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The Clinton "Legacy"
Political Junkie
Send your questions about campaigns and elections.

By Ken Rudin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 12, 2000

Question: Dick Morris, among others, has argued that the Clinton presidency has largely involved Hillary Clinton and Al Gore. With Hillary now in New York and Gore on the campaign trail, does that imply that the last year of the Clinton administration will have little action? – Andrew N. Kleit, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pa.

Answer: Not if the president has any say. Clinton is very concerned about how historians will view him, and it is unlikely that such a political animal will go away quietly.

The ultimate historical rating of Clinton must deal with his many contradictions. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

Historically, however, the eighth year of a lame-duck administration sees less than a flurry of activity. Much of the attention focuses on who will become the next president, and Congress, no longer fearful of Oval Office retribution, has no great desire to help the incumbent. That was the case with Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960 and Ronald Reagan in 1988, the last two presidents who completed the maximum eight years in office and who finished their terms with opposition Congresses.

That holds even more true this time, given the deep dislike between Clinton and the Republican majorities on Capitol Hill. Add to that the de facto departure of his wife and his running mate, and you have one pretty isolated guy residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

But Bill Clinton is no shrinking violet, and he has no shortage of goals for his final year in office. He has been aggressively lobbying Congress to approve permanent normal trade status for China, a campaign that is likely to succeed (albeit without the help of many of his Democratic allies). But he is not likely to celebrate many other victories on the Hill; Republicans are not anxious to pass initiatives he supports and watch him take credit for them. By the same token, Democrats may not be eager to allow the GOP-controlled Congress to build a record Republicans can run on in the fall.

On the foreign front, many of Clinton's hopes for peace breakthroughs in his final year – in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and elsewhere – are little closer to reality than they were when he entered office in 1993. Kosovo is still a powder keg, as are the tensions between India and Pakistan. Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic are still doing their thing, China is still arresting dissidents, and Russians are still murdering and raping in Chechnya. No one can really say Clinton had a focused view of foreign affairs during his administration. But aside from disastrous ambushes in Saudi Arabia and Somalia, he held American military casualties to a minimum.

When it comes to Clinton's legacy, the discussion – like his tenure – is filled with contradictions. While he has an exemplary record of showcasing women and minorities in his appointments and his ideology, he has a history of using and being callous with women in his personal life. He eloquently advocates campaign finance reform, but his administration's abuses of the system may surpass Richard Nixon's. He took his party away from the liberal fringe image where it had floundered for years and successfully co-opted many Republican issues, yet he was responsible for the GOP capture of both houses of Congress in 1994. And while the 180-degree economic turnaround during his seven years included dramatic drops in unemployment, crime and welfare recipients, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.

Question: After January 2001, what happens to Janet Reno, Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger and all the others? – Roderic McGahren, Danbury, Conn.

Answer: When President Clinton becomes former President Clinton, these officials are all out of a job. That would almost assuredly happen if a Republican were to succeed Clinton. But should Al Gore win in November, theoretically it is possible that some administration officials might remain. When George Bush succeeded a fellow Republican president in 1989, for example, he retained Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos, all holdovers from the Reagan administration. Only Brady lasted the entire Bush term in office. Similarly, when Lyndon Johnson succeeded to the presidency in 1963, he kept many officials from JFK's administration. Of those, four Cabinet members – Dean Rusk at State, Stewart Udall at Interior, Orville Freeman at Agriculture and Willard Wirtz at Labor – stayed through Johnson's term.

Question: What happens if the U.S. is at war when President Clinton's term runs out? Can he stay in office until the war is over? Will there still be an election if we are at war? – Frank J. Guerrieri Jr., Youngstown, Ohio

Answer: Constitutionally limited to eight years in office, Clinton must vacate the premises on Jan. 20, 2001. Even if the U.S. were at war at the end of his term, his successor would be sworn in as scheduled on the 20th and then deal with the conflict once in office.

In 1944, the nation was not about to change leaders in the midst of a world war. (Collection of Ken Rudin)

In 1944, with the U.S. deeply involved in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned for a fourth term, arguing that his reelection was essential for an Allied victory. Led by their nominee, New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, Republicans tried to argue for change, claiming that both FDR and the New Deal had outlasted their usefulness. But the nation was not about to trust someone with no foreign policy experience as its commander in chief. Roosevelt won a fourth term, though his 3.6 million vote margin was the narrowest of his four campaigns.

President Abraham Lincoln also sought reelection in the midst of a great conflict. At first, Lincoln's chances for a second term looked marginal; both his administration and his generals disagreed on how to conduct the Civil War, which was not going well for the North. Lincoln fired Gen. George McClellan, who eventually became the Democratic nominee, in 1863 for publicly questioning the way he handled the war. The president even wrote a statement to be signed by his Cabinet, which read, "It seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be reelected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the president-elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards." But two months before the 1864 election, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman took Atlanta in a brutal campaign, dealing the South a major blow. Lincoln won reelection handily.

Should a war break out now, Clinton – unlike Lincoln and FDR – could not appeal to voters to keep him in office.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: junkie@washingtonpost.com

Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of washingtonpost.com's ScuttleButton contest.

© Copyright 2000 Ken Rudin

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