examples of Clinton backing off when he should have stood firm: gays in the military and the appointment of Lani Guinier as Assistant AG for Civil Rights. Another interpretation of the first incident is that Clinton so botched his handling of the issue that there was no way to win. On the second, I agree that Clinton telegraphed how easily he could be scared off, with consequences that went beyond that one appointment.

Posted by: Mark Schmitt | Jun 23, 2004 12:54:03 AM

I think it is possible that Kerry and the Democrats could win big enough to govern. Even if the House is under Republican rule lets hope that Delay would be gone because of the Texas investigaion. There might be moderates to be picked off in the House and a hopefully Democratic Senate.

However I think moderates can only be picked off and seduced and wined and dined if Kerry governs strongly and aggressively and with a progressive agenda. People are drawn to strength, and then any compromise will be from a position of strength. If Kerry comes in weakly they will think he can be rolled and so may give him nothing. There will be no incentive to deal with Kerry if they think they can get their way without him. So I think that even to govern as you suggest Kerry doesn't just have enter office strongly, he has to govern strongly. The Republicans in 1993 thought that Clinton was weak and so they resisted. He was too eager to please (as they thought) but they didn't comprehend how his wiliness and his perserverance. (Of course if we don't get either the House or Senate back, we have to reconceive)

We need to start pulling the middle back to where it used to be - the real middle- not the middle of the extreme right. We can't try to conserve the best of the New Deal, Fair Deal, etc. if we start where Clinton started in 1993. Clinton's personality was far too amiable in this respect. I think Kerry is actually tougher than that. Especially in the courts which have a long term generational impact we need to redress the heavy weight of of almost 20 years of right wing extremists appointed by Republicans and moderates appointed by Clinton. SCOTUS's decision in the HMO would not have occurred under a Warren Court.

Posted by: Debra | Jun 23, 2004 1:54:03 AM

"SCOTUS's decision in the HMO would not have occurred under a Warren Court"

The Court was 9-0, meaning Real Liberal Justice Stevens voted with the majority and ERISA asserts that federal authority supercedes state authority. The Warren Court would have almost certainly reached a similar decision, though they might have all written "we think this law sucks" in the primary opinion, rather than hide it in a concurrence.

Posted by: niq | Jun 23, 2004 2:44:09 PM

I think Niq is right; it is extremely noteworthy that the opinion was unanimous. Justice Douglas might have dissented were he still around, but the problem is that even if FOUR Justices dissented, it would still be upheld. We have a long way to go before things start changing back--whether the Court under Chief Justice Warren would have upheld it or not, the sentiment is correct.

Posted by: gorjus | Jun 23, 2004 4:01:48 PM

well, maybe the fact that kerry would be coming to the presidency from the senate, rather from a gevernorship, as clinton did, would help him to understand how to work more effectively with congress right from the get-go.

Posted by: bluedot | Jun 24, 2004 3:15:16 AM

Paul Glastris in The Washington Monthly explains why you can't negotiate with Rethuglican leadership who regard bipartisanship as "date rape". When you try to compromise, they just keep moving the posts.

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2004/0406.glastris.html

Posted by: Kosh | Jun 24, 2004 11:51:30 AM

Talking about Kerry's prospective agenda is so many kinds of wrong. When your house is on fire, you don't have an agenda. You fight the fire. That may require a certain amount of thought and planning inamongst the panic, but the word "agenda" is not descriptive of any of that.

Kerry's responsibility is to fight the fire, i.e. to not be a Republican, and to set a positive example of not being a Republican. It has nothing to do with legislation, because the problem is that it doesn't matter what laws are on the books, they aren't obeyed or enforced. Legislation has degenerated into pure symbolism. Let us not have legislative agendas until the rule of law has been re-established. It will take a long time and a huge effort to do this; the fire is well along, and it is not even certain that anything can be salvaged from it, but it must be put out nonetheless.

Posted by: Frank Wilhoit | Jun 25, 2004 5:57:38 PM

Mark, there's one very important thing that you've overlooked, along with other here. The right has a good template for what to do about a Kerry presidency - attack without mercy. By a strategy of serious, ruthless attack and demonization, they were able to take Congress and keep Clinton on the defensive quite a bit.

Kerry needs to recognize this, and to understand that some zero-sum will be needed before any bargaining can be done. He's got to put the GOP Congress heavily on the defensive.

My suggestion would be a serious declassification/investigation of the Bush administration. Dump any and all documentation which doesn't threaten national security. There's got to be enough stuff to keep the press well-fed and happy, and to embarrass the GOP.

He's *got* to tar the GOP in the minds of the American people. The GOP has never been shy about re-writing history (e.g., George W. 'flight suit' Bush vs 'It was only a scratch!!!' Kerry), and will be hard at work well before Inauguration Day.

Posted by: Barry | Jun 28, 2004 10:29:44 AM

With a Kerry win, the Republicans will have wasted their first opportunity to govern completely since Eisenhower. They also had the advantage of war-time patriotism and managed to lose -- and the demographics are not lloking any better for as far as the eye can see. Any serious person realizes it will take a miracle for their 'wedge' issue this year(gay marriage), to not be a huge liability in the very near future.
I do not claim to understand Republicans, but certainly there would have to be some soul searching, some re-alignment, so new strategy. A Kerry win would be a devastating blow to Republicans, and Kerry should be well advised to capitalize on it in a new government.

Posted by: theCoach | Jun 28, 2004 2:07:21 PM