How Bill Clinton lost his legacy

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Matt Bai
·National Political Columnist
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Former President Bill Clinton at a benefit concert for his wife in New York City in March. (Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters)

When Bill Clinton left office in 2001, historians compared him to Teddy Roosevelt. Like the Bull Moose, the Big Dog was unusually young (only 54) and still popular when he finished his presidency. He established his base in New York, about 100 blocks from where Roosevelt was born.

For a while there was even talk of Clinton running for mayor, as Roosevelt once had. What a spectacle that would have been.

Looking back now, though, the comparison seems wildly off. Roosevelt, you may recall, ended up running for president again and then crusading against Woodrow Wilson’s pacifism. To the day he died in 1919, TR jealously protected his twin legacy of reform and internationalism.

Clinton, on the other hand, has run from every big ideological fight like a man on parole. From the moment he stepped out of the White House, the husband of a newly elected senator, his own political interests have been subservient to his wife’s.

Sure, he started a foundation and got crazy rich, but for the last 16 years — a period in which much of what he achieved has been steadily distorted and discredited — Clinton has been chained by the role of dutiful political spouse.

And so this is what it’s come to, as the most talented campaigner of the modern age apologizes for defending his own record and stumps cautiously for Hillary ahead of next week’s New York primary. What was supposed to be the final validation of Bill Clinton’s legacy inside the Democratic Party — the election of his wife as a successor — has now become the only thing left that can save it.

To be clear, Clinton’s governing legacy, unlike Roosevelt’s, featured little by way of transformative legislation. Though he presided over a surging economy, Clinton’s presidency played out mostly like a tragedy in three acts: first the stumble over health care; then the survival of Republican rule through compromise; and finally the sex scandal that crippled his second term.

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Whatever lasting achievements Clinton might have claimed as world leader were probably washed away eight months after he left office, when the sudden strike of terrorists exposed a glaring failure of his tenure.

But Clinton’s more lasting political legacy — the thing for which he should have been remembered — was the transformation of the Democratic Party from a tired, marginalized coalition of interest groups to a governing entity that embraced modern realities.

As I was recently reminded watching “Crashing the Party,” an upcoming documentary about the founding of the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s, Democrats by 1992 had lost five of the previous six presidential elections and were losing ground everywhere else. They were perceived, fairly, as reflexively anti-military and anti-business.

Clinton’s central argument, which it took no small amount of courage to make in those early days, was that in order to both win and govern effectively, Democrats had to stop agitating for an ever more expansive government and start trying to build a better one.

That was the philosophy that underlay Clinton’s string of pragmatic achievements: free trade, a balanced budget, welfare reform, the crime bill. For a while, anyway, it seemed like he had left an indelible stamp on the party, widening its focus from the poor and excluded to encompass the broader middle class.

Except then came the Iraq War and the collapse of Wall Street, a crushing recession followed by an even more crushing recession and soaring inequality. Angry liberal populism reemerged as a powerful force, first in Howard Dean’s insurgency and then through the reborn John Edwards and now Bernie Sanders.

At first, both Clintons tried gamely to defend the underpinnings of what became known as Clintonism. “I think that if ‘progressive’ is defined by results, whether it’s in health care, education, incomes, the environment, or the advancement of peace, then we had a very progressive administration,” Clinton told me during an interview in 2006 for my first book, on Democratic politics.

When I had lunch with him in South Carolina the next year, while working on a cover piece for the New York Times Magazine about his legacy, Clinton readily agreed to talk more about it. By then, though, Hillary Clinton’s aides had decided that the more Bill went on about his own centrist legacy, the less helpful he became. They promptly quashed the interview.

Now, some eight years later, the DLC is long dead (succeeded by a group called Third Way), and Clinton’s legacy inside his own party is savaged as never before. He’s derided on the left as a shill for Wall Street, a racist for supporting mass incarceration, a conservative for overhauling welfare.

Clinton refuses to defend his own record at any length, and when he can’t help himself and plunges in anyway — as he did in rightly defending the crime bill to a couple of activists last week — he almost immediately retreats.

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It’s hard now to escape the conclusion that Clinton did not ultimately transform his party, the virus of Clintonism having been expelled from its bloodstream. Ordinary Democrats still love the former president, but the Democratic leaders and activists reject pretty much everything he stood for.

In politics, you see, timing is everything. Bill Clinton arrived on the scene at a time when Democrats were desperate and dispirited, and they were willing to entertain any argument that might reverse their string of losses, even if it clashed with their own dogma.

Hillary never had that luxury. She’s trying to fend off her own Jerry Brown circa 1992 at a time when Democrats have been winning presidential elections, and winning parties tend to care a lot about ideological purity. She can’t have Bill out there excoriating populism and protectionism.

Maybe this is Bill Clinton’s penance — the price he pays for having humiliated his wife so publicly in 1998. Maybe in order to salvage what remained of his presidency and his marriage, he ultimately had to be willing to sacrifice his own case for historical relevance.

Maybe this is why Clinton seems so much older all of a sudden, the white hair more brittle, the eyes more watery, the cranelike movements of the arms slower and more deliberate. You can imagine how all that forced silence takes its toll, how physically ruinous it must be to keep the fury inside, when all you want to do is defend yourself.

What we know is that if Hillary Clinton goes on from New York to win the nomination, it will have more to do with the Obama record than with her husband’s. And if she’s elected in November, it won’t validate Bill’s legacy so much as offer him some path to redemption.

Bill Clinton once argued to me that Teddy Roosevelt didn’t see his own progressive legacy affirmed for 24 years after he left office, when his distant cousin, Franklin, was elected with the same name and a similar platform. That may or may not be a sound interpretation of history.

But you can see why it’s a comforting thought.