Because of his political monomania, and because he is a perpetual preener who can strut even while sitting, Bill Clinton relished being president. The pomp, the cameras, the microphones make that office a narcissist's delight. But other than by soiling the office, he was a remarkably inconsequential president, like a person who walks across a field of snow and leaves no footprints.
It is axiomatic: Some people want public office in order to do something, others in order to be something. Clinton was the latter sort. Which is why he never seriously considered dealing with America's most serious policy problem, and why he was an unserious president.
Some problems come as bolts from the blue, unanticipated, not because of negligence but because of the general opacity of the future -- the Depression, the AIDS epidemic. Other problems are seen coming, but the time at which they will reach critical mass is unclear -- the environmental toll of industrialism, African Americans' struggle for access to opportunity.
But both the size and arrival time of America's impending problem were known when Clinton became president and chose not to address the problem preemptively. That problem is the coming collision between the baby boomers' graying and the welfare state's promise to palliate the consequences of illness and old age.
Serious historians probably will rate Clinton as perhaps more consequential than Chester Arthur -- although Clinton had no achievement as substantial as Arthur's civil service reform -- but much less consequential than, say, Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. Clinton's great accomplishment was negative. He inherited a rising economy -- although he campaigned in 1992 as though the country were in a recession, it ended a year and a half before he entered the White House. Partly because there was a Republican Congress during three-quarters of his presidency, his policies did not interfere with the private sector's wealth creation that made possible his proudest, but not notably Democratic, boasts -- a balanced budget, then a surplus.
The two most important policy developments of the Clinton years were the enhancement of free trade (NAFTA, GATT, normalized trade with China) and welfare reform. The former happened because Clinton favored it and most Republicans, unlike most Democrats, supported it. The latter happened because he did not dare to veto a third time what Republicans persisted in sending to him. Regarding two things he would never compromise about -- racial preferences and abortion on demand -- he was on the cutting edge of 25 years ago, when he and those policies were young.
Clinton's greatest effect has been on his party. He repositioned it as the servant of the comfortable middle class eager for more comforts. He reaped his reward where the comfortable live, in the suburbs, where Republicans won between 55 percent and 61 percent of the vote in 1980, 1984 and 1988. Political analyst Charles Cook says Clinton carried the suburbs by two points in 1992 and five points in 1996. In 2000, 43 percent of the votes were in the suburbs, where George W. Bush beat Al Gore by just two points.
Fortunately, America has enjoyed something of a holiday from history since the Gulf War. For eight years America's armed forces have been diminished while their tempo of operations has increased. To the question "Are you better off than you were eight years ago?" Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat can answer a resounding "yes."
Some presidents' names become adjectives -- Lincolnian gravity, Rooseveltian reassurance, Kennedyesque charisma, Nixonian deviousness, Reaganesque leadership. To understand the meaning of "Clintonian," parse this from a 1997 news conference: "I don't believe you can find any evidence of the fact that I have changed government policy solely because of a contribution."
It is reasonable to believe that he was a rapist 15 years before becoming president, and that as president he launched cruise missiles against Afghanistan (a nearly empty terrorist camp), Sudan (a pharmaceutical factory) and Iraq to distract attention from problems arising from the glandular dimension of his general indiscipline. As president he was fined $90,000 for contempt of court, and there is no reasonable doubt that he committed and suborned perjury, tampered with witnesses and otherwise obstructed justice. In the words of Richard A. Posner, chief judge of the 7th Circuit, Clinton's illegalities "were felonious, numerous and nontechnical" and "constituted a kind of guerrilla warfare against the third branch of the federal government, the federal court system."
Clinton is not the worst president the republic has had, but he is the worst person ever to have been president.