By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2008
NORMAN, Okla. -- It fell to Mike Turpen, a former Oklahoma attorney general, to warm up the crowd, and he did so with gusto. "Bill Clinton!" he shouted to several thousand people gathered in the McCasland Field House at the University of Oklahoma. "He gave us eight years of peace and prosperity! Do you remember?"
In case they didn't, the former president bounded onstage, took the microphone and spent some of the next hour reminding them: He balanced the budget and paid down the national debt. He made student loans more affordable. He worked with the rest of the world on global warming and arms control. But, he said, "I want you to understand this is not me. This is her."
Maybe, but it seems more than a little bit about him, too. As Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama clash on multiple political fronts heading into Super Tuesday, William Jefferson Clinton's record as president has emerged as a key battleground. How Democrats define his legacy could determine which presidential candidate they choose: Hillary Clinton, to extend it, or Obama, to make a clean break from it.
Bill Clinton's attacks on Obama on the campaign trail -- and the generally negative reaction they provoked -- have helped focus attention on the former president and seem to have created misgivings about his possible return to Washington. According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 55 percent of Americans view the former commander in chief favorably, unchanged from a year ago. But just 50 percent said they would be comfortable with him back in the White House, down from 60 percent in September.
The Clinton camp has presented the former president's eight-year tenure as a modern-day era of good feelings when the United States stood tall in the world and took care of its people at home. Aides have played on nostalgia for a simpler time, before the World Trade Center fell, before U.S. troops bogged down in Iraq, before the economy reeled toward recession, before President Bush.
At the same time, they have banked on the hope that most Americans, or at least most Democrats, have forgotten or forgiven what Bill Clinton's chief of staff Leon E. Panetta calls "the dark side" of his presidency, the scandals and partisan battles that consumed so much of the 1990s. And they have pushed back against those, including Obama, who question the legacy.
But Panetta, who supports Hillary Clinton and says he believes her husband deserves credit for policy achievements, said confronting the full record of the Clinton years will be unavoidable. "Whether they like it or not, it is going to be part of the debate. Obviously, if Hillary gets the nomination . . . there's no question the Republicans are going to make that part of the debate."
Obama has approached the Clinton years somewhat gingerly, using euphemisms about not wanting to return to the battles of the 1990s and suggesting that Ronald Reagan was a more transformative figure than the 42nd president. That plays into the views of many liberals, who have long harbored ambivalent feelings toward Clinton for what they regard as his having squandered a unique historical moment by pandering to the right or indulging his personal appetites.
Other Democrats simply suffer from Clinton fatigue. Outside the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood on Thursday, before the two candidates debated for the last time before Super Tuesday, an Obama supporter with a bullhorn chanted, "No more drama, we want Obama."
Inside the hall, the senator from Illinois picked up on the theme, albeit less directly. "I think what is at stake right now is whether we are looking backwards or we are looking forwards," he said. "I think it is the past versus the future." But Obama ducked a chance to elaborate. Asked whether Democrats were right to remember the Clinton era fondly, he said: "There's no doubt that there were good things that happened during those eight years."
Clinton's was a presidency often marked by turbulence, full of operatic twists and colorful characters. At times he was viewed as a transformative leader, at other times as a marginalized figure. His stumbles paved the way for Republicans to capture Congress for the first time in 40 years, yet he learned how to "triangulate" to get back on top.
As a New Democrat, he aimed to govern more from the center, declaring that "the era of big government is over," pushing a deficit-reduction package through Congress by a single vote, winning approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement and overhauling the welfare system. He presided over the longest peacetime economic expansion in American history to date. He bombed Iraq to keep Saddam Hussein penned in and Serbia to push its troops out of Kosovo. He negotiated a peace agreement in Northern Ireland but failed to do so in the Middle East.
Along the way, Clinton warred with House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Republicans and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigators, fending off scandal -- the Travel Office, FBI files, Whitewater, the Lincoln Bedroom and so on. His false testimony under oath about his affair with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky plunged his administration into a 13-month battle for survival that resulted in a party-line impeachment in the House and acquittal in the Senate. Ultimately, he acknowledged testifying falsely and became the first president held in contempt of court and disbarred.
By the time he left office amid a furor over his last-minute pardons of financier Marc Rich and a host of others, Clinton had tried the nation's patience. He left with high approval ratings, but 68 percent of Americans thought he would be remembered largely for scandal, compared with 28 percent who said policy achievements.
To judge by the people who came out to see him last week in Oklahoma, Colorado and elsewhere, Clinton's stature has grown since he left office. Many in the audiences were too young to remember all the details but recall his presidency as a simpler time.
"I remember there was very little conflict," said Elizabeth Lewis, 22, a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma. "He wasn't very confrontational, like Bush is now. People were pretty happy with him as president."
Added her friend Jami Thacker, 21, a pre-nursing student: "It just seemed like people felt more safe."
Still, his roguish reputation has not completely faded. "I feel like he was a good president and did a good job," said Jeff James, 20, a sophomore. "But if I had a kid -- he's known to have smoked pot and had affairs. He's not exactly a good role model for kids."
Historians have begun to teach the younger generation that Clinton was a transitional figure who led during a pause between the Cold War and the struggle with terrorism. "People remember this was an optimistic time," said Ann-Marie Szymanski, a political science professor at Oklahoma. "People had it pretty good. The more partisan remember it as a period of conflict, remember the more lurid parts."
Some Clinton associates suggested that Obama particularly angered the former president by comparing his role in history unfavorably with Reagan's. Lanny J. Davis, a Clinton White House special counsel, challenged Obama with an open letter titled, "What Exactly in the Clinton-Era Nineties Did You Not Like?"
Others have picked up the debate from the opposite end. "Obama's assessment is so obviously true: Reagan was consequential. Clinton was not," columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote last week.
The Clinton team recognizes that this debate is pocked with danger. While his strategists are happy to tout and defend his record, they understand that campaigns are about the future, not the past, and that Hillary Clinton needs to maintain her own identity. At the same time, they anticipate that Republicans will take on the former president with full force should she win the nomination.
That could be risky for the other side, too. Many leaders of the anti-Clinton camp from the 1990s have moved on, scarred by defeats at the hands of a formidable political gladiator.
Former congressman Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), one of the House managers who prosecuted Clinton in the Senate trial, said he still believes the impeachment was a noble attempt to enforce the rule of law. But he said it should not be relitigated this year. "There were some who were so personally engaged in it that they had a hard time cutting loose of it," he said. "They may try to resurrect it this year. But that would be a mistake. History has passed them by. You'll be on the losing side of history if you let this dominate your life."