The debate is raging about the legacy of Bill Clinton. Eight years after he took office we have a nation that is more prosperous, productive and optimistic than when he took office, but if ever a president left a muddled and ambiguous legacy to our nation, it's Clinton.
In economic policy Clinton has been good but more than lucky, with congressional opponents saving him from his own most counterproductive proposals, like a big energy tax, nationalized health care and the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. The outgoing chief executive also had the tremendous benefit of coming to office when the technology revolution was taking off, creating new jobs and whole new industries that have been critical to our leadership role in the world economy and to increasing our productivity as a nation. Clinton also had Alan Greenspan running interference for him in monetary policy and Bob Rubin at Treasury, no small advantage in winning the confidence of the financial community, but he also deserves credit to be sure.
Yet even in economic policy, there's a bad taste about the way Clinton handled many things. He defended free trade, but he fumbled the fight for fast-track negotiating authority and demagogued about using trade to promote global regulation on the eve of the now-infamous Seattle World Trade Organization summit.
He fought hard against tax cuts but took credit for the 1997 capital gains tax cut and other pro-taxpayer initiatives foisted upon him by the Republican Congress. He used the chimera of debt retirement to head off the drive for Social Security reform, and he missed his opportunity to modernize entitlement policies for the baby-boom generation, turning down even his own bipartisan commissions on Social Security and Medicare reform.
Other policy areas tell the a similar story. Clinton vetoed welfare reform repeatedly, then signed legislation under bipartisan pressure from Congress, ultimately taking credit for what has proven to be a great success, as though he thought of it in the first place. He has deployed our armed forces here and there for missions of questionable value to our national security, yet refused to take seriously the Rumsfeld Commission's warnings about the urgent need for a national missile defense to protect the American people from terrorist attacks.
All good politicians modify their positions from time to time, but no one has come close to Clinton's record of shifting position and then accusing opponents of doing what he himself had done. The degree of disingenuousness Clinton brought to his job is deeply regrettable, but the American people will move on as we always have.
But will he let us? The worst news in recent weeks has been the repeated signs that Clinton thinks his "permanent campaign" is as active as ever. He has taken the unprecedented step of questioning the legitimacy of the Bush presidency by saying the GOP won by "stopping the vote count," as contrasted with Vice President Al Gore's magnanimity in conceding and wishing President-elect George W. Bush well.
He has piled on layer after layer of new regulations even in the post-
election period, virtually daring the new administration to undo his handiwork. He has dictated severe restrictions on timber and energy development in 6 million more acres of the Western states just when energy crises are emerging around the country. He even had the audacity to put "No taxation without representation" license plates on the presidential limousine in a token gesture toward D.C. statehood, when he has done little in eight years to address the economic, social or political troubles of the district's people.
His disrespect toward a new president and trivialization of issues is all too typical of the Clinton era. Some of us thought this president could grow into a more worthy ex-president, learning from bitter experience that putting partisan politics above all else is no way to build a legacy. Based on the recent signals from the Clinton White House, that hope seems to have been misguided. The president, quite simply, doesn't know how to leave the stage, and can't give up power without pushing a so-called peace plan in the Middle East that requires a redivision of Jerusalem unacceptable to Israelis and Palestinians alike.
But we'll get over this last spasm of Clintonisms, and truly it is time to move on. Clinton will remain a force in public life, and deservedly so. We owe him proper regard for having been president, for having listened to sound economic advice as often as not, and for not disrupting America's peace and prosperity. He neglected to safeguard America's future on both fronts, in my view, but that is why we have elections: to get a fresh start. America is a resilient nation, and Clinton is a resilient man. We wish him well.