Clinton's Memoir Ushers In Different Wave of Nostalgia
By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2004; Page A01
Now, it's the Democrats' turn. After a week-long flood of commentary on the most popular Republican president of modern times, the country is about to be immersed in another tide of reminiscence and argument about the most successful Democratic president within the memory of most voters.
A month anchored at the beginning by Ronald Reagan will be anchored at the end by Bill Clinton. The release of Clinton's memoirs, "My Life," on June 22 will put a spotlight on a presidency that in policies and style was wholly different from Reagan's. Like Reagan, however, Clinton as ex-president has seen the controversies of his tenure recede while appreciation for his outsized personality has seemed to deepen. And like Reagan, Clinton is now widely regarded as a touchstone for his party, including for the presumptive presidential nominee, John F. Kerry.
The phrase "like Clinton" is used by Kerry's team and other Democrats as shorthand for certain ideas about how to win the White House and how to govern. When he was in office, Clinton was hailed as a master of tactical improvisation -- constantly tacking back and forth to meet the needs of the moment -- but faced doubts that he stood for something larger than political survival. Now, at least among Democrats, there is new consensus on what it means to be "like Clinton" -- a record that the very different policies of President Bush have placed in vivid contrast.
Internationally, he stood for nurturing alliances as a supreme value of foreign policy, even if this sometimes meant U.S. aims yielded to the wishes of allies. Domestically, Clinton stood for the idea that liberal programs could only thrive within a context of fiscal discipline, with gradually lower deficits and eventually a budget surplus. Politically, he stood for the belief that voters will support government activism, so long as it is promoted in a way that does not stir fears of large bureaucracy.
This moderate agenda, crafted with an alert eye to how easily Democrats can be branded as the party of overreaching government, is now embraced by his party in a way it was not while Clinton was in office, when he faced an undercurrent of complaint from some activists and liberal lawmakers who thought his presidency aimed too low. Just four years ago, then-Vice President Al Gore kept a cool public distance from Clinton, and privately brooded that the personal scandals that led the Republican House to impeach Clinton were creating a head wind against his presidential campaign.
"John Kerry does not in any way shy away from the Clinton legacy," said Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill. "He feels he was a participant in it" by supporting Clinton's economic program. "More than that, he knows that the optimistic, inclusive approach that Clinton brought to the country was a good thing for the country, and it's an approach he admires."
David Gergen, who served in both the Reagan and Clinton White Houses, said Clinton came into office hoping at first that he could govern like a Democratic Ronald Reagan -- staking out bold and ambitious positions on one wing of the ideological spectrum and hoping to move the country in his direction. The failure of health care reform and the GOP takeover of Congress forced Clinton to accept a more defensive brand of politics, heavily poll-based, in which he claimed the center and cast the opposition as extremists. This ultimately proved more effective.
"In domestic policy, he retained Democratic goals but changed the means by which you got there," Gergen said.
Democratic voters were offered an alternative to Clinton's style in this year's primaries, when former Vermont governor Howard Dean urged the party to reject Clinton's constant emphasis on suburban swing voters and return leadership to "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." That he failed suggests there is a solid consensus in the party behind Clinton's centrist approach, said Bruce Reed, a former domestic policy aide to Clinton who is consulting with Kerry.
Clinton will be at the White House on Monday for the official unveiling of his presidential portrait. Unlike Reagan in his post-presidential years, Clinton is far more a contemporary figure than a historical one. The 40th president lived long enough that he came to be admired as a genial American original, even by people who did not care for his conservative policies. Clinton remains a divisive figure very much in the public eye, not least because the political future of his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), is a subject of constant speculation and debate.
Clinton's host at the unveiling, Bush, has done more than anyone else to frame how his predecessor's policies are remembered. Bush rarely mentions Clinton or his record by name. But Bush's policies are based on such opposite premises that comparisons are inescapable -- most of all in their different approaches to the world.
While president and in the years since, Clinton has offered an upbeat vision of a diverse and interconnected planet. As Clinton sketches it, the world is filled with promise and peril, but far more of the former if nations work together to create an enlightened "international community." In Europe and elsewhere, polls show Clinton remains a highly popular figure.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush's vision is darker -- and his supporters say more realistic. He has emphasized a hate-filled world in which Islamic extremists regard the values and good intentions of the international community with contempt. Bush says he welcomes partners in the fight against terrorism, but in words and actions has made clear that forceful action is a higher priority than the good will of allies.
This debate -- whether force or community should be the principal value in America's approach to the world -- has become perhaps the dominant fault line of American politics. The debate about the Clinton legacy in some ways is simply another version of arguments about terrorism and the Iraq war.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company